3. The Island

The next episode of Man Raised by Spiders, the coming-of-age story of Valentine Claudius Shelawn.

Just a few days later, Valentine has a fresh opportunity to experience the benefits of family membership: Sieia holds a garden party in his honor. For much of the day, being honored seems to consist of standing around nursing a glass of lemonade and watching people who have known each other since childhood flirt, argue and banter. Valentine likes the lemonade very much, and genuinely doesn’t understand why he’s the only man drinking it. Sometime after noon Sieia trips up to him, leading a shy-looking maiden by the hand. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere,” she says. “This is Ariadne — you expressed a wish to meet her.”

Valentine is certain he expressed no such wish — he feels none. But Sieia is winking at him, which he finds confusing, and he accepts that it will be easier to fall in with her plans than to resist them. “Yes, of course. Delighted to meet you, Ariadne. I’m Valentine.”

Ariadne is small and silent, and seems to find Valentine’s company distressing. Sieia transfers Ariadne’s tiny, cold paw to Valentine’s arm, and says, “Ariadne expressed a desire to take a boat ride. Valentine, perhaps you could oblige her.”

They stroll down to the shore where the rowboats are moored. It seems that gentlemen are expected to row ladies across the artificial lake, to a tiny island with a folly. The boats are dirty, the water is brackish, and if Ariadne wants a boat ride, she’s doing an admirable job of concealing her enthusiasm. Valentine says, “There’s a bridge to the island just around the bend, if you walk half a mile or so. I think that might be more pleasant.”

As they walk, they leave the crowd behind, and Ariadne begins to lose her resemblance to a startled mouse.

“You’re famous,” she says presently.

“I suppose I am.”

“That’s why Sieia wanted me to meet you.”

“Probably. I don’t have much else to recommend me.”

“What’s that like? Being famous?”

“I don’t have a lot to compare it to. It’s better than being enslaved or wandering the forest without food or the means to build a fire, but it does feel like there might be things I would enjoy more.” She laughs, and gives a little skip. He confides, “Here’s the thing. People are always asking me what things are like. What are the Drow like? What’s the Underdark like? But how can I say what the Underdark is like? It was the only home I knew until nine months ago. I could tell a Drow what aboveground is like, but I don’t know how to explain the Underdark to my own people.”

“Do you miss it?”

“I don’t miss the food. There aren’t that many different ways to prepare mushrooms. Fires consume oxygen, so there’s not a lot a great cooking.” He sighs. “There are certain things I miss because they’re familiar. It’s never hot or cold, just consistently cool and damp. There are days when I think, ‘You know, I could do without all this weather.’ I like the smell of damp earth, cave dirt, and I miss that a lot sometimes. Pretty strange, huh?” He looks down, and she seems to be listening and curious.

“Did you miss your family when you were there?”

“You must know that I was orphaned, that I never knew them.”

“No. I didn’t know. What was that like?” She flushes, looks down. “I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t be sorry. I think it must be very hard to understand. What’s your first memory, Ariadne?”

“I was crying because I couldn’t reach something, and my mother took it down and handed it to me.”

“What were you crying for?”

“I don’t remember. A piece of fruit? A toy? I don’t know.”

“And after that?”

“Playing in the garden with my sister. She dug up all the new carrots and we ate them. They were like orange buttons.”

“That’s charming.”

She smiles, then wrinkles her brow. “What’s the first thing you remember?”

“Sharing a cell with two or three other kids. Being sore, tired and hungry. Trying to meditate while they cried. Disappearing into myself, losing myself in the sound of my own breath.”

“And after that?”

“Lying there after a terrible beating. The others were gone. It hurt to breathe. My back was raw, so I had to stay curled up on my side.” He looks down, sees her stricken expression. “I’m sorry, Ariadne. I shouldn’t have said that. When people ask, I honestly don’t know how to answer. It was like that. I can’t change it.”

She takes his hand and draws it to her cheek — a funny gesture, but somehow perfectly natural. “It’s OK. It’s not your fault.”

“I know that,” he says almost impatiently.

“Why had you been beaten?”

“I don’t remember. There are so many rules — more than you can possibly follow.”

“Did you miss having a family?”

“Yes, I think so, if you can miss something you’ve never seen or felt or experienced.” He stops in the middle of the path, covers his eyes with the palms of his hands. “There are so many things I don’t know! I wasn’t permitted to touch others or be touched, except in combat. I was forbidden to look directly at any Drow, or at anyone with authority over me — that’s true for everyone, incidentally, Drow or slave. I’m ignorant, you know. I was never taught anything but how to fight. I barely read or write Elvish — it’s a miracle I can speak it.” His hands drop away from his face. He takes her hand again, tucks it into his arm. “I’m not sure I know how to enter trance correctly. No one ever taught me. I do it every night. But I wonder sometimes if I’m doing it wrong — if I’m missing something.”

“Trance is natural. You learn it at your mother’s breast, from listening to her breath and heartbeat.”

“Exactly. I have no memory of that.”

“No one does,” she says gently, pressing his arm.

“True. And usually I have the sense not to ask questions that can’t be answered. Do I meditate properly? Probably not. Keep moving forward despite your bad meditation, your fear and ignorance. It can’t be grief, because you never had anything to lose.”

“You miss things you never had.”

“I do. It’s strange.” They’ve reached the little wooden bridge to the island. “Shall we go on?”

“Yes. I like it here.”

They cross, peering through the slats into the brackish water and cattails beneath. “I’m glad we didn’t take a boat,” Valentine says. “I would have had to devote all my attention to rowing, and not dripping lake water on your dress.” They stroll on, find some dry turf by the shore. Valentine spreads his cloak for them to sit on, and this diverts Ariadne for a moment.

“This is lovely. Where did you get it?”

“It’s a loan from Sieia. The Drow aren’t big on satin and oak leaf motifs.”

“Where did she get it?”

“God knows. I think of Sieia as a creature who has an infinite number of cloaks, pins and rings.”

“It looks old.”

“Does it? I should have held out for a new satin cloak to set off my violet eyes.”

They lie side by side for a moment. Valentine is mesmerized by the sun and leaves, by the dappled quality of the light. The breeze is fresh, but underneath he can smell the brackish lake, the crushed grass underneath his cloak, a slight smell of strawberries and basil that might originate from Ariadne. She turns on her side to look at his profile.

“Do you know why Sieia wanted you to bring me here?”

“No. I’m sure she had a motive, but I try not to let that bother me.”

“She’s hoping I’ll fall in love with you.”

Valentine bursts into laughter. “Of course she is.” He looks over at Ariadne’s dismayed face. “Poor Ariadne. I’m the worst romantic hero ever: Man Raised by Spiders. Why on earth does she want that?”

“I’m in love with someone else.”

She looks so genuinely lost and sad as she says it, that Valentine reaches over impulsively, takes her hand. “Oh, honey. I’m sorry.” And, since he realizes she wants to say it, he asks, “Who is it?”

She breathes the name like a sacred word, an incantation: “Aramil.”

“What, as in my cousin Aramil?” She nods solemnly. He turns a crack of laughter into a cough, and contrives not to drop her hand or say, “I kicked that punk’s ass three times out of three unarmed with my eyes closed.” He settles for this: “I don’t know him well. He seems to have a tremendous amount of charm. Does he know?”

She shakes her head. “I don’t think so. We’ve been introduced, but I don’t think he’s noticed me. He spends all his time with his friends.”

“He’s a bit immature.”

“He’s older than you are,” she retorts.

“True, and I should respect my elders. Is there any way I can help you?”

“You don’t mind?”

“Why would I? You love who you love. Once it happens, I don’t think you have much choice about it.”

“Have you ever loved anyone?”

“Me? No. I’m still getting used to sun and fresh air and water. One thing at a time.”

The breeze is beginning to cool, so he says, “We should go back. We don’t want Sieia to get her hopes up too much.”

Ariadne giggles. They brush each other and the old cloak off, and head back over the little bridge.

“Would it help you if we spent time together? If we seemed to be getting along?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“I want to help you if I can.”

She says breathlessly, “You’re his teacher — find out if he knows who I am. Ask if he likes me.”

He squeezes her hand. “Of course, honey.”

Back at the garden party, Valentine hands Ariadne off, returning Sieia’s inquiring look with a bland smile, saying, “She’s a sweet child. We enjoyed the island very much.”

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