Authors: Vanessa Len
Ruth's gasping breaths sounded loud in the quiet. “Did you find it?” she managed.
Aaron shook his head. “The room was a vacant prison cell. No archive. No treasures.”
Ruth laughed, high, with a note of hysteria. “Oh, fuck.”
“You were right,” Joan said to her. Ruth had said that there was something wrong. Joan hadn't known what she'd meant at the time, but she understood it now. She felt it too. “There's something wrong about all of this. I got something wrong.”
“No time for debriefing,” Tom said. “We have
before the new guards arrive.”
.” Aaron pointed.
Inside the slice of Paleolithic time, the rolled rug that they'd used as a bridge was lying on the snow. It hadn't vanished like the twig had. Would the Court guess that the Hunt power had done that?
“We have to get out of here,” Joan said. “Right now.”
They clambered up the stone staircase and ran back the way they'd come.
Joan's mind was racing, and she could see that the others were trying to figure out what had happened too. They'd broken into the Monster Court. They'd thought they'd find the
âthe device that could change the timeline. Instead they'd found a recently vacated prison cell.
Who had been in that lonely cell? Joan wondered as she ran.
had they been put in there?
She shook her head at herself. Whoever the prisoner had been, she couldn't help them. She hadn't even been able to help her own family.
She ran through suite after luxurious suite, until her breath was hot and painful in her throat. Was the
somewhere else in the palace?
there still a chance she could find it here and save her family?
No. She knew the truth. They'd had one shot at this. Any second now, the guards would be alerted. The only thing left to do was flee.
Joan ran hard, reaching the suite with the curtains flung wide and the view of the frozen Thames. Breath ragged and legs straining, she glanced over her shoulder to check on the others.
No one was behind her. She stumbled to a stop. Through the doorway, she could see that the previous room was empty.
Panic struck her like a blow. Where
they? She tried to remember when she'd last heard them running behind her. Not for a few minutes, she realized. But how had she lost them? Had they taken a different route?
She took a deep breath, trying to force the panic down. There was no time to look for them, or for them to look for her; the guards could arrive at any moment. Joan would have to find her own way back to the chapel and hope that everyone else would make it too.
A last look over her shoulder and Joan started running again. And almost collided with someone running the other way.
For a split second, the shock of seeing him was overwhelming. Nick was here and solid and real. In the cafÃ©, there'd been a table between them, but there was no barrier now.
Nick's face betrayed his surprise, but Joan reacted first. She used her momentum to drive her knee into his thigh. He hissed in pain, but he dodged her next kick and managed to hustle her backward. Joan threw her hand up to his neck, just as he pinned her against a wall. His thighs were pressed
against hers, chest against her shoulders.
Joan's hand curled around Nick's neck, her thumb under his jaw. But he'd pulled a knife. It glinted in the moonlight, its tip pressed against her side. The sharp point of it hadn't quite penetrated the thick velvet of her dress, but she could feel the pressure of it threatening.
They both breathed in and out, staring at each other. He was dressed for the gala in a beautiful black tuxedo, his clothes tailored for once to his muscled frame. His crisp white shirt made his hair look darker. His silk pocket square was a perfect thin line. He looked
Joan could kill him right now, she realized with a shot of horror. At the Pit, Aaron had said that you could kill someone if you took more time from them than they had left. All Joan would have to do was concentrate on one big block of time, and Nick would drop at her feet, dead.
And Nick could kill her too. All he'd have to do was thrust that knife.
Nick's breaths sounded as loud and unsteady as Joan's. Over his shoulder, Joan could see that frozen tableau: the unrippling river, the unmoving trees. She felt just as frozen. She and Nick were standing at the edge of a cliff. One wrong move and they'd both fall.
Nick's knife arm felt very tense. “Did you get it?” he whispered.
Joan supposed she should lie, but she shook her head.
They were as close as they'd been when they'd kissed. But
where there'd been tenderness in Nick's face in the library, now Joan could only see pain. “You stole time,” he whispered hoarsely. “You stole human life.” In the Gilt Room, he'd told her:
I only kill monsters who steal human life.
His arm shifted, and Joan tightened her hand against his neck.
, she told herself fiercely.
Take time from him.
In turn, Nick's arm tensed even more.
As he shifted position, his arm ground into the wound in Joan's side. She flinched and gasped, and Nick's eyes widened. The pressure vanished. “You're still injured?” he breathed.
“What do you care?” Joan said.
There was a shadow of agony in his eyes. “Would you have stolen time again if I hadn't killed your family?” he whispered. He sounded raw.
Joan was surprised by the question. “No,” she blurted. It had been an accident the first time. She'd never wanted to hurt Mr. Solt. She found herself suddenly and horribly close to tears. “How were you even in the nineties?” she said thickly. “How can you travel in time if you're not a monster?”
“I'm not going to tell you that,” he said, in the flat way that he spoke about his mission.
It felt as though they were at an impasse. They were pressed tightly against each other, neither of them moving. There was a distant shout. Then another shoutâmore urgent.
“Someone's discovered your break-in,” Nick said.
“I should kill you,” Joan told him. For her family. She sounded as raw as Nick had.
, she told herself.
Nick shifted again, this time careful not to jolt the sword wound. And Joan had the sudden absurd thought that if she just stood on tiptoes she could kiss him. “You won't,” he whispered, that shadow of agony still in his eyes. “You don't want me dead yet. You want to kill me
I kill your family.”
There were running footsteps now, getting closer and closer. Joan and Nick stood there in that lethal embrace, tucked tight against each other.
“Maybe I'll kill you twice,” Joan whispered.
Nick's mouth lifted, wry. “Not even your King could manipulate the timeline as much as that.”
The footsteps drew closer. Perhaps four rooms away. Three rooms away. Nick slowly lowered the knife. For a second, they were just standing there, Joan's hand still cupped around Nick's neck as though she were going to kiss him, Nick's hands loose by his sides.
, Joan told herself. But she couldn't. She just couldn't. She heard herself make a helpless, pained sound.
“Joan,” Nick said. And the guards were coming, but he was staring down at her, intense and desperate, as if they were the only two people in the world. “You know this is wrong,” he whispered. “Look around you. They steal from humans. That's all they do.”
Joan shook her head.
“Last time I saw you, you told me you'd come after me,” he whispered. “That you'd try to stop me. Please, Joan. Don't. Just stay away from me.”
Joan wanted to hold on to him. She released his neck, letting her hand drop to her side. “You're a hero and I'm a monster,” she whispered. “There's only one way that story ever ends.”
Nick took a deep breath. When he spoke, his voice shook. “I know.”
And then he slipped through the door and was gone.
Joan stumbled through the palace, trying to stay out of the way of the guards. Her body felt too alive everywhere she'd been pressed against Nick.
Without the light from Aaron's phone, it took her ages to navigate through the chapel in the dark, and to find the hidden door behind the cabinet. She had to keep shaking off flashes of memoryâhow Nick had dropped his knife before she'd dropped her hand. How raw his voice had been. By the time she found the door catch, she was shaking.
Ruth was waiting for her. She grabbed Joan's hand and pulled her through. And just in time. Another guest entered just as Joan scooted inside.
“Hey ho!” the other guest said, cheerfully. She was a middle-aged woman dressed in robes and a gold headdress. “Dumping your host gift too?” The woman took a small vase from her robes and placed it onto a shelf. “I arrived a bit late.”
Joan couldn't find an answer. She was relieved when Ruth spoke. “Uh. Yes,” Ruth said a little artificially. She leaned against the cabinet, covering the click of its closure with a cough. “Yes, we arrived late too.” She patted one of the vases on the shelf.
“Goodness,” the woman said. “Where did you get that old thing?”
The vase next to Ruth was ancient: cracked and repaired. The woman's vase was in the same style, but glossy and new.
Joan looked around slowly. The room was full of artifactsâpeople's gifts for the King. Vases and necklaces. Bolts of cloth. Bracelets, urns, statues. Hundreds and hundreds of artifacts. Museum pieces from all of history.
You know this is wrong
, Nick had said.
Look around you.
“Where did you get that vase?” Joan heard herself ask the woman.
“What, this?” The woman shrugged. “A little market in Babylon.”
“Babylon?” Joan said. The hairs rose at the back of her neck. Babylon had been at its height nearly four thousand years ago. A return trip to Babylon would cost nearly eight thousand years of human life. Joan stared at the woman. She looked so ordinary. Like someone's mum. Had she stolen that much human life to go to a party?
Joan thought about the stone statues breathing fire in the next room. The butterfly chandelier. All the marvels here. It occurred to her that they were probably future technology. Human technology, stolen by monsters. Was that what Nick had seen when he'd walked in? All these stolen things?
“Joan,” Ruth said urgently. Joan blinked at her. The woman was on her way out the door, sparing a moment to give Joan a puzzled look over her shoulder.
For the first time, Joan wondered what would happen if she and Ruth were on the opposite sides of this. She quashed the thought as soon as it had risen, surprised at herself. She could trust Ruth with anything. And Ruth could trust her. Always.
“Joan, are you with me?” Ruth's dark hair was frizzing out of her fancy bun. Ruth's hair was always like thatâit never wanted to stay in one place. “Are you with me right now?”
“Yeah?” Joan said. “Yes.”
“Okay,” Ruth said. “Because we can't get back through the gate. There are guards swarming all over it. Dozens of them. We're stuck here.”
Inside the halls, none of the guests seemed to know about the break-in. The music was still playing; people were still dancing and laughing. Ruth took Joan's arm, and together they strolled through the hall, past the guards at the doors.
The guards knew. They were alert and watchful, eyeing every person who walked past them.
Joan and Ruth stepped outside. The party had extended now to the courtyard. People stood talking softly by the light of the moon and the floating lamps. Servers moved between them with food and drinks on silver trays.
Ruth led Joan away from the crowd, into the shadows by the hall's stone wall. Her grip was tight on Joan's arm. On the other side of the courtyard, there were half a dozen guards by the gate. Not enough, apparently, to alarm the other guests, but enough to prevent escape.
Joan's attention was drawn to a man standing in their midst.
“Conrad,” Ruth whispered. Joan hadn't heard that much fear in her voice since the night their family had died. “The King's Reach.”
Conrad was too far away to see clearly, but Joan could see that he was blond, in his early twenties at most. There was an air of power surrounding him. And something about him made Joan think of the relentless cold of winter; of still, moonless nights.
“That gate is the only way out of here,” Ruth whispered. “What are we going to do?”
Figures peeled away from the other guests: Aaron and Tom. Frankie trotted underfoot.
“Conrad is methodical,” Aaron whispered. “He'll check everyone who passes through the gate. And when he finds usÂ .Â .Â .” He swallowed. “He'll make a spectacle of us.”
“There must be another way out,” Joan said.
“There's no other way.” Tom sounded bleak. “And there's no way to travel outâwe're on the mire.”
“There is a way,” Joan murmured. “We just traveled to the paleolithic period and back.” She looked at her cousin. “You need to create another bridge and get us out of here.”
Ruth shook her head. Her fingers felt very cold on Joan's arm. “I can't feel the Hunt power right now. It's like I burned it out.”
“You need to try,” Joan whispered. “Please.”
“If we try, we need to be very careful about where,” Aaron whispered. “We're almost on top of Downing Street and the Ministry of Defence. Scotland Yard. If we come out in the wrong placeÂ .Â .Â .”
“I know where we can go,” Tom said. “Follow me.”
The guests in the courtyard began to murmur as more guards appeared from the halls. Joan could hear pieces of their conversations.
, she heard.
Guards found unconscious.
Tom ushered Joan and the others along the edges of the buildings, keeping to the shadows. No one seemed to notice as they slipped out of sight.
“We won't have long,” Tom whispered. “The guards will check everyone on the grounds. They'll realize fast that we don't belong here.”
They walked quickly. The palace grounds seemed to be structured as a series of open yards, each surrounded by buildings. Soon they were in the working part of the palace. Joan peered through the windows of the heavy stone buildings as they passed. One was a kitchen with huge unlit hearths and benches where food could be laid out. Another had deep basins for washing.
It was all as eerily empty of people as the suites had been. And it was dark. The only light was from the moon overhead.
“There's a gate farther up,” Tom whispered. “Not too far from where Trafalgar Square will be.”
He took them through a courtyard full of chopped wood. Then past an elaborate brick building with open archways. “Stables,” he said.
“Wait,” Joan whispered. She ducked into one of the archways. There were dozens of stalls, pristinely clean. There were no horses in any of them. There'd been no animals on
the grounds, Joan realizedâexcept for those brought in by the Hathaways. The woodyard, at least, should have been full of rats and cats and foxes. Insects. But here, alone in the stables, she couldn't hear anything but her own footsteps, her own breaths.
At the back of the room, there were saddles and neatly folded blankets. Joan took a coiled rope. Then she rummaged through a box of tools until she found a hammer and a couple of nails.
When she reemerged, Aaron put a finger to his lips. And then Joan
hear somethingâfootsteps in the far distance. Voices. “Guards,” Aaron murmured into her ear.
After that, they walked in silence.
Tom took them to a wooden gate at the very edge of the palace, where two stone walls met. The gate was small and unadornedâmore like a passage out of a back garden than a palace.
Tom drew the iron bolt quietly and pulled the gate inward. They all retreated instinctively from the gaping mouth. On the other side, there were silhouettes of buildings and a wide street. The moonlight seemed to barely touch any of it. Nothing was moving.
Joan felt a sick swoop in her stomach, as though she were standing on a high wall. There'd been something awful about the view of the frozen Thames, but now she realized that the horror of it had been mitigated by the window between.
Beside Joan, Aaron put his hand over his mouth as if he were going to be sick.
“There's nothing there,” Ruth whispered. “It looks like there's something there, but there's nothing there. It's a void. All those silhouettes are just shadows.”
“I know,” Tom said. His gaze was averted; he couldn't even look at the view.
Joan could feel it tooâthe horror of it. Her stomach roiled. Her skin crawled. She had the feeling that if she stepped across the threshold, she'd fall and fall and fall forever.
She tried not to think about that as she passed Aaron the hammer and nails to free her hands. Then she started to work on the rope. She made a loop with it, the size of the gate. As she tied the ends together, Aaron seemed to understand what she was doing. He lined up one of the nails at the left top corner of the gate's wooden frame. At Joan's nod, he tapped it with the hammer.
They all stopped then, listening. Joan held her breath. There were no urgent voices. No running footsteps. No sounds at all. Joan counted to ten. Then she nodded at Aaron again. He moved over to the other corner and tapped in the other nail.
Then he helped Joan hang the rope around the gate. Earlier in the night, they'd needed a long rug to cross the stretch of snow between them and the archive. But Joan hoped that here a rope would be good enough. And she hoped it would be easier for Ruth to manage.
“I don't know about this,” Ruth whispered. “I can't even feel the Hunt power. It's likeâ” She hesitated as if she wasn't sure how it felt. “It's like it's burned out of me. The Hunt power isn't supposed to open gates like this.”
“Close your eyes,” Joan whispered, “and try. Just try. One more time.”
Ruth hesitated again. Her eyes were sunken with fatigue; her skin was almost gray. But she touched the rope with the flat of her hand and closed her eyes. Nothing happened for a long moment. “I can'tâ” she started to say, and then something flashed on the other side of the gate. Joan heard Aaron gasp.
For a second, the moon had been smaller, and in a different part of the sky.
Ruth must have felt it. She opened her eyes. Frowning with concentration, she pushed the rope against the wooden frame, straining. There was another flash, and this time it lasted long enough for Joan to see the buildings grow and shrink on the other side of the road. There was no way to know what year she'd seen.
Ruth was already exhausted. “I can't keep it open,” she said.
“Okay,” Joan said. “Okay. We'll have to jump across during the flash.”
“You must be joking,” Aaron whispered. “If the gate closes while we're crossingÂ .Â .Â .”
“If Conrad finds usÂ .Â .Â .Â ,” Tom whispered back.
Aaron squeezed his eyes shut for a second. “All right,” he said in acknowledgment. “All right. I'll go first.” He stepped up to the threshold of the rope.
“Get ready.” Ruth's face was strained with concentration. “
The gate flashed open and Aaron hurled himself through.
And then he was gone, and there was only the shadowy city on the other side.
“Did he make it?” Ruth whispered.
“Yes,” Joan whispered back, even though she hadn't actually seen him get to the other side. The flash had been too brief. She needed to believe that he'd made it. She needed to believe that he hadn't disappeared into a void.
“I'll go next,” Tom said. He stepped up to the threshold, Frankie in his arms.
Joan put her own hand up against the rope, willing her own Hunt power to activate. She couldn't feel anything of it. Her Hunt power had failed years ago. But she couldn't just stand here while Ruth burned herself out.
“Get ready,” Ruth said to Tom. Then, almost as fast: “
The gate flashed again. And then Tom was gone.
“Two more times,” Joan said. “Me and you.”
Ruth took her time to answer. Her breath was coming in gasps. “You know I can't come with you,” she managed.
“Yes, you can,” Joan said firmly. “You didn't even try back there at the archive, but I bet you could have.”
Ruth shook her head.
“I'm not leaving you here,” Joan said.
“Don't be an idiot.” The usual spark in Ruth's voice wasn't there. She sounded tired and flat. She started to push at the rope again.
â” Joan said.
“Just fucking go when I say,” Ruth said.
“I'm not leaving you here.”
“Three,” Ruth said. “Two. One.”
The gate flashed into existence. Joan grabbed Ruth's free hand, dragging her through as she jumped.
There was a flash of horrifying nothingness, and then Joan was falling out onto a footpath. She hit someone's back. Aaron's. She steadied herself against him. For a long moment, she couldn't breathe. Whatever time they were in, she could hear cars.
And then she heard Ruth's voice. “You absolute
. You could have killed us both!”
Joan swallowed, almost in tears with relief. “
“What if you'd fallen into that timeless abyss or whatever it was?” Ruth demanded. “What if you'd got yourself killed!”
Joan looked around. Whatever had frozen Whitehall at the stroke of midnight had lost its grip. Tourists and cars were moving again, wandering toward Big Ben and back the other way to Trafalgar Square.
Otherwise, everything looked just as it had when they'd left. The cars were still low and boxy; people's clothes were still loose.
“I think we're back in the nineties,” Ruth said. “I was aiming for the night we just left.”
,” Joan said.
“Quiet,” Aaron said sharply. “We're not safe yet.”
They were drawing some attention from tourists walking past. Had they been seen jumping out of thin air? No. People
didn't look shocked enough for that. Then she saw someone give her an up-and-down look.
“These clothes are really memorable,” she murmured. Aaron and Tom could have passed without comment, but Joan and Ruth were obviously dressed for a gala.
Aaron swore. He stripped off his gray jacket, leaving him in a shirt and waistcoat. He passed the jacket to Joan. Tom passed his to Ruth.
Joan slid into it, remembering the other time she'd worn Aaron's jacketâterrified and cold, and covered in Gran's blood. Just like last time, she felt instantly better. The gray length covered almost three-quarters of her dress. Tom's covered even more of Ruth's. Joan caught Aaron looking at her as she straightened the hem. Maybe he was remembering that night too.
“Okay?” she whispered to him.
He nodded. His expression was difficult to make out. “Let's get out of here,” he whispered back.
Joan craned to look farther up the road. The great gate into Whitehall Palace had vanished. In its place, there were dozens of people in dark suits.
“Guards,” Aaron whispered.
Conrad was standing among them, illuminated by a streetlight. His blond hair shone, reminding Joan of Aaron. Conrad bent to say something to a man with black hair and a very thin build.
“That man he's talking to,” Tom whispered. “
not a guard. I think that's one of the Patel family.”
“We should get out of here,” Aaron said. To Joan, he said: “The Patels can mire monsters in timeâthey can prevent us from traveling.”
“Don't they have to touch you?” Ruth said.
“Not if they're strong,” Tom said. “If they're strong then they canâ” The man raised a hand and Tom broke off. “This guy's strong! Run!” he said.
But it was too late. The man made a sweeping gesture, encompassing the breadth of the streetâfrom the Westminster end to Trafalgar. The world seemed to ripple around him, as if he were a dropped stone in a pond.