Read an Excerpt From V.E. Schwab’s Gallant

Everything casts a shadow. Even the world we live in. And as with every shadow, there is a place where it must touch. A seam, where the shadow meets its source.

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Gallant by V.E. Schwab, out from Greenwillow Books on March 1.

Olivia Prior has grown up in Merilance School for Girls, and all she has of her past is her mother’s journal—which seems to unravel into madness. Then, a letter invites Olivia to come home to Gallant. Yet when Olivia arrives, no one is expecting her. But Olivia is not about to leave the first place that feels like home; it doesn’t matter if her cousin Matthew is hostile, or if she sees half-formed ghouls haunting the hallways.

Olivia knows that Gallant is hiding secrets, and she is determined to uncover them. When she crosses a ruined wall at just the right moment, Olivia finds herself in a place that is Gallant—but not. The manor is crumbling, the ghouls are solid, and a mysterious figure rules over all. Now Olivia sees what has unraveled generations of her family, and where her father may have come from.

Olivia has always wanted to belong somewhere, but will she take her place as a Prior, protecting our world against the Master of the House? Or will she take her place beside him?


 

 

The ghoul sits cross-legged on a nearby bed, watching as Olivia packs.

One eye floats above a narrow chin, the features broken up by sunlight. It looks almost sad to see her go.

The matrons have given her a slim suitcase, just large enough to fit her two gray dresses, her sketchpads, her mother’s journal. She tucks her uncle’s letter in the back, his invitation side by side with her mother’s warning.

You will be safe, as long as you stay away.

We cannot wait to welcome you.

One mad, the other absent, and she doesn’t know which to believe, but in the end it doesn’t matter. The letter might as well be a summons. And perhaps she should be afraid of the unknown, but curiosity beats a drum inside her chest. She is leaving. She has somewhere to go.

A home.

Home is a choice, her mother wrote, and even though she has not chosen Gallant, perhaps she will. After all, you can choose a thing after it’s chosen you. And even if it turns out not to be a home, it is at least a house with family waiting in it.

A black car idles in the gravel moat. She has seen these cars come to Merilance, summoned by the head matron when it is time for a girl to go. A parting gift, a one-way ride. The door hangs open like a mouth, waiting to swallow her up, and fear prickles beneath her skin, even as she tells herself, Anywhere is better than here.

The matrons stand on the steps like sentinels. The other girls do not come to see her off, but the doors are open, and she catches the silver whip of Anabelle’s braid glinting in the hall.

Good riddance, she thinks, climbing into the belly of the beast. The engine turns, and the tires churn across the gravel moat. They pull through the arch and out onto the street, and Olivia watches through the back window as the garden shed vanishes and Merilance falls away. One moment, it is shrinking. The next, it is gone, swallowed up by the surrounding buildings and the plumes of coal smoke.

Something wriggles inside her then, half terror and half thrill. Like when you take the stairs too fast and almost slip. The moment when you catch yourself and look down at what could have happened, some disaster narrowly escaped.

The car rumbles beneath her, the only sound as the city thins, the buildings sinking from three stories to two, two to one, before growing gaps, like bad teeth. And then something marvelous happens. They reach the end of all those buildings, all that smoke and soot and steam. The last houses give way to rolling hills, and the world transforms from gray to green.

Olivia opens the suitcase and plucks her uncle’s letter from the journal.

My dearest niece, he wrote, and she holds on to the promise in those words.

She reads the letter again, soaking in the ink, scouring the words and the space between for answers and finding none. Something wafts off the paper, like a draft. She brings the letter to her nose. It is summer, and yet, the parchment smells of autumn, brittle and dry, that narrow season when nature withers and dies, when the windows are shuttered and the furnaces belch smoke and winter waits like a promise, just out of sight.

Outside, the sun breaks through, and she looks up to find fields unraveling to either side, heather, wheat, and tallgrass blowing softly in the breeze. She wants to climb out, to abandon the car, sprawl among the waving blades and spread her arms the way the girls did when it snowed last year, even though it was only an inch of white and they could feel the gravel every time they moved.

But she does not climb out, and the car drives on through the countryside. She doesn’t know how far they’re going. No one told her, not the head matron before she left, not the driver who sits up front, fingers tapping on the wheel.

She slips the letter in her pocket, holds it there like a token, a talisman, a key. Then she turns her attention to the journal, lying open in her lap. The window is cracked, and the pages turn in the breeze, airy fingers flipping past scribbled entries interrupted here and there by stretches of darkness. Pools of black that look like spills until you squint and realize there are shapes inside the shadows.

Not accidents at all but drawings.

So unlike the careful sketches in Olivia’s own pads, these are wild, abstract blooms of ink that swallow up entire pages, bleeding through parchment. And even though they sprawl across the pages of her mother’s book, they feel as though they don’t belong. They are strange, even beautiful, organic things that shift and curl across the page, slowly resolving into shapes. Here is a hand. Here is a hall. Here is a man, the shadows twisting at his feet. Here is a flower. Here is a skull. Here is a door flung open onto—what? Or who? Or where?

As beautiful as they are, Olivia does not like to look at the pictures.

They unsettle her, skittering across her sight like silverfish on the cellar floor. They make her eyes blur and her head ache, the way they almost come together, only to fall apart again, like ghouls, under her scrutiny.

The breeze picks up, tugging at the loose pages, and she closes the journal, forcing her gaze to the sunny fields rolling past beyond the window.

“Not a chatty thing, are you?” says the driver. He has a coarse accent, like his mouth is full of pebbles that he’s trying not to swallow.

Olivia shakes her head, but it’s as if a seal has broken now, and the driver keeps talking in an absent, winding way, about children and goats and the weather. People tend to talk to Olivia, or rather, at her, some uneasy with the silence, others treating it as an invitation. She doesn’t mind this time, her own attention captured by the vivid world outside, the fields so many different shades of green.

“Never been this far north,” he muses, glancing over his shoulder. “Have you?”

Olivia shakes her head again, though in truth, she doesn’t know. There was a time before Merilance, after all, but it holds no shape, nothing but a stretch of mottled black. And yet, the longer they drive, the more she feels that darkness flicker, giving way, not to memories, but simply the space where they would be.

Perhaps it is only her mind playing tricks.

Perhaps it is the word—home—or the knowledge that someone is waiting for her there, the idea that she is wanted.

It is after lunch when they enter a charming little town, and her heart ticks up as the car slows, hopeful that this is it, this is Gallant, but the driver only wants to stretch and get a snack. He climbs out, groaning as his bones pop and crack. Olivia follows, startled by the warmth in the air, the clouds shot through with sun.

He buys a pair of meat pies from a shop and hands one out to her. She has no money, but her stomach growls, loud enough for him to hear, and he presses the hot crust into her palm. She signs a thank you, but he either doesn’t see or doesn’t understand.

Olivia looks around, wondering how much farther they’re going, and the question must be written on her face because he says, “A while yet.” He takes a bite of meat pie and nods at the distant hills, which look taller and more wild than the land they’ve driven through. “Imagine we’ll be there before dark.”

They finish eating, wiping their greasy hands on the wax paper, and the engine starts again. Olivia settles back in the seat, warm and full, and soon the world is nothing but the rumbling car and the tires on the road and the occasional musings of the driver.

She doesn’t mean to fall asleep, but when she wakes, the light is thin, the shadows long, the sky above streaked pink and gold with dusk. Even the ground has changed beneath the car, from a proper road to a rough dirt lane. The hills have been replaced by stony mountains, distant craggy shapes that rise to either side like waves, and the grim walls of Merilance with its soot-stained sky feel worlds away.

“Not far now,” says the driver as they follow the winding road, through copses of ancient trees and over narrow bridges and around a rocky bend. It comes out of nowhere, the gate.

Two stone pillars with a word arched in iron overhead.

Her heart begins to race as the car trundles forward, down the lane. A shape rises in the distance, and the driver whistles under his breath.

“Lucky thing, aren’t you?” he says, because Gallant is not just a house. It is an estate, a mansion twice the size of Merilance and so many times grander. It has a roof that peaks like egg whites, carved windows and walls of pale stone that catch the sunset the way a canvas catches paint. Wings unfold on either side, and grand old trees stand at its edges, their limbs flung wide, and between their trunks, she can even see a garden. Hedges, roses, wild blooms peering out from behind the house.

Olivia’s mouth hangs open. It is a dream, the closest she has ever come, and she’s afraid to wake. She drinks it all in like a girl dying of thirst, in desperate gulps, has to remind herself to stop, and breathe, and sip, remind herself that there will be time. That she is not a passing stranger on the grounds.

The driver guides the car around a stately fountain, a stone figure standing at its center. A woman, dress rippling behind her as if caught in a gust of wind. She stands with her back to the massive house, her head held high, and one hand raised, palm out, as if reaching, and as the car rounds the fountain, Olivia half expects the woman to turn her head and watch them pass, but of course, she doesn’t. Her stone eyes stay on the lane and the arch and the failing light.

“Here we are, then,” says the driver, easing the car to a stop. The engine quiets, and he climbs out, fetching her slim suitcase and setting it on the stairs. Olivia steps down, her legs stiff from so many hours folded into the back seat. He gives a shallow bow and a soft “Welcome home” and climbs back behind the wheel. The engine rumbles to life.

And then he’s gone, and Olivia is alone.

She turns in a slow circle, gravel crunching beneath her shoes. The same pale gravel that lined the moat at Merilance, that whispered shh, shh, shh with every skating step, and for a second, her world lurches, and she looks up, expecting to find the tombstone face of the school, the garden shed, a matron waiting, arms crossed, to drag her in again.

But there is no Merilance, no matron, only Gallant.

Olivia approaches the fountain, fingers itching to draw the woman there. But up close, the pool of water at her feet is still, stagnant, its edges green. Up close, there’s something ominous in the tilt of the woman’s chin, her raised hand less a welcome than a warning. A command. Stop.

She shivers. It’s getting dark so quickly, dusk plunging into night, and a cool breeze has blown through, stealing the last of the summer warmth. She cranes her neck, studying the house. The shutters are all closed, but the edges are traced with light.

Olivia heads toward the house, takes up her suitcase, and climbs the four stone steps that lead from the drive to the front doors, solid wood marked by a single iron circle, cold beneath her fingers.

Olivia holds her breath and knocks.

And waits.

But no one comes.

She knocks again. And again. And somewhere between the fourth knock and the fifth, the fear she kept at bay, first in the head matron’s office, and then in the car as it carried her from Merilance, the fear of the unknown, of a dream dissolving back into a grim gray truth, finally catches up. It wraps its arms around her, it slides under her skin, it winds around her ribs.

What if no one is home?

What if she has come all this way and—

But then the bolt draws back, and the door swings open. Not all the way, just enough for a woman to look out. She is stout, with rough-hewn edges and wild brown curls, threaded with silver. She has the kind of face Olivia has always loved to draw— every emotion played out on skin, open, expressive. And right now, every line and crease folds into a frown.

“What in God’s name…” She trails off at the sight of Olivia, then looks past her to the empty drive, and back again. “Who are you?”

Olivia’s heart sinks, just a little. But of course they would not know her, not by sight. The woman studies her as if she is a stray cat that’s wandered by accident onto their step, and Olivia realizes she is waiting for her to speak. To explain herself. She reaches for the letter in her pocket as a man’s voice pours down the hall.

“Hannah, who is it?” he calls, and Olivia looks past the woman, hoping to see her uncle. But when the door opens wider, she knows at a glance that it’s not him. This man’s skin is several shades darker than her own, his face too thin, his bearing winnowed with age.

“I don’t know, Edgar,” says the woman—Hannah. “It appears to be a girl.”

“How odd…”

The door swings wider, and as the light spills over Olivia’s face, the woman’s eyes go wide.

“No…” she says softly, an answer to a question she didn’t voice. Then, “How did you get here?”

Olivia offers up her uncle’s letter. The woman’s eyes dart over the envelope, then the contents within. And even in the thin hall light, she can see the last of the color go out of the woman’s face. “I don’t understand.” She turns the paper over, searching for more.

“What is it?” presses Edgar, but Hannah only shakes her head, her gaze returning to Olivia, and though Olivia has always been good at reading faces, she cannot make sense of what she sees. Confusion. Concern. And something else.

The woman opens her mouth, a question forming on her lips, but then her eyes narrow, not on Olivia, but the yard behind her.

“You best come in,” she says. “Out of the dark.”

Olivia looks back over her shoulder. The sunset has bled away, the night deepening around them. She is not afraid of the dark—has never been, but the man and woman seem unnerved by it. Hannah opens the door wide, revealing a well-lit foyer, a massive staircase, a maze of a house.

“Hurry up,” she says.

It is hardly the welcome she expected, but Olivia gathers her suitcase and steps inside, and the door swings shut behind her, walling off the night.

 

Excerpted from Gallant, copyright © 2022 by V.E. Schwab.

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