Valiant. Part 8

"Oh." Val could think of no reply. Although he seemed calm now, even kind, she heard the warning in his words. She thought of something her mother had told her when she'd finally broken up with one of her most dysfunctional boyfriends. When a man tells you he's going to hurt you, believe it. They always warn you and they're always right. Val pushed the words out of her head; she didn't want any of her mother's advice.

The troll walked back to the table and picked up three waxed and stoppered beer bottles. Through the amber gla.s.s she couldn't see the color of the contents, but the idea that it might be that very same amber sand that ran through her veins the night before made her skin thrill with possibility.

"The first delivery will be in Was.h.i.+ngton Square Park, to a trio of fey there." One hooked nail pointed to a map of the five boroughs and most of New York and New Jersey taped on the wall. She walked closer to it, noticing for the first time that there were thin black pins stuck into various points along the surface. "The second can be left outside of an abandoned building, here. That... recipient may not wish to show himself. I want you to take the third to an abandoned park, here." The troll seemed to be indicating a street in Williamsburg. "There are small hills, close to the rocks and the water. The creature that you seek will wait for you at the river's edge."

"What are the pins for?" Val asked.

He gave the map a quick sideways look and seemed to hesitate before speaking again. "Deaths. It isn't unusual for the Folk to die in cities-most of us here are in exile or in hiding from other fey. Living so close to so much iron is dangerous. One would only do it for the protection it affords. But these deaths are different. I'm trying to puzzle them out."

"What am I delivering?"

"Medicine," he said. "Useless to you, but it eases the pain of the Folk exposed to so much iron."

"Am I suppose to collect anything from them?"

"Don't concern yourself with that," said the troll.

"Look," Val said. "I'm not trying to be difficult, but I never lived in New York before. I mean, I've been up here for things and I've walked around the Village, but I can't find all these places with a glance at a map."

He laughed. "Of course not. Had you hair, I would give you three knots, one for each delivery, but since you don't, give me your hand."

She held it out, palm up, ready to s.n.a.t.c.h it back if he took out anything sharp.

Reaching into one of the pockets of his coat, the troll drew out a spool of green thread. "Your left hand," he said.

She gave him her other hand and watched as he wound her first, middle, and ring fingers with the string, tying one knot on each digit. "What is this supposed to do?" she asked.

"It will help you make your deliveries."

She nodded, looking at her fingers. How could this be magic? She'd expected something that glittered and glowed, not mundane stuff. String was just string. She wanted to ask about it again, but she thought it might be rude, so she asked something else she'd been wondering about. "Why does iron bother faeries?"

"We don't have it in our blood like you do. More than that, I don't know. There was a king of the Unseelie Court poisoned with but a few shards quite recently. His name was Nephamael and he thought to make an ally of iron-he wore a band of it at his brow, letting the burns scar deep until his flesh was so toughened it could scar no more. But that did not toughen his throat. He died choking on the stuff."

"What are these Courts?" Val asked.

"When there are enough faeries in an area they often organize themselves into groups. You might call them gangs, but the Folk usually call them Courts. They occupy some territory, often fighting with other nearby Courts. There are Seelie Courts, which we call Bright Courts, and the Unseelie Courts, or Night Courts. You might, at first glance, think that the Bright Courts were good and the Night Courts evil, but you would be much, although not entirely, mistaken."

Val shuddered. "Am I going to be doing deliveries alone? Are any of the others coming with me?"

His golden eyes glittered in the firelight. "Others? Luis is the only human courier I've ever had. Is there someone else you are thinking of?"

Val shook her head, not sure what she should say.

"It doesn't matter. I would ask that you do these tasks alone and that you do not speak of them with any of the... others."

"Okay," Val said.

"You are under my protection," he said, letting her take the bottle. "Still, there are things I would have you know about the fey. Do not tarry with them and take nothing they offer, especially food." She thought of the magicked stone she had fed to an old man and nodded grimly, guiltily. "Put this comfrey in your shoe. It will help you keep safe and speed your travel. And here's madwort to keep you from fascination. You can tuck that into your pocket."

Val took the plants, toed off her left sneaker, and tucked the comfrey inside. She could feel it there, nestled against her sock, oddly comforting and alarming because it was comforting.

When she emerged on the street again, she felt a tug from the thread twined around her first finger. Magic! It made her smile despite everything else as she started in that direction.

It was still early evening when she made it to Was.h.i.+ngton Square Park. She'd stopped along the way and spent stolen money on a ham sandwich that she was still too sick to digest, despite her hunger, and had to toss it away half-eaten. She'd even managed to wash her face in an icy fountain, where the water tasted of rust and pennies.

The three bottles of whatever-they-were clanked together in her backpack, heavier than they would have been if she hadn't been so tired. She longed to uncork one and taste the contents, to bring back the power and fearlessness of the night before, but she was wary enough of her exhaustion today that she didn't.

Walking through the park, past NYU students in bright scarves, past people hurrying to dinner or walking their tiny, sweatered dogs, she realized that she had no idea what she was looking for. The thread pulled her toward a pack of middle-schoolers in expensive skater clothes climbing up on one of the interior fences. One floppy-haired boy in low-slung jeans, skull-print knee pads and checkerboard Vans was louder than the rest, standing on the top rung and whooping at three girls leaning against the thick trunk of a tree. They all had bare feet and hair the color of honey.

The thread all but dragged her to the three girls before it unraveled.

"Um, hi," Val said. "I have something of yours, I think."

"I can smell the glamour on you, thick and sweet," said one. Her eyes were gray as lead. "If you're not careful, a girl like you could get carried off under the hill. We'd leave a bit of wood behind and everyone would weep over it, because they'd be too stupid to know the difference."

"Don't be awful to her," said another, twirling a lock of hair around her hand. "She can't help being blind and dumb."

"Here," Val said, pus.h.i.+ng the bottle into the hands of the one that hadn't spoken. "Take your medicine like good little girls."

"Ooooh, it has a tongue," said the girl with the gray eyes.

The third girl just smiled and glanced at the boy on the fence.

One of the others followed her look. "He's a pretty one," she said.

Val could barely tell the girls apart. They all had long, willowy limbs and hair that seemed to move with the slightest breeze. With their thin clothes and unshod feet, they should have been cold, but she could see they weren't.

"Do you want to dance with us?" a faerie girl asked Val.

"He wants to dance with us." The gray-eyed faerie gave the loud skater boy a wide grin.

"Come dance with us, messenger," said the third, speaking for the first time. Her voice was like a frog croaking and when she spoke, Val saw that her tongue was black.

"No," Val said, thinking of the troll's warnings and the madwort in her pocket. "I have to go."

"That's all right," said the gray-eyed faerie, toeing the earth with one bare foot. "You'll visit us again when you aren't so gaudy with spells. At least I hope you will. You're almost as pretty as he is."

"I'm not pretty at all," said Val.

"Suit yourself," said the girl.

She wasn't sure what she should expect to find as she pa.s.sed by boarded-up tenement houses and bodegas with broken front windows. The building that the string on her finger tugged her toward was boarded up, too, and Val was surprised to see a garden blooming on the roof. Long tendrils of plants hung over the side and what looked like half-grown trees sprouted from what must have been thin soil, all of it trapped by an aluminum cage that capped the building. Val walked up to the entrance, now overgrown with ivy. On the second floor, the windows were completely missing, gaping holes in the brick, and she could almost see the rooms inside.

As she stepped onto the cracked front steps, the thread untied itself from her middle finger to drop into the nearby gra.s.s.

She took out the bottle from her backpack and set it down, thinking of the troll's directions.

Something rustled in the gra.s.s and Val yelped, jumping back, suddenly aware of how strangely quiet things had gotten. The cars still streaked by and the city sounds were still there, but they had faded somehow. A brown rat poked its head out of the gra.s.s, beady black eyes like polished pebbles, pink nose twitching. Val laughed with relief.

"Hey there," she said, squatting down. "I hear that you can bite through copper. That's really something."

The rat turned and scurried back through the gra.s.s as Val watched. A figure moved out of the shadows to scoop up the rodent and set it on a wide shoulder.

"Who..." Val said and stopped herself.

He stepped into the light, a creature nearly tall as the troll and thicker, with horns that curved back from his head like a ram's and a thick brown beard that ran to green at the tips. He was clad in a patchwork coat and hand-st.i.tched boots.

"Come inside and warm up," he said, picking up the corked beer bottle. "I have some questions for you."

Val nodded, but her gaze slid toward the street, wondering if she could run for it. The faerie's hand came down hard on her shoulder, deciding the question. He steered her around the back of the building and through a door that hung by only the top hinge.

Inside the building were an array of mannequin parts, stacked unnervingly along the walls, a pyramid of heads in one corner and a wall of arms in multiple skin tones in another. A pile of wigs sat like a large, resting animal in the middle of the floor.

A tiny creature with moth wings buzzed through the air, holding a needle, and settling on a man's torso to sew a vest to the body.

Val looked around, afraid, noting anything that could be a weapon, backing up so her fingers could reach behind her and grab. She didn't like the idea of swinging a plastic leg at the creature, but if she had to, she would, even if she had no hope of it doing much damage. But as her fingers closed on what she thought was a whole arm, the mannequin hand came off in hers. "What is all this?" she asked loudly, hoping the faerie wouldn't notice.

"I make stock," said the horned creature, sitting down on a milk crate that bowed with his weight. "Me and Needlenix, we're the best you're like to find this side of the sea."

The moth-winged faerie buzzed. Val tried to put the hand back on the shelf behind her, but without looking, she couldn't seem to find a place for it. She settled for tucking it into her back pocket, under her coat.

"The Queen of the Seelie Court, Silarial herself, uses our work."

"Wow," Val said, as he clearly wanted her to be impressed. Then, in the silence that followed, she was obliged to ask, "Stock?"

He smiled and she could see that his teeth were yellowed and quite pointed. "It's what we leave behind when we steal someone away. Now, your logs or sticks or whatever, they work all right, but these mannequins are superior in every way. More convincing, even to those rare humans with a little bit of magic or Sight. Of course, I suppose that's cold comfort to you."

"I suppose it is," Val said. She thought of the girls in the park saying We'd leave a bit of wood behind. Was that what they'd meant?

"Of course, sometimes we leave one of our own to pretend to be the human child, but that silliness doesn't concern me." He looked at her. "We can be cruel to those that cross us. We blight crops, dry up the milk in a mother's breast, and wither limbs for the merest of slights. But sometimes I've thought that we are worse to those who have won our favor.

"Now, tell me," he said, sitting up and reaching for the potion bottle. In the firelight, she saw that his eyes were completely black, like his rat's. "Is this poison?"

"I don't know what it is," Val said. "I didn't make it."

"There have been quite a few deaths among the Folk."

"I heard something about that."

He grunted. "All of them were using Ravus's solution to stave off the iron sickness. All of them had deliveries from a courier just like yourself near their time of death."

Val thought of the incense man of a few days before. What was it he'd said? Tell your friends to be careful whom they serve. "You think Ravus..." She let the name sit in her mouth for a moment. "You think Ravus is the poisoner?"

"I don't know what I think," the horned man said. "Well, be on your way, then, courier. I'll find you again if I need to."

Val left quickly.

Pa.s.sing an old theater, Val was drawn by the smell of popcorn and promise of heat. She could feel the roll of money in the pocket of her coat, more than enough to go inside, and yet the idea of seeing a movie seemed unimaginable, as though she would have to cross some impossible dimensional barrier between this life and the old one to sit in front of a screen.

When she was younger, Val and her mother had gone to movies every Sunday. First they would go to the one that Val wanted to see and then the one her mother chose. It usually wound up being something like a zombie film followed by a tearjerker. They would sit in the darkened theater and whisper to each other: I bet he's the one that did it. She's going to die next. How can anyone be so stupid?

She walked closer to the posters, just to be contrary. Most of what was playing were art films she hadn't heard of, but one called "Played" caught her eye. The poster showed an attractive guy posing as the jack of hearts, a tattoo of a red heart drawn on his bare shoulder. He was holding a page of cups card.

Val thought of Tom, dealing out his tarot deck into patterns on her kitchen counter. "This is what crosses you," he'd said, turning over a card with the image of a blindfolded woman holding swords in both her hands. "Two of swords."

"No one can tell the future," Val had said. "Not with something you can buy at Barnes and n.o.ble."

Her mother had walked over to them and smiled down at Tom. "Will you do my cards?" she'd asked.

Tom had grinned back and they'd started talking about ghosts and crystals and psychic s.h.i.+t. Val should have known right then. But she'd poured a gla.s.s of soda, perched on a stool, and watched as Tom read a future for her mother in which he would have a part.

She walked up the steps, bought a ticket for the midnight show and walked into the cafe area. It was deserted. An array of small, metal tables with marble tops surrounded a pair of brown leather couches. Val flopped down on one sofa and stared up at the single chandelier glittering in the center of the room, hanging from a mural of the sky. She rested there, watching it glitter for a few moments and enjoying the luxury of heat before she forced herself into the bathroom. There was a half hour before the movie started and she wanted to get cleaned up.

Wadding up paper towels, Val gave herself a half-decent sponge bath, scrubbing her underpants with soap before putting them back on damp, and gargling mouthsful of water. Then, sitting down in one of the stalls, she leaned her head against the painted metal wall and closed her eyes, letting the hot air from the ducts wash over her. Just a moment, she told herself. I'll get up in just a moment.

A woman with dark eyes and a thin face leaned over her. "Pardon?"

Val leaped to her feet and the cleaning woman backed away from her with a yelp, mop held out in front of her.

Embarra.s.sed and stumbling, Val grabbed her backpack and rushed for the exit. She pushed through the metal doors as the suit-clad ushers started toward her.

Disoriented, Val saw that it was still dark. Had she missed the movie? Had she been asleep for only a moment?

"What time is it?" she demanded from a couple trying to flag down a cab.

The woman looked at her watch nervously, as though Val was going to s.n.a.t.c.h it off her wrist. "Almost three."

"Thanks," Val muttered. Although she'd gotten less than four hours of sleep sitting on a toilet, now that she was walking again, she found that she felt far better. The dizziness was almost gone and the smell of Asian food from an all-night restaurant a few blocks away made her stomach rumble in hunger.

She started walking in the direction of the smell.

A black SUV with tinted windows pulled up next to her, windows down. Two guys were sitting in the front seats.

"Hey," the guy on the pa.s.senger side said. "You know where the Bulgarian disco is? I thought it was off Ca.n.a.l, but now we're all turned around."

He had blond streaks in his carefully gelled hair.

Val shook her head. "It's probably closed by now anyway."

The driver leaned over. He was dark-haired and dark-skinned, with large, liquid eyes. "We're just looking to party. You like to party?"

"No," Val said. "I'm just going to get some food." She pointed toward the mock-j.a.panese exterior of the restaurant, glad it wasn't that far off, but painfully aware of the deserted streets between her and it.

"I could go for some fried rice," said the blond. The SUV rolled forward, keeping up with her as she walked. "Come on, we're just regular guys. We're not freaks or anything."

"Look," Val said. "I don't want to party, okay? Just let me alone."

"Okay, okay." The blond looked at his friend, who shrugged. "Can we at least give you a ride? It's not safe for you to be out here walking around on your own."

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