Read Only a Monster Online

Authors: Vanessa Len

Only a Monster (22 page)

BOOK: Only a Monster
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The guard had barely glanced at Ruth's mark, but Joan's hands still shook as she reached for the book. She'd tried to memorize the features of Lia Portelli's chop: the sea serpent, the exact pattern of the rippling waves around it. The number of olive leaves in the border wreath.

The man held up a hand to stop her. “Please wait,” he said. “We're changing guards.”

“What?” Joan whispered. Her mouth was so dry, the sound hardly came out.
Do you have any idea what the Court will do to us if they catch us?
Aaron had said.

On the other side of the gate, Aaron and Ruth were waiting. They'd seen the guard speak, but apparently hadn't been able to hear any words. As the lazy guard stepped away, Aaron's eyes widened in alarm.

Joan's heart thudded as a new guard made her way through the gate. She had a neat blonde bun and hard eyes. She took her place by the book and then nodded at Joan. “Please find your mark,” she said.

Go
, Joan willed Aaron and Ruth.
Go.
But they just stood there, staring at her. Joan's heart sped up even more. If she was caught, they'd be caught too. They'd made it too obvious that the three of them were together.

The new guard looked Joan up and down. “Please find your mark,” she said again, with more impatience.

“Portelli,” Joan managed.

The guard turned the pages from the horses of the Patels until she reached pages with the Portellis' dragon-like sea serpent. Joan swallowed. She could see the differences at a glance, and she wasn't even an expert at looking for them.

She wet her dry lips and then pressed her stamp to the golden ink pad. “That other guard,” she said. She looked over in the direction he'd gone, and held the line of sight. “He wasn't checking the marks very carefully.”

“The one who was just here?” In Joan's peripheral vision, the new guard scowled and glanced over too.

The moment the guard looked away, Joan pretended to press her chop against the paper, hovering her stamp just above it. When the guard looked back again, Joan was lifting the chop up from an existing mark.

The guard bent and examined the two marks carefully—perhaps more carefully than she usually would have, after Joan's comment.

Joan wet her lips again. She could see Ruth's grim face over the guard's shoulder.


‘Marie Portelli,'” the guard read. “‘Great-niece of Elizabetta.' I met your great-aunt in the 1700s.”

“She's a force,” Joan said, hoping that was true. Aaron had said that the other name on a chop was the closest head of family in your line.
An indicator of status
, he'd said.
The closer your
relationship to a head of family, the higher your status.

Maybe for Olivers
, Ruth had said.
Hunts aren't like that.

To Joan's relief, the guard seemed satisfied. She nodded and stepped aside. “Welcome to the Court,” she said. She gestured for Joan to walk on.

The passage through the gate was about five paces long. Joan walked in, half expecting the guard to grab her by the collar—to say that someone had seen what she'd done.

One, two, three, four, five steps.

The change of temperature hit her at once—the air was humid and pleasantly warm. The smell of the Thames was stronger here: mud and brine.

Ruth took Joan's arm and pulled her away from the gate. “What happened?” she whispered.

“There was a change of guard,” Joan said. “But it was okay. I just—”

“We saw what you did,” Aaron said angrily. “Why didn't you just walk away?”

“I—I don't know,” Joan said honestly. “I don't know.” The truth was that it hadn't occurred to her. She'd just wanted to get in.

And she
was
in. She was here. She looked up wonderingly. The sky was full of stars. Aaron had said that the Monster Court sat outside time. What did that mean?

“I never thought I'd see this,” Ruth said.

Joan looked over at the vast expanse of Whitehall Palace. She'd never imagined she'd see this either. Whitehall Palace had
been London's Versailles—it was the city's great lost treasure. Beyond the main white building, there were glimpses of redbrick turrets and towers. The complex of buildings seemed to stretch for miles. This was where Henry VIII had married Anne Boleyn, and where he'd died. Where Charles I had been executed, and where his son Charles II had returned from exile to usher in the Restoration.

Joan stopped herself before that dangerous yearning feeling could start. She took a deep breath and released it.

“Look at that,” Ruth whispered.

“I know,” Joan said, and then realized that Ruth wasn't looking at the palace at all. She was looking back toward the archway: 1993 was still visible, the gibbous moon in the sky. The gate had been a bare ruin when they'd walked in. But in this time it was a gatehouse with three stories of windows and a pitched roof. It was too dark to see much of the skyline beyond the palace walls, but Joan imagined she could hear trees rustling in place of cars.

“It gives me the creeps,” Aaron whispered.

“Really?” Joan wondered. It was so beautiful.

“We can't travel out of the mire,” Ruth said. “We'll have to walk back through that gate.”

It hadn't occurred to Joan that monsters might feel trapped if they couldn't travel. For her, it was something terrible that she'd done. Something she never wanted to do again.

“What would happen if we didn't use the gate?” she wondered. “If we walked out of the palace through another door. Would we end up in the 1600s?”

“I don't think we're in the 1600s now,” Ruth said. She was still looking at the archway, her face pale. “This place feels as though someone took a piece of the world and suspended it in the middle of . . . of
nothing
. There's nothing around us. I think if we looked out one of those windows in the gatehouse, there'd be nothing.” Joan must have looked confused, because Ruth added: “Can't you feel it? There's no time outside this place. It's like we're on a rowboat in the middle of the ocean.”

Joan sought that internal monster sense. She could feel something, but not as viscerally as Ruth clearly did. To Joan, the palace just felt self-contained. She looped her arm through Ruth's, wanting to comfort her. “Good thing we're not likely to get invited back, huh?”

Ruth's mouth twisted up. “We weren't invited this time.”

“Oh yeah,” Joan said. “Oops.”

The three of them followed the other guests toward the heavy black doors at the other end of the courtyard. The path was lit with floating globes the same color as the moon.

The guests' clothes were extravagant. What had been dark silhouettes from afar were revealed to be intricately embroidered silks and jewels. All around, people were speaking other languages: Joan caught snatches of Latin and something that wasn't quite French—some older version of it, maybe. Other people were speaking languages she couldn't even guess at.

Here and there, animals padded alongside guests—dogs and cats and stranger creatures. Joan glimpsed a leopard with a jeweled collar, and a snake wound around a woman's shoulders.
A bird strolled past with a strange bobbing motion. “Is that a dodo?” she whispered to Aaron.

“Don't stare,” he whispered back. As they walked farther, he murmured: “Be careful. There are Olivers here.”

“Anyone you recognize?” Joan asked.

Aaron shook his head. “Just stay away from them.”

Joan remembered the last time she'd been among Olivers. “Because I'm half-human? You think they'd attack me on sight?” The Olivers could see the difference between monsters and humans if they were close enough. They'd know what she was just by looking at her.

“Attack you for being half-human?” Ruth whispered. “What has he been telling you? The Olivers are vile, but they wouldn't do that.”

But they had, Joan thought. She remembered Edmund's cold, scouring gaze.

“Never mind that right now,” Aaron said. “Just stay away from them. Don't let any Oliver close enough to see the color of your eyes.” There was a strange intensity in the way he said it.

“It's not like they wear name tags,” Joan said, puzzled.

“I'll point them out,” he said.

They all fell silent as they reached the palace's huge arched doors, flung wide for the crowd to enter. The doors were black wood, Tudor roses carved into the top corners of the frame.

Joan crossed the threshold and then she was inside—in a great hall. She looked around in wonder. The room was lit with the soft light of floating chandeliers placed high up near
the buttressed ceiling. At eye level, the walls were lined with rich tapestries depicting scenes of battle. Joan closed her eyes and smelled roses and violets—not artificial, but fresh, as if she were standing in a garden.

Ruth clutched Joan's arm. “Michelangelo's
Cupid
,” she whispered. She pointed at a marble sculpture in a corner of the room: a sleeping child, raised on a plinth. “That sculpture launched Michelangelo's career. It was lost in the fire.” Her eyes were wide. “Incredible.”

It was all a wonder. Ruth pointed out more artwork, burned and lost: a Holbein, a Bernini.

But this wasn't Whitehall Palace—not really.

The chandelier above Joan broke apart suddenly, scattering through the air in individual glittering diamonds. As one flew close, Joan saw that it was a butterfly, but lit from within. Its wings sparkled.

Statues of dangerous creatures lined the hall: lions, leopards, dragons. Now, from under a window, a stone lion's tail twitched, making Joan jump. Then, in synchrony, all the statues stood up and roared, flames blasting from their upturned mouths. The flames made shapes as they crested, royal crowns. As sparks rained down, the creatures sat again like obedient dogs.

Servers wandered between guests, offering delicacies on silver plates. Joan took a couple of sweets from a passing tray. They turned out to be tiny marzipan lions, exquisitely detailed. They were too beautiful to eat. Joan pocketed them.

“Olivers,” Aaron murmured. Joan blinked at him. He nodded
at a group of three men striding through the gauntlet of stone creatures. “Remember what I said?”

“Yes,” Joan whispered. She'd stay away from them.

“Tom made it,” Ruth said in a tone of relief.

Joan followed her gaze to a doorway. She saw then that this hall was the first in a series. Open doors offered glimpses of more wonders in the rooms beyond: glittering lights, people dancing. Where was Tom?

“Guards at each doorway,” Ruth whispered.

Joan hadn't noticed that, but Ruth was right. It was hard to concentrate on security. Everywhere she looked, there were people in elaborate costumes from the Renaissance, from the Regency, perhaps from the future.

There
he was, Joan saw in relief. Tom was in the next hall, standing by a silver fountain. It shone, lit from within, the water bright as moonlight. He looked unexpectedly good—he'd scrounged a dark gray suit from somewhere, and barely looked out of place in it. He'd even dressed Frankie up: she had a gray bow tie that matched Tom's own.

Aaron didn't seem as relieved. “He's got a glass in his hand,” he said, disgusted. “Someone stop him before he's too drunk to work.”

“Shit,” Ruth breathed. She headed over.

That left Aaron and Joan alone. As they strolled up the hall, Joan found herself increasingly nervous. Everyone else at the party seemed to hold themselves with the same air of restrained power, as if they were used to wielding authority. It occurred to
Joan again that she was half-human. Could monsters take time from her—from the human half of her? She wished she had a scarf or a high collar to cover her neck.

She felt Aaron step closer. To her surprise, he offered his arm. She blinked at him. “We should try to look as if we're enjoying ourselves,” he whispered. “Or we'll draw attention.”

Joan was more grateful than she wanted to admit. She put her hand on his arm and let him draw her past the first set of guards. The hall beyond was vast—a ballroom. There were fountains bubbling with plum-colored wine. A harpist provided music. And Joan might not have fit in here, but Aaron did. In a room full of powerful, beautiful people, he still turned heads. It felt strange to be so obviously with him. His arm felt very solid under her hand.

“How will we sneak out of this party without anyone noticing?” she whispered. They needed to get farther into the palace.

Aaron smiled at her, small and real. “That part's easy,” he said. “I've spent my whole life escaping events like this.”

“You have?” Joan said.

Someone nearby spoke. “Truly a relief to be in a room without humans.”

Joan froze. She knew that voice. The last time she'd heard it, there'd been a gun pointed at her head. She turned, catching a glimpse of Aaron's face as she did. He'd gone paper white.

Edmund Oliver stood a few paces away. Alive, and with the same powerful presence Joan remembered from the Gilt Room. He seemed barely younger than he'd been when he'd died.

As Joan stared, Edmund started to turn. She felt Aaron release her hand.
Don't let any Oliver close enough to see the color of your eyes
, Aaron had said.

Move
, Joan told herself.
Move.
But she couldn't seem to. She remembered how Edmund had looked down at her with that cold gaze. His eyes had widened as if he'd seen something inside her, and then he'd ordered Lucien to kill her.

“Father,” Aaron said.

To Joan's profound relief, Edmund turned away from her, searching for Aaron's voice. Aaron had walked away a few paces, closer to the harpist.

“Hello, Father.” Aaron's posture was careless, one hand in his pocket. When Edmund's lip curled in distaste, Aaron smiled slightly. “Aren't you happy to see me?”

BOOK: Only a Monster
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ads

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