Kitty's Big Trouble Page 45

Grace was looking up at her now, smiling.

“Xiwangmu?” I whispered.

“She is the Queen Mother of the West.” Sun raised a hand to silence my next question and watched.

Anastasia stepped forward, shocked and appalled, her hands closed into angry fists, and spoke a sharp sentence in Chinese. Sun jumped to stand between her and Xiwangmu, blocking the vampire’s way with his staff. Anastasia hissed at him, and he laughed, at which she snarled and turned away.

The woman on the throne regarded her a moment, then spoke. I didn’t understand the words, but the tone was reproachful. Anastasia didn’t turn around, but as the lecture went on, her back bowed, her shoulders slumped, and she seemed like a child being punished for something horrible that she’d done.

Maybe this wasn’t my world and maybe I didn’t belong here, but I had to find out what was happening.

“Um, I’m sorry, excuse me…” My voice sounded wrong and startling. I inched forward. The fox sitting under the table flattened its ears and bared its teeth, and the woman on the throne, Xiwangmu, flashed her dark gaze at me. If the door behind us was still open, I’d have been tempted to flee. “I know Anastasia’s kind of obsessed, but she’s my friend, sort of, and … I want to help.” I didn’t know how I could help when I was in so far over my head. But that was why I asked. If that elegant woman told me to leave, to forget about all this, what would I do then?

She studied me, and in my belly Wolf curled into defensive huddle, cowering at the scrutiny. Ben was standing behind me; I could feel his warmth, and that settled me. But this so wasn’t our territory.

When the woman smiled—a slight, amused curl of her lips—my knees went wobbly with relief.

“This is not your battle, child,” Xiwangmu said.

Encouraged, I said, “Anastasia asked me to help, so it is. Her enemy—the one who has the pearl now, and Henry—is my enemy, too.” And your enemy, as well. None of us alone could stop him. Well, maybe she could stop him by herself. I got the feeling she could do anything she wanted.

Everyone else was watching me with the air of witnessing a wreck. Quiet and respectful, Grace had ordered. Hey, I’d tried …

The woman leaned back in her throne. “Do you know why she hates Gaius Albinus, the one called Dux Bellorum?”

Anastasia flinched at the name; I glanced at her, trying to read her, but she was trapped in her storm of emotion.

“Not exactly, no,” I said.

Xiwangmu turned to Anastasia. “You’ve not told anyone your story, have you?”

“No one,” Anastasia said, stifled and hoarse. “Not even you.”

“And yet I know it, for you were mine before he made you his.”

I looked at Anastasia, trying to parse what Xiwangmu had said, considering the implications. It changed the meaning of everything Anastasia had ever said to me. I’d never guessed. Maybe I should have.

“Anastasia? Roman made you a vampire?” I said. She didn’t answer.

I tried to imagine the scene, eight hundred years ago, Anastasia—except she wouldn’t have been Anastasia then, she would have had a different name, a different life—standing in sunlight, in some farm or town or village in the middle of China. Roman had started as a soldier, part of an occupying army on the eastern Mediterranean. How had he traveled thousands of miles east across deserts and mountains to find her? What could possibly have happened?

Xiwangmu spoke with the slow cadence of telling a story, full of depth and consequence. Her tone held both kindness and pity. “Li Hua was the young daughter of a prosperous merchant in the city of Changzhou. Then the barbarian raiders came—Mongols from the north. The city resisted the invasion, and so the Mongols slaughtered everyone. Only a few survived. When they came to Li Hua, they said, ‘Look, this girl does not cry. How strange.’ But she could not cry—everyone was dead, with no one left to bury them, no children left to light incense at the altars for the ancestors, whose ghosts were wailing. What good was crying in the face of that? They took her prisoner, made her a slave, and brought her to Kublai Khan. They made her a concubine, a prize of the great empire of China—the girl, the beautiful flower who never wept. That was the end of the Song Dynasty.

“Our two worlds, East and West, were beginning to discover one another. The Silk Road, the trade routes across Asia, were strong. This was the time of Marco Polo. That was how Dux Bellorum came to China, seeking power, magic, and allies. The mysterious trader who traveled only at night and who never feared bandits fascinated all who met him. In the court of Kublai Khan he found a slave, a strange young woman who barely spoke and who troubled many with her cold gaze. Who knows what Dux Bellorum thought when he saw her, except that he believed he had some use for her, so he bought her from the Khan for an ingot of gold and a pair of Arabian horses.

“She served him for years, learned what he was, learned of his plans—and began making plans of her own. The General needed lieutenants. Sure of her loyalty, he turned her, made her one of his army. But she was always stronger than any of her captors knew. When she’d gained that part of his power, she escaped. Broke the bonds between them, smashed his token, and fled. That was how Li Hua came to the West and became, eventually, Anastasia.”

She had probably looked a lot like this, standing before Mongol invaders, her city burning around her, her anger and sadness buried deep, showing only a hard mask to the outside world. Xiwangmu had revealed the story to us all, and she might as well have stripped Anastasia bare, the way the vampire bore it. Her air of elegance and poise was suddenly a pretty, decorated facade disguising an edifice of tragedy. I wanted to weep, and I wanted to murder Roman for doing this to her.

From a pocket in her trouser, Anastasia drew out what looked like a pendant on a chain and held it out to Xiwangmu. Whatever design had once been on it, it was now smashed, flattened, and crossed with a dozen hatch marks carved into the bronze. I still had the one we’d flattened earlier; this one was hers.

Xiwangmu took it from her and clasped her hand. “I have watched you all this time, child,” she continued. “The spirits of your ancestors begged me to watch over you, and so I have, as much as I could.”

Anastasia whispered, “I remember holding my mother’s hand when we went to your temple to light offerings and pray to you. I have tried to remember her, to honor her—”

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