Valiant. Part 11

"What?"

"Your hands are rough," he said. "Calloused."

"Lacrosse," she said.

He nodded, but she could tell from his face that he didn't understand her. She might have said anything and he would have nodded that way.

"You have a knight's hands," he said finally, and let go of her.

Val rubbed her skin, not sure if she was trying to erase the memory of his touch or to recall it.

"It's not safe for you to keep doing deliveries." Ravus went to one of his cabinets and took out a jar where a b.u.t.terfly fluttered. Then he pulled out a tiny scroll of paper and began to write in miniature script. "I owe you a greater debt than I can easily repay, but at least I can cancel your promise of servitude."

She looked toward the wall where the gla.s.s sword hung glimmering in the gloom, nearly as dark as the wall behind it. She remembered the feeling of the pipe in her hand, the adrenaline rush and clarity of purpose that she felt on the lacrosse field or in a fistfight.

"I want to keep doing deliveries for you," Val said. "There is something you could do to repay me, though, but you might not want to do it. Teach me how to use the sword."

He looked up from where he was rolling the scroll and attaching it to the leg of the b.u.t.terfly. "Knowing it has caused me little joy."

She waited, not speaking. He hadn't said no.

He finished his work and blew, setting the little insect into the air. It flew a little unsteadily, perhaps unbalanced by the slip of paper. "You want to kill someone? Who? Greyan? Perhaps you want to die?"

Val shook her head. "I just want to know how. I want to be able to do it."

He nodded slowly. "As you wish. It is your debt to dismiss and your right to ask."

"So you'll teach me?" Val asked.

Ravus nodded again. "I will make you as terrible as you desire."

"I don't want to be-," she started, but he held up his hand.

"I know you're very brave," he said.

"Or stupid."

"And stupid. Brave and stupid." Ravus smiled, but then his smile sagged. "But nothing can stop you from being terrible once you've learned how."

Chapter 8.

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night we drink you at morning and midday we drink you at evening we drink and we drink -PAUL CELAN, "DEATH FUGUE"

Dave and Lolli and Luis sat on a blanket in the concrete park, some of Dave's finds spread out in front of them. Cardboard stuck out from underneath the cloth where it had been used as a liner between them and the cold that seeped up from the sidewalk. Dave's head was tilted back into Lolli's lap as she rolled his dreads in her palms, twisting and rubbing the roots. Lolli paused, picking something out of his hair, pinching it between her nails and slicking her fingers with wax from the tin beside her leg. Dave's eyes opened; then he closed them again in something like rapture.

Lolli's flip-flop-covered foot, splotchy and red with cold, stroked one of Luis's thighs. A book was open in front of him, and he squinted at it in the dimming light.

"Hey, guys," Val said, feeling shy as she walked up to them, as though being away for two or three days made her a stranger again.

"Val!" Lolli slid out from under Dave, leaving him to twist onto his elbows to avoid his head hitting the pavement. She ran over to Val, throwing her arms around her.

"Hey, my hair!" Dave yelled.

Val embraced Lolli, smelling unwashed clothes and sweat and cigarettes, and felt relief wash over her.

"Luis told us what happened. You're crazy." Lolli smiled, as though that was great praise.

Val's gaze skated to Luis, who looked up from his book with a grin that made his face seem handsome. He shook his head. "She is crazy. Head to head with a f.u.c.king ogre. Loony Lolli, Sketchy Dave, Crazy Val. You're all a bunch of freaks."

Val made a formal bow, dipping her head in their direction, and then sat on the blanket.

"Loony Luis, more likely," Lolli said, kicking her flip-flop in his direction.

"Luis One-Eye," Dave said.

Luis smirked. "Bug-head Dave."

"Princess Luis," Dave said. "Prince Valiant."

Val laughed, thinking of the first time Dave had called her that. "How about Dreaded Dave."

Luis leaned over, grabbing his brother in a headlock, both of them rolling on the cloth, and said, "How about Baby Brother? Baby Brother Dave?"

"Hey," Lolli said. "What about me? I want to be a princess like Luis."

At that, the boys broke off, laughing. Val leaned back on the cloth and cardboard, the cold air p.r.i.c.king the hair along her arms, even under the coat. New Jersey seemed far away, and school an odd and nonsensical ritual. She smiled with contentment.

"Luis said that someone thinks we're poisoning faeries?" Lolli asked. She'd draped another blanket over her shoulders and reached for the hair wax.

"Or that Ravus is," Val said. "Ravus said something about stopping the deliveries. He thinks it might be too dangerous for us."

"Like he really cares," Luis said. "I bet he made a big, courtly show of thanks, but you're still a rat to him, Val. Just a rat that did a really good trick."

"I know that," Val lied.

"If he wants us to stop doing deliveries, it's to save his own a.s.s." There was something in Luis's face as he said it, maybe the way he looked past her and off into nothingness, that made her wonder if he was wholly convinced himself.

"It had to be Ravus doing the poisoning," said Dave. "Getting us to do his dirty work. We don't know what we're carrying."

Val turned to look at him. "I don't think so. While I was staying there, that goat-footed woman-Mabry-came by. He said something to her about writing to the Seelie Queen. I guess if the Court's a gang, then the city is still somehow the Queen's turf. Anyway, why would he write to her if he was guilty?"

Dave sat upright, pulling his lock out of Lolli's fingers. "He's going to frame us. Luis just said it-we're all rats to them. When there's some problem, you just poison the rats and call it a day."

Val was uncomfortably reminded that it had been rat poison that killed the mermaid. Poison the rats. Rat poison. A glance at Luis showed him to be indifferent, however, biting a loose thread off his fingerless gloves.

Luis looked up and caught Val's eye, but there was nothing in his face, neither guilt nor innocence. "It is weird," he said. "With the s.h.i.+t you all shove up your noses and in your arms that you never hit any of the poison."

"You think I did it?" Lolli asked.

"You're the one who hates faeries," Dave said, speaking at the same time Lolli did so that their words overlapped. "You're the one who sees s.h.i.+t."

Luis held up his hands. "Wait a f.u.c.king minute. I don't think any of us poisoned any faeries. But I have to agree with Val. Ravus asked me a lot of questions the other night. He made me-" He scowled in Lolli's direction. "Some of it was about how you two wound up crawling around his place, but he asked me direct if I was the poisoner, if I knew who it was, if anyone had bribed me to do some sketched-out delivery. Why would he do all that if he took out those fey himself?"

Val nodded. Although the knowledge that rat poison killed the faeries nagged at her, she remembered Luis's face inside the bridge. She believed that he'd been questioned thoroughly. Of course, maybe they were being set up, if not by Ravus, then by someone else. "What if something glamoured itself to look like one of us?"

"Why would it do that?" Lolli demanded.

"To make it seem like we're behind the deaths."

Luis nodded. "We should stop doing deliveries. Make whoever it is find some other suckers to frame."

Dave scratched his arm where the razor marks were. "We can't stop the deliveries."

"Don't be such a f.u.c.king junkie," said Luis.

"Val can get some Never, can't you, Val?" Lolli said with a sly look up through her pale lashes.

"What do you mean?" Val said, her voice sounding too defensive even to her own ears. She felt guilty, but she couldn't quite say why. She looked at Lolli's finger, as straight as if it had never been twisted out of its socket.

"The troll owes you, doesn't he?" Lolli's voice was pitched low, almost sensual.

"I guess." Val remembered the smell of the Never, Nevermore, burning on the spoon, and it filled her with longing. "But he paid his debt. He's going to show me how to use a sword."

"No s.h.i.+t?" Dave looked at her strangely.

"You should be careful," said Luis. Somehow, those words filled Val with an unease that had little to do with physical peril. She didn't meet Luis's eyes, staring instead at a mirror with a cracked frame on the blanket. Only moments earlier, she had felt great, but now unease had crept into her heart and settled there.

Lolli stood up suddenly. "Done," she p.r.o.nounced, tousling Dave's locks so that they rustled like fat-bellied snakes. "Forget about all this. Time to play pretend."

"We don't have much left," Dave said, but he was already standing up, already gathering the things from the blanket.

Together, the four of them crept back through the grate and into the tunnel.

Luis frowned as Lolli brought out the amber sand and her kit. "That isn't for mortals, you know. Not really."

In the near darkness, Dave brought a piece of foil to his nose, lighting beneath it so that the Never smoked. He took a deep sniff and looked solemnly at Lolli. "Just because something is a bad idea doesn't mean you can help doing it." His gaze traveled to Luis, and the look in his eyes made Val wonder what exactly it was he was thinking of.

"Give me some," Val said.

The days pa.s.sed like a fever dream. During the day, Val did deliveries before going to Ravus's place inside the bridge where he would show her swordplay in his shadowed rooms. Then at night, she shot her arms up with Never, and she and Dave and Lolli did whatever they pleased. They might sleep after or drink a little to ride out the hollowness that followed the high, when the world settled back into less magical patterns. More and more, it was hard to remember the basic things, like eating. Never made crusts of bread into banquet tables groaning with food, but no matter how much she ate, Val was always hungry.

"Show me how you hold a stick," Ravus said, during the first lesson. Val gripped the half broomstick like it was a lacrosse stick, both hands on it, separated by about a foot.

He slid her hands closer together and lower. "If you held a sword like that, you would cut your hand on the blade."

"Yeah, only an idiot would do that," Val said, just to see what he'd say.

Ravus didn't react with more than a quirk of his lip. "I know the weight feels off, but with a sword, it won't be. Here." He took down the gla.s.s sword and put it in her hand. "Feel the weight. See? It's balanced. That's the most important thing, balance."

"Balance," she repeated, letting the sword teeter in the palm of her hand.

"This is a pommel," he said, pointing to each place in turn. "This is the grip, the hilt, the cross-guard. When you hold the sword, the edge pointing to your opponent is the true edge. You want to hold the blade so that the point follows your opponent. Now stand like I'm standing."

She tried to copy him, legs apart and slightly bent, one foot in front of the other.

"Almost." He pushed her body into position, careless where he touched her. Her face heated when he pushed her thighs farther apart, but it embarra.s.sed her more that only she seemed to notice his hands on her. To him, her body was a tool and nothing more.

"Now," he said, "show me how you breathe."

Sometimes Val and Dave and Luis and Lolli would talk about the strange things they'd seen or the creatures they'd spoken with. Dave told them about going all the way out to Brooklyn only to get chased through the park by a creature with short antlers growing from his brow. He'd screamed and run, dropping the bottle of whatever-it-was, and not looked back. Luis told them about running around town to find unsprayed flowers for a bogan that lived up near the Cloisters and had some kind of wooing planned. For his trouble, Luis had been given a bottle of wine that would never empty so long as you didn't look down the neck. It must have really been magic, too, not just glamour, because it worked, even for Luis.

"What else do they give you?" Val asked.

"Luck," Luis said. "And the means of breaking faerie spells. My dad never did anything with his power. I'm going to be different."

"How do you break spells?" Val asked.

"Salt. Light. Eggsh.e.l.l soup. Depends on the spell." Luis took another pull from the bottle. He reached up to finger the metal bar that ran through his cheek. "But mostly iron."

There were no sword moves at the next practice, just stance and footwork. Back and forth across the dusty boards, keeping the half broomstick trained on Ravus as Val advanced and retreated. He corrected her when she took too large a step, when her balance was off, when her toe wasn't straight. She bit the inside of her cheek in frustration and continued moving, keeping the same distance between them, as though waiting for a battle that never began.

He turned suddenly to one side, forcing her to follow awkwardly. "Speed, timing, and balance. Those are the things that will make you into a competent fighter."

She gritted her teeth and stepped wrong again.

"Stop thinking," he said.

"I have to think," said Val. "You said I was supposed to concentrate."

"Thinking makes you slow. You need to move as I move. Right now, you're merely following my lead."

"How can I know where you're going to go before you've gone there? That's stupid."

"It's no different from knowing where any opponent might move. How do you know where a ball is likely to go on the lacrosse field?"

"The only things you know about lacrosse are what I told you," Val said.

"I might say the same about you and sword fighting." He stopped. "There. You did it. You were so busy snapping at me that you didn't notice you were doing it."

Val frowned, too annoyed to be pleased, but too pleased to say anything more.

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