Valiant, p.1
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       Valiant, p.1

         Part #2 of Modern Faerie Tales series by Holly Black
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Valiant
Page 1

  Prologue

  For I shall learn from flower and leaf

  That color every drop they hold,

  To change the lifeless wine of grief

  To living gold.

  —Sara Teasdale, "Alchemy"

  The tree woman choked on poison, the slow sap of her blood burning. Most of her leaves had already fallen, but those remaining blackened and shriveled along her back. She pulled her roots up from the deep soil, long hairy tendrils that flinched in the chill late autumn air.

  An iron fence had surrounded her trunk for years, the stink of the metal as familiar as any small ache. The iron scorched her as she dragged her roots over it. She tumbled onto the concrete sidewalk, her slow tree thoughts filling with pain.

  A human walking two little dogs stumbled against the brick wall of a building. A taxi screeched to a halt and blared its horn.

  Long branches tipped over a bottle as the tree woman scrambled to pull away from the metal. She stared at the dark glass as it rolled into the street, watching the dregs of bitter poison drip out of the neck, seeing the familiar scrawl on the little strip of paper secured with wax. The contents of that bottle should have been a tonic, not the instrument of her death. She tried to lift herself up again.

  One of the dogs started barking.

  The tree woman felt the poison working inside of her, choking her breath and befuddling her. She had been crawling somewhere, but she could no longer remember where. Dark green patches, like bruises, bloomed along her trunk.

  "Ravus," the tree woman whispered, the bark of her lips cracking. "Ravus. "

  Chapter 1

  Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!

  —Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

  Valerie Russell felt something cold touch the small of her back and spun around, striking without thinking. Her slap connected with flesh. A can of soda hit the concrete floor of the locker room and rolled, sticky brown liquid fizzing as it pooled. Other girls looked up from changing into sweats and started to giggle.

  Hands raised in mock surrender, Ruth laughed. "Just a joke, Princess Badass of Badassia. "

  "Sorry," Val forced herself to say, but the sudden surprise of anger hadn't entirely dissipated and she felt like an idiot. "What are you doing down here? I thought being near sweat gave you hives. "

  Ruth sat down on a green bench, looking exotic in a vintage smoking jacket and long velvet skirt. Ruth's brows were thin pencil lines, her eyes outlined with black kohl and red shadow that made her look like a Kabuki dancer. Her hair was glossy black, paler at the roots and threaded with purple braids. She took a deep drag on her clove cigarette and blew smoke in the direction of one of Val's teammates. "Only my own sweat. "

  Val rolled her own eyes, but she smiled. She had to admit it was a fantastic response. Val and Ruth had been friends forever, for so long that Val was used to being the overshadowed one, the "normal" one, the one who set up the witty one-liners, not the one who delivered them. She liked that role; it made her feel safe. Robin to Ruth's Batman. Chewbacca to her Han Solo.

  Val leaned down to kick off her sneakers and saw herself in the small mirror on her locker door, strands of orangy hair peeking out from a green bandanna.

  Ruth had been dyeing her own hair since the fifth grade, first in colors you could buy in boxes at the supermarket, then in crazy, beautiful colors like mermaid green and poodle pink, but Val had only dyed her hair once. It had been a store-bought auburn; just darker and richer than her own pale color, but it had gotten her grounded anyway. Back then, her mother punished her every time she did anything to show that she was growing up. Mom didn't want her to get a bra, didn't want her to wear short skirts, and didn't want her dating until high school. Now that she was in high school, all of a sudden, her mother was pushing makeup and dating advice. Val had gotten used to pulling her hair back in bandannas, wearing jeans and T-shirts though, and didn't want to change.

  "I've got some statistics for the flour-baby project and I picked out some potential names for him. " Ruth unshouldered her giant messenger bag. The front flap was smeared with paint and studded with buttons and stickers—a pink triangle peeling at the edges, a button hand-lettered to say "Still Not King," a smaller one that read "Some things exist whether you believe in them or not," and a dozen more. "I was thinking maybe you could come over tonight and we could work on it. "

  "I can't," Val said. "Tom and I are going to see a hockey game in the city after practice. "

  "You're going to make a boy out of him yet," Ruth said, twirling one of her purple braids around her finger.

  Val frowned. She couldn't help noticing the edge in Ruth's voice when she talked about Tom. "Do you think he doesn't want to go?" Val asked. "Did he say something?"

  Ruth shook her head and took another quick draw on her cigarette. "No. No. Nothing like that. "

  "I was thinking that we could go to the Village after the game if there's time. Walk around St. Mark's. " Only a couple of months earlier, at the town fair, Tom had applied a press-on tattoo to the small of her back by kneeling down and licking the spot wet before pressing it to her skin. Now she could barely get him to have sex.

  "The city at night. Romantic. "

  The way Ruth said it, Val thought she meant the opposite. "What? What's going on with you?"

  "Nothing," Ruth said. "I'm just distracted or something. " She fanned herself with one hand. "So many nearly naked girls in one place. "

  Val nodded, half-convinced.

  "Did you look at those chat logs like I told you? Find that one where I sent you statistics about all-female households for the project?"

  "I didn't get a chance. I'll find it tomorrow, okay?" Val rolled her eyes. "My mother is online twenty-four, seven. She has some new Internet boyfriend. "

  Ruth made a gagging sound.

  "What?" Val said. "I thought you supported online love. Weren't you the one who said it was love of the mind? Truly spiritual without flesh to encumber it?"

  "I hope I didn't say that. " Ruth pressed the back of her hand to her forehead, letting her body tip backward in mock faint. She caught herself suddenly, jerking upright. "Hey, is that a rubber band around your ponytail? That's going to rip out your hair. Get over here; I think I have a scrunchie and a brush. "

  Val straddled the bench in front of Ruth and let her work out the band. "Ouch. You're making it worse. "

  "Aren't you athletic types supposed to be more butch?" Ruth brushed Val's hair out and threaded it through the cloth tie, pulling it tight enough so that Val thought she could feel the tiny hairs on the back of her neck snapping.

  Jennifer walked up and leaned on her lacrosse stick. She was a plain, large-boned girl who'd been in Val's school since kindergarten. She always looked unnaturally clean, from her shiny hair to the sparkling white of her kneesocks and her unwrinkled shorts. She was also the captain of their team. "Hey lesbo, take it elsewhere. "

  "You afraid it's catching?" Ruth asked sweetly.

  "Fuck off, Jen," Val said, less witty and a moment too late.

  "You're not supposed to smoke here," said Jen, but she didn't look at Ruth. She stared at Val's sweats. Tom had decorated one side of them: drawing a gargoyle with permanent marker up a whole leg. The other side was mostly slogans or just random stuff Val had written with a bunch of different pens. They probably weren't what Jen thought of as regulation practicewear.

  "Never mind. I got to go anyway. " Ruth put out her cigarette on the bench, burning a crater in the wood. "Later, Val. Later, closet case. "

  "What is with you?" Jennifer asked softly, as though she really wanted Va
l to be her friend. "Why do you hang out with her? Can't you see what a freak she is?"

  Val looked at the floor, hearing the things that Jen wasn't saying: Are you a lesbian, too? Are you hot for me? We're only going to put up with you for so long on this team unless you shape up.

  If life were like a video game, she would have used her power move to whip Jen in the air and knock her against the wall with two strikes of a lacrosse stick. Of course, if life really were like a video game, Val would probably have to do that in a bikini and with giant breasts, each one made of separately animated polygons.

  In real real life, Val chewed on her lip and shrugged, but her hands curled into fists. She'd been in two fights already since she joined the team and she couldn't afford to be in a third one.

  "What? You need your girlfriend to speak for you?"

  Val punched Jen in the face.

  Knuckles burning, Valerie dropped her backpack and lacrosse stick onto the already cluttered floor of her bedroom. Rummaging through her clothes, she snatched up underpants and a sports bra that made her even flatter than she already was. Then, grabbing a pair of black pants she thought were probably clean and her green hooded sweatshirt from the laundry pile, she padded out into the hall, cleated shoes scrunching fairy tale books free from their bindings and tracking dirt over an array of scattered video-game jewel cases. She heard the plastic crack under her heels and tried to kick a few to safety.

  In the hall bathroom, she stripped off her uniform. After rubbing a washcloth under her arms and reapplying deodorant, she then started pulling on her clothes, stopping only to inspect the raw skin on her hands.

  "This was your last shot," the coach had said. She'd waited three quarters of an hour in his office while everyone else practiced, and when he finally came in, she saw what he was going to say before he even opened his mouth. "We can't afford to keep you on the team. You are affecting everyone's sense of camaraderie. We have to be a single unit with one goal—winning. You understand, don't you?"

  There was a single knock before her door opened. Her mother stood in the doorway, perfectly manicured hand still on the knob. "What did you do to your face?"

  Val sucked her cut lip into her mouth, inspected it in the mirror. She'd forgotten about that. "Nothing. It was just an accident at practice. "

  "You look terrible. " Her mother squeezed in, shaking out her recently highlighted blond bob so that they were both reflected in the same mirror. Every time she went to the hairdresser, he seemed to just add more and brighter highlights, so that the original brown seemed to be drowning in a rising tide of yellow.

  "Thanks so fucking much. " Val snorted, only slightly annoyed. "I'm late. Late. Late. Late. Like the white rabbit. "

  "Hold on. " Val's mom turned and walked out of the room. Val's gaze followed her down the hallway to the striped wallpaper and the family photographs. Her mother as a runner-up beauty queen. Valerie with braces sitting next to her mother on the couch. Grandma and Grandpa in front of their restaurant. Valerie again, this time holding her baby half sister at her dad's house. The smiles on their frozen faces looked cartoonish and their bared teeth were too white.

  A few minutes later, Val's mother returned with a zebra-striped makeup bag. "Stay still. "

  Valerie scowled, looking up from lacing her favorite green Chucks. "I don't have time. Tom is going to be here any minute. " She hadn't remembered to put on her own watch, so she pushed up the sleeve of her mother's blouse and looked at hers. He was already later than late.

  "Tom knows how to let himself in. " Valerie's mother smeared her finger in some thick, tan cream and started tapping it gently under Val's eyes.

  "The cut is on my lip," Val said. She didn't like makeup. Whenever she laughed, her eyes teared and the makeup ran as if she'd been crying.

  "You could use a little color in your face. People in New York dress up. "

  "It's just a hockey game, Mom, not the opera. "

  Her mother gave that sigh, the one that seemed to imply that someday Val would find out just how wrong she was. She brushed Val's face with tinted powder and then with nontinted powder. Then there was more powder dusted on her eyes. Val recalled her junior prom last summer, and hoped her mother wasn't going to try and recreate that goppy, shimmery look. Finally, she actually painted some lipstick over Val's mouth. It made the wound sting.

  "Are you done?" Val asked as her mom started on the mascara. A sideways look at her mother's watch showed that the train would leave in about fifteen minutes. "Shit! I have to go. Where the hell is he?"

  "You know how Tom can be," her mother said.

  "What do you mean?" She didn't know why her mother always had to act as if she knew Val's friends better than Val did.

  "He's a boy. " Val's mother shook her head. "Irresponsible. "

  Valerie fished out her cell from her backpack and scrolled to his name. It went right to voice mail. She clicked off. Walking back to her bedroom, she looked out the window, past the kids skateboarding off a plywood ramp in the neighbor's driveway. She didn't see Tom's lumbering Caprice Classic.

  She phoned again. Voice mail.

  "This is Tom. Bela Lugosi's dead but I'm not. Leave me a message. "

  "You shouldn't keep calling like that," her mother said, following her into the room. "When he turns his phone back on, he'll see how many calls he missed and who made them. "

  "I don't care what he sees," Val said, thumbing the buttons. "Anyway, this is the last time. "

  Val's mother shook her head and, stretching out on her daughter's bed, started to outline her own lips in brown pencil. She knew the shape of her own mouth so well that she didn't bother with a mirror.

 
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