Authors: Vanessa Len
“We'll speak of this in the morning,” Edmund said.
There was a dark flush on Aaron's cheeks, but he hesitated.
“Help us!” Joan begged Aaron. He didn't meet her eyes. “
You can't let him do this. He's going to kill us!”
“Aaron,” Edmund said softly. His tone made Joan think of a snake sliding over grass.
Aaron dropped his head. Then, to Joan's despair, he turned and walked out of the room.
Joan turned back to Edmund. “Why are you
this?” Because Nick had seen them arrive? Because Joan was a Hunt, and the two families hated each other?
“Why?” Edmund's eyes were as cold and gray as stone. “Because it will leaven my evening.” But for some reason, Joan flashed back to the way his eyes had widened when he'd peered down at her.
The Hunts have been keeping secrets
, he'd said. “And because
should never have been born.” This was said with sincerity and loathing.
Metal scraped. Joan jerked her eyes back toward the fireplace. Lucien had pulled the sword from its bracket. Silver flashed as he drew the blade. He thrust it into the air, the blade moving faster than Joan's eyes could follow. It was clear that he knew how to use it.
Joan gripped the knife. This couldn't be happening. A few feet away, Nick was slumped unconscious, held up between two men. His familiar body was limp, as if he were dead already. Just a little while ago, they'd kissed. This couldn't be
“Do it,” Edmund said to Lucien. The impatience in his voice made Joan shudder. She wondered how much it would hurt when Lucien stabbed her. Would it be like when you cut yourself, and nothing hurt at all for a few seconds? Would she be dead before the pain came? Maybe Nick wouldn't feel anything either. Maybe he'd be unconscious for it all.
Joan didn't really believe that, though. Edmund seemed the type who enjoyed seeing other people suffer.
“You don't have to do what he says,” she told Lucien. In her head, the words had felt steady, but out loud, her voice dipped in and out like a faulty speaker. “You know this is wrong.” Lucien didn't respond to her, so Joan turned to the rest of the family. “You can't just watch us die,” she said desperately. But everyone was avoiding her eyes.
“Enough hesitation, Lucien,” Edmund said. “End this. Or do you need someone to knock
Lucien flushed dark red. He turned to Joan. He raised his sword and prowled toward her. Joan's hands went cold and numb.
She stumbled back. Velvet chairs scraped behind her as people got out of the way. “This is murder!” she said.
“Quiet!” Lucien snapped at her. He thrust the sword. Joan dove back, shocked when she avoided the blow. But she wasn't fast enough to dodge the next. The blade caught her side. The pain struck a moment later. She heard herself make a stunned sound. Blood began to seep, thick and wet.
Joan slashed desperately at Lucien. He punched her wrist
with his fist, an agonizing slam, weighted with his sword. Joan grunted in pain and the knife flew from her hand.
The sharp edge of the sword came again. Joan dodged, and only just evaded it.
The next blow was too fast. Joan had one clear thought as the blade raced toward her. She was going to die. She flinched.
But the blow didn't come.
Joan looked up slowly. There was someone standing between her and Lucien.
It was Nick. He held Lucien's wrist in the cage of his fist, as if he'd caught Lucien's arm mid-strike. Joan stared.
Nick tilted his hand sharply, and Lucien's sword fell. Nick caught the hilt before it could hit the floor. Then, in one smooth movement, he thrust the sword into Lucien's chest, matter-of-fact.
Lucien's eyes went wide with disbelief. Blood bloomed across his shirt. Nick withdrew the sword and plunged it again, and Lucien slumped to the floor, very still. Nick wrenched the sword out again.
In the aftermath, all Joan could hear were her own loud breaths. In, out; in, outâthe way Nick had stabbed Lucien with the sword. The room was silent. The whole thing had happened in secondsâso fast that Lucien hadn't even cried out.
Nick turned to Joan. “Are you all right?” he said to her. His dark-eyed gaze was focused on her, ignoring the threat of the Olivers, as if she were the only person in the room. “Did he hurt you?”
“What?” Joan stared at him.
I grabbed a knife. I wanted to rescue
you, she imagined blurting absurdly. And then her focus sharpened and she couldn't take her eyes off Nick's face. He looked just like he always didâsquare-jawed and broad-shouldered and earnest.
Open as a can of peas
, Gran would have said.
“I'm so sorry,” Nick said. “I shouldn't have let that happen. I didn't expect them to knock me out.”
Joan looked over his shoulder. The two men who'd been holding him were lying on the floor, as still as Lucien. “How did youâ” she started and then stopped. She didn't know how to keep going. Were those men dead too? Had Nick just
killed three men?
hurt you.” Nick stepped closer to look at where Lucien had sliced into her side.
Joan stumbled back from him instinctively. The movement caused a flare of pain that made her breathe in, sharp. Nick's weight shifted toward her as if he wanted to step closer. He was holding the sword loosely by his side. His shirtsleeves were still rolled up, and she flashed back to him holding the dusting cloth in that same way. She couldn't stop staring at him. She'd spent every other day with Nick for weeks. She
him. Didn't she?
“I think Lucien was a proper swordsman,” she said disbelievingly. A trained swordsman.
Nick regarded her. “He was very good,” he agreed.
“You killed him,” Joan said. “Nick, you
him.” She could hear the bewilderment in her own voice. “You took his sword from him and you killed him.”
“He was very good,” Nick said again. “But I was trained from childhood.”
“Trained to do
“To kill monsters.”
Joan stumbled back another step. Humans didn't know about monsters. No one was trained to kill them. She could feel all the Olivers staring.
Your hot nerd
, Ruth had called Nick when Joan had talked about him.
Your history nerd. Your crush from work.
“Who are you?” Joan said.
“Try not to move,” Nick said. His weight shifted again as though he wanted to step closer to her but was afraid she might run. “You're bleeding, Joan.”
Joan couldn't stop staring at him. “Who
you?” she repeated.
He didn't answer her. And as Joan stared into his steady eyes, a memory came to her. A sweltering summer night when she and Ruth couldn't sleep.
Tell us a bedtime story
, Ruth had said to Gran.
Tell us a story about the human hero.
Joan backed up another step. The heel of her foot caught on something. She looked down. It was Lucien's shoe. That was an angle you didn't usually see of a person, she thought stupidly. The bottom of their shoes.
She imagined Lucien standing up and brushing the dust from his trousers. She imagined him taking the sword from Nick. But he didn't move. He was as still and blank-faced as a
doll. A minute ago he'd been trying to kill her. And now there was nothing behind his eyes. There was blood all over his chest. An image flashed into Joan's mind of the whole Oliver household slumped on the floor like dolls.
,” she said suddenly. She hadn't even known she was going to say it. Her voice sounded loud in the silent room. She barely knew who she was saying it to. “Everyone needs to run!” There were rustles and shifting noises, people moving uncertainly. No one was sure enough to make the first move. But they had to. They
to. Joan was suddenly sure of it. “For God's sake!” she said. “You all have to get out of here!
“All right, that's enough.” Edmund stepped forward from the fireplace. Joan jerked around to look at him. She'd almost forgotten he was there. His voice was that of a parent who'd come upon children arguing. It stopped the shuffling in the crowd as abruptly as if he'd flicked a switch.
Edmund raised his arm. He had a gun, Joan saw with horror. He pointed it very deliberately at Nick. “
” Joan said. The gun moved to Joan.
” Nick said, just as sharply.
Edmund raised his eyebrows. “Don't?”
“I saw you steal time from a tourist once,” Nick said to Edmund. His voice was soft with contained anger. “You touched her neck. Right here.” Nick touched his own nape. Joan stared at him. “How much time did you steal from her?” Nick asked. “Twenty years? Thirty? How much of her life did you take from her?”
“Not as much as I'll take from you,” Edmund said, low and dangerous.
“You won't take any more time,” Nick said. “Not from me or anyone else. Never again.”
Edmund seemed almost amused. “Why? Because
“I don't know who think you are, but I'm the one with the gun.” It was still trained on Joan. Edmund mimed shooting it at her. “Bang,” he said softly. Joan jerked back. She couldn't breathe.
Nick aborted a movement beside her. Joan saw his fist clench.
“You know what?” Edmund said, addressing Nick genially. “I'm
going to kill you.”
Joan exhaled hard. Edmund looked at her and laughed again. “Oh, you I'll kill,” he told her. “But himÂ .Â .Â .” He turned back to Nick. His voice went soft. “You killed three Olivers tonight. I'll have to make you pay for it.” He angled the gun thoughtfully. “Perhaps I'll start by stripping a decade from your life. I could travel on your own time and slaughter your family while you're still weak and young. I'll let you watch. And thenÂ .Â .Â . a child has so much time in it. I'll take you home with me after I kill them. Keep you locked up in my house, available anytime an Oliver wants to travel. We can bleed you slowly.”
Joan felt sick. “
should be locked up,” she whispered.
Edmund lifted the gun fast, aiming it at Joan's head. Nick was faster. He threw the sword.
Edmund's gun clattered to the floor. His body followed in a slow crumple. The sword's blade was deep in his chest. He blinked once, shocked, and opened his mouth as though he was going to speak. And then his eyes glazed into blankness.
For a moment, everything was very still. And then, as though someone had pressed play, people were shoving each other to get out of the room.
“They won't escape,” Nick said. “I signaled my people when we were first caught. They'll kill any monster they find on the grounds.”
“People?” Joan whispered. He'd signaled people? She had a flash of memory of Nick hitting numbers on that corded phone before it had been wrenched from him. There were people coming? How many of them? She turned reflexively to the window.
Night had fallen. In reflection, the Gilt Room's gold and silver leaf formed a constellation of speckled lights. Nick's image stood in the middle of it, andâJoan took a second to register her own face. She'd never seen herself so scared.
She forced her expression into something more normal. She needed to keep it together. She had to
. “Look.” Her voice wobbled, but she knew if she said the right thingâthe
right thingâno one else would die. Nick just had to understand. “Edmund was bad,” she said. “Properly bad. Butâbut the other Olivers just seemedâI mean, you saw them. They were scared of him. They didn't want him to kill us. They're just people. Like me. I'm just a person. I mean, sure, we're monsters, but we're not likeÂ .Â .Â .” She raised her hands and made bear claws. “Not like âGrr!'”
Nick was looking at her. Joan felt her chest loosen slightly. He was listening.
“I mean, I would know, right?” Joan said. “Dad's side of the family is human. Mum's side are monsters. But, really, both sides are the same. When you get right down to the bones of it, they're the same. They love each other. They laugh. Sometimes they argue. But they're all just people. If you talk to them. If you just explain to themâ”
“I'm sorry,” Nick said.
It took Joan a moment to understand what he was saying. She felt her game face drop. “You're going to kill them all?”
He wouldn't. Would he? She'd once seen him rescue a wasp from behind a curtainâeveryone else had wanted to squash it. Nick had set it free. ExceptÂ .Â .Â . now there were four bodies in the room. And Nick had done that. He'd started out unarmed, and he'd killed four people in minutes. Like it was nothing.
“You're really going to kill them all?” she repeated. Realization hit her. “You're going to kill
?” she whispered. She took another step back.
,” Nick said, fast. “No, Joan
You were trying to protect me. IâI can give you safe passage out of the house tonight.”
The way he said it made Joan wonder if he actually felt something for her. “You didn't need protecting.”
“You thought I did,” he said.
“Edmund said that you traveled for the first time recently.” Nick's dark eyes were very serious. “Was it an accident? Is that
what happened to you yesterday? Is that why you were so upset when you came back today?”
Joan couldn't answer.
an accident, wasn't it?” For a moment, Joan thought she saw agony in his eyes. “Joan, I'll give you safe passage out of the house tonight. But understand that if you ever steal time from a human again, I will kill you myself. I won't hesitate.”