When Marjan learns that her father was secretly a veterinarian to magical creatures before his death, she has a lot to unravel. Kiyash Monsef’s Once There Was explores what happens when Marjan uncovers this truth. It’s a story of the unexpected, of discovery, and yes, of magic. Marjan must follow in her footsteps to help creatures in distress and learn who killed her father. Nerdist has an exclusive excerpt from Once There Was, featuring the first time Marjan learns about her father’s unusual vet business. This is one fantasy book we cannot wait to read.
I convinced Dr. Paulson to lend me her tech for a few minutes to watch the lobby. Then I led the woman back to my dad’s office and shut the door behind us.
The office wasn’t really designed for meetings. The walls were too tight, and the desk was too big. You could fit two people comfortably enough, if one of them sat on the floor, which has what I usually did when my dad was alive. But this wasn’t that kind of meeting, and so we both bumbled around the desk, shuffling the chairs so that we could sit, see each other, and not be too cramped against a wall or a bookshelf. I had the odd feeling that my dad was somehow standing between us, shouldering this way and that, making things even harder. But of course, that was impossible.
Finally, we figured out how to both sit without bumping knees. The woman placed one hand on the table, palm up, and smiled at me.
“Can I see your hand?” she said.
I don’t know what I thought she wanted my hand for, but the confidence with which she asked for it was enough for me to place it on top of hers, palm up. Before I could say anything, she had jabbed a needle into the tip of my index finger, and squeezed up a tiny red pearl of blood.
“Ow!” I said. “What the hell?”
It wasn’t until I tried to pull my hand back that I noticed how tight her grip had become.
“Just a minute,” she said calmly. “There’s nothing to be worried about.”
She dabbed up the blood with a thin strip of paper, which she then set on the table between us. As I watched the blood spread up the paper, she let my hand go.
“Have you ever heard of the Hyrcanian Line?” she asked.
“Um, have you ever heard of asking before you stick someone with a sharp object? What was that?”
“A sterile needle,” she said. “Promise.”
She picked up the test strip and held it to the light. It was hard to say for sure, but it seemed like some kind of pattern was emerging in the places where my blood had bloomed. The woman smiled to herself, a smile of relief and satisfaction.
“I’m sorry about that,” she said. “It won’t happen again. Now, the Hyrcanian Line: have you heard of it?”
I had not heard of the Hyrcanian Line.
“I’m going to assume, then, that you don’t know anything at all,” said the woman, “and that what I’m going to tell you will come as a surprise.”
She opened her bag and took out a brown envelope, then slid it across the desk to me.
“I need you to go to England,” she said. “Tonight.”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“Everything’s paid for,” she continued. “It’s all there. The only ticket available was first-class. I figured you wouldn’t mind.”
“Are you joking?” She didn’t look like she was joking. “Who are you? What’s the Hyrcanian Line?”
She ignored my questions. “A man named Simon Stoddard will pick you up at the airport and take you to an estate in the Midlands. Does this make sense so far?”
“Sure,” I said. “I fly to the other side of the world, where some guy I don’t know takes me somewhere I’ve never heard of. Then what happens?”
“Then you’ll meet a griffon,” she said. “It’s sick. You’ll help it.”
“A griffon,” I said. “You mean, like a dog? A Brussels griffon? You know I’m not a vet, right? You know I’m fifteen.”
“I know,” she said. “And no, nothing like a dog.”
I kept checking her face for signs that this was some kind of elaborate prank, but all she gave me was a half-hidden smile that seemed like it had been baked into her face. Finally, I took the envelope and opened it. Inside was an airplane ticket — first-class, as promised –and a stack of candy-colored English currency. All of it looked very real.
“A griffon,” I said again. “What am I supposed to do with a griffon?”
“Meet it, examine it, make a recommendation,” she said. “That’s all. And then you’ll come back.”
“You’ll understand,” she said.
“Who are you?” I said. “What is this?”
She took off her glasses, folded them, and set them on the desk.
“This,” she said, “is the work.”
“Why should I believe you?” I said. “Why should I believe any of this?”
“Because if you trust me, maybe I can help you find out who killed your dad.”
Her face, playful a moment before, became suddenly serious.
“I don’t know who it was,” she said, in answer to the question my face must have been asking. “But I’d like to know. I’d like to help. We’d like to help.”
She sat forward, resting her hands on the table. “Did he ever mention Ithaca?”
“I know this is a hard time. And I know you have questions. Right now, it’s better this way. We can talk more when you get back.”
“Who says I’m going? I have the clinic. I have school.”
“Of course you do,” she said. She stood up to go, a movement that would have been dramatic if not for the tight quarters. She nodded at the envelope, its contents fanned out on the desk in front of me. “Well, hang onto all that, in case you change your mind.”
Then she turned and walked out the door.
Technically I did have the clinic. But I was pretty sure we would be out of business within months. When I looked at the numbers, I couldn’t for the life of me see how they had ever worked. Even Dominic, who had managed the office with unwavering confidence for the last two years, was starting to remind me of an old shelter dog who’d given up all hope of ever being adopted.
And school, well. I hadn’t been there since Dad died. I wasn’t really looking forward to going back. I didn’t need my whole class looking at me and trying to figure out what to say.
Still, I collected the things the woman had left behind and put them back into the envelope. It was easier to be reasonable with myself when I wasn’t looking at a stack of money and a first-class ticket to somewhere else. I stood up and walked back out to the lobby.
There was a picture of my dad on the wall. Dr. Paulson had put it up after he died, after checking with me that it was okay. It was the same picture that he’d used for everything—the website, all the brochures that the medicine companies printed for us for free. I’d seen it a million times. He was wearing his white jacket, with a light blue button-down shirt underneath.
His face was long and thin and the color of chestnut. He had a serious expression, like someone in a picture from a hundred years ago who’s never had their picture taken before. Eyebrows clenched together, mouth tight, thick black hair swept away from his face, his dark glaring eyes softened by long, delicate lashes. Jamsheed Dastani—a man of education and wisdom, a man of compassion, a man you’d trust with your pet.
It was a convincing illusion. If you really looked, though, the eyes broke it. They were heavy and haunted, the eyes of a lost soul. The picture’s secret—the one you’d only figure out if you studied it a million times, like I had—was that he wasn’t really looking at the camera. His face was tilted the right way, and the eyeline was close enough to fool almost anyone. But his gaze was really fixed on something far away and sad, just like it had been when he was alive.
I looked at the picture then. It was demanding my attention, like it had just cleared its throat, like it had something to say. But it didn’t say anything. My dad’s eyes gazed out of the frame, looked past me toward things in the distance, things he never talked about.
It would, of course, be incredibly reckless to get on an international flight, bound for a mysterious destination, to administer care I was unqualified to give to a creature that didn’t exist. No thinking person would ever do something so dangerously stupid.
I looked at my dad’s picture until I couldn’t stand it any longer. This was his fault. All of it. This clinic, this waste of time and money that was now legally my responsibility: his fault.
This strange woman and her unreasonable requests: his fault.
The fact that I was even considering them: his fault.
Someone had murdered him one afternoon, in his own home: his fault.
I walked back to Exam One, where Dr. Paulson was just finishing with her patient. I knocked gently on the door, then opened it a crack.
“Something wrong?” asked Dr. Paulson.
I’d always liked Dr. Paulson. She was blunt, but in a way that felt compassionate. Our resident avian specialist, she loved all animals, but birds in particular. She had a pair of lovebirds named Tristan and Iseult, and an African gray named Hemingway that recited T. S. Eliot and Emily Dickinson with manic glee whenever she brought him into the office. She kept a copy of The Sibley Guide to Birds on her desk, and two framed prints from Audubon’s Birds of North America hung on her wall. She even reminded me a bit of a bird sometimes—something still and patient and precise, a heron maybe. She was tall and slender and serious, but it wasn’t that. It was the stillness—the way certain kinds of hunting birds can freeze and become part of the landscape. That’s how she seemed to me in that moment.
Poised and alert, scanning for information.
“I think I’m going to go home, Dr. P,” I said.
That was it—I would go home and think about things in a rational way, and having done that, I’d see that getting on a plane to England with no idea who or what awaited me there was reckless and irresponsible.
“I’m sure we’ll manage,” said Dr. P. “Everything okay?”
“Yep,” I lied. “All good. I think I just need to rest a bit.”
And stop thinking delirious thoughts about flying halfway across the world.
“You have to take care of yourself,” said Dr. Paulson.
“Oh, and I might take a couple days off.”
Wait, what? Had I just said that?
“Of course,” she said. “Whatever you need to do.”
“Thanks, Dr. P,” I said.
I must have been making a weird face. It felt like too much work to be a normal face.
“Marjan?” she asked. “Are you okay?”
“Fine,” I said. “I’m fine.” I don’t think I sounded fine.
“If you ever want to talk,” she said, “I’m here.”
She looked like she wanted to talk, which made me want to talk even less. The last thing I needed to hear was how someone else was handling the death of my father.
“Thanks,” I said. “I’m good.”
Before she could say another word, I drew back out of the room and shut the door behind me. I stopped one last time in front of the picture of my dad, and tried to stand so that he was actually looking me in the eye. But everywhere I tilted and cocked my head, he was still looking past me.
“If I die,” I said to the picture, “it’s your fault.”
Excerpt from Once There Was by Kiyash Monsef Text copyright © 2023. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Once There Was arrives on shelves on April 4. You can pre-order a copy now.