4. Further Training

The next day, a footman delivers an elaborately folded note from Aramil. “What the fuck is this?” Valentine asks, “an origami swan?” The footman shrugs. “His handwriting is terrible. Can you make this out?”

“He’d like a rapier lesson this afternoon, if convenient.”

No valid excuse rises to mind, so Valentine scrawls a time early that afternoon, signs it with the characters he always used in the Underdark:

Xάρων

He folds his reply carelessly, like a rational being, and seals it with a wafer scrounged from the taproom.

The lesson begins pleasantly enough — Aramil’s a curious but undemanding student, which compliments Valentine’s lack of teaching experience. Aramil does have questions about how to handle a rapier, which Valentine answers by demonstrating the technique, then walking through how he learned to achieve it. Aramil has a natural athleticism, and if something interests him he will practice it diligently, so the two quickly become absorbed in breaking down fine points of technique and body mechanics.

It’s clear to Valentine that Aramil is extremely clever, and if anything, slightly more dexterous than Valentine. Valentine’s technique is far superior, and he has a noticeable edge in strength and endurance. Though Aramil never comes close to landing a strike, he’s a quick study, and Valentine finds he actually enjoys passing on what he knows.

After an hour Valentine calls a halt, saying, “We’ll end with a strike drill. We did this all the time, several times a day. If you don’t have a sparring partner, you can use a punching bag. Just strike as hard and fast as you can until the bell rings. I’ll show you how, then we’ll switch off. Set your watch for five minutes. Put your boxing gloves on and keep your guard up.” Aramil guards his face with the gloves, and Valentine hits them with blinding speed, alternating left and right. Within 90 seconds, Aramil’s guard starts to drop, and Valentine barks, “Keep your guard up unless you want me to land a hit.” As they move into the last 30 seconds of the drill, Valentine starts to punch harder, so that he’s actually pushing Aramil back with every strike. Aramil’s watch chimes. Aramil passes the gloves to Valentine and resets his watch. Valentine asks, “Has anyone taught you to throw a punch barehanded? No? Use a palm strike then, so that you don’t break a finger.”

Valentine puts his guard up, and Aramil starts striking. It takes a few rounds for him to gauge the distance and establish a rhythm, but soon he swinging away. “Harder, if you can. Yup, that’s perfect. Keep it up.” After a minute or so, Aramil’s breath becomes ragged, and he begins to slow down. “Keep striking. Keep breathing.” Valentine feels the force of Aramil’s strikes slacking off, and he snaps, “Don’t quit — slow down if you have to, but make every strike count.” Aramil’s face hardens, and the blows become slower, harder. His breath is labored — his ribs are practically heaving. “Push through. Keep striking. The fight doesn’t stop because you’re tired and hurting.”

Aramil ends with a burst of strikes, wild but still hard. The bell rings, and he doubles over, gasps for breath. As soon as he catches his breath, he says, “Fuck, yeah! That was great!”

“You’re really fast and precise. Next time we’ll practice footwork, so you can hit with more force.”

“So being able to hit hard is footwork?”

“Some of it, yeah. Imprecise footwork is also the reason I can knock you down whenever I want.”

Valentine pulls the gloves off, and they both sit down on the stable steps. Aramil is still catching his breath, while Valentine watches him with amusement. Valentine finds that he likes Aramil better now. His charm is very physical — his smile and laugh are engaging, and he has a kind of quick, genuine eagerness that’s infectious. He also has an ingenious quality that makes it easy to forget that he’s a decade older than Valentine. For Valentine, much of life is grim, ugly or simply puzzling. Aramil is spoiled, but also has a lighthearted simplicity, and a quality of warmth. When he pays attention to someone — whether he’s focused on Valentine’s instruction, or just giving orders to a footman — his focus is total, warm and personal. Valentine has noticed that family, friends, even servants are solicitous of Aramil’s comfort, tolerant of his flaws, and eager to please him. During their lesson, Aramil was intrigued — fascinated, even — with Valentine’s ability. To Valentine’s amusement, he doesn’t entirely respect Aramil, but he finds that he’s eager to keep his regard and focus. Valentine wants Aramil to like him.

As they cool off, Valentine feels a touch of melancholy. Aramil’s likability is unconscious, innate — in fact, if Aramil were more aware of his own charm, he wouldn’t work so hard to impress. Aramil doesn’t know what he has, doesn’t appreciate the beauty and richness of his surroundings, can’t quite see how people bend to him as they do towards the sun. As a result, a mild, perpetual hunger teases him. Even now, as he sits next to Valentine, physically spent, Aramil’s gaze searches, his hands play across his hair and unconsciously search for the rings he removed before the lesson. In contrast, Valentine would gladly recline here like a cat indefinitely, attentive to the possibility of prey, but mostly just watching the shadows lengthen and feeling the air cool and the breeze pick up.

Aramil enjoys the physical exertion and the sense of mastery that comes from picking up a difficult skill quickly, but he feels impatience for more, mingled with curiosity about Valentine, the source of these sensations. Valentine senses that Aramil is about to ask a tiresome question, and he does not disappoint.

“How did you learn all that stuff? How did you guys train?”

“We trained constantly, on a regimented schedule. I don’t know if you guys have a militia or a standing army or whatever, but in Physryk, life is pretty different. Children are raised in barracks. There’s mandatory military service for both men and women, and citizens are part of the reserve through most of their lives, usually until their 600th year. If I wasn’t on duty or out raiding, it was pretty much, wake up, train, eat, train all day, have dinner, play cards or dice if someone managed to steal or fabricate a set, tell dirty stories or, if you like, train some more. Really just a dreary level of preparedness.”

“It sounds cool.”

“It was so boring. You have no privacy, no time to yourself, no freedom of movement. What I experienced was extreme, but it’s part of a continuum. The Drow don’t value leisure time. They figure if you’re left alone, you’ll start a conspiracy or masturbate, in that order.”

“So you started a conspiracy.”

“Well, you can only masturbate so much. If I’d learned a skill, like weaving or metalworking, I’d probably be down there today, happily plying the loom or stoking the forge.”

“But how did you learn —“

Valentine groans. “Aramil, fuck the Drow. Let’s talk about something else. You’re related to Sieia, right? She’s your aunt.”

“Yeah, I’m a Shelawn. I didn’t get the prized Shelawn coloring though. I take after my Mom’s side of the family.”

“Oh, is my coloring prized? I didn’t know.”

“Oh, dear, yes. It’s a very refined, classy gray elf look. It’s part of the reason people think you’re well-bred despite your accent and creepy Drow ways.”

“The Drow weren’t impressed. They think dark eyes are spectral and uncanny. And I don’t have an accent.”

“Yes you do. Everyone talks about it behind your back. More in pity than in anger, though.”

“Fuck you, Aramil. So Sieia’s your aunt?”

“Yup. Do you think she’s hot?”

Valentine sighs. “Everyone with a dick thinks Sieia’s hot. She’s a force of nature, like the sun. She’s also my cousin.”

Aramil nods. “You guys look a lot alike.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“She smells better.”

“Everyone does. I’m still airing out from my childhood underground. She’s also kinder and has better manners. Anything you want to add?”

“She’s rich — or, at least her husband is.”

“How many brothers does she have? I met Marcus, of course.”

Now Aramil groans. “Why are you so interested in family? Who gives a shit?”

“Humor me. Remember, I come from a place where kids are raised communally in barracks. So I’m like, ‘Hm, what is this family everyone keeps talking about?’”

“Really? In barracks?”

“I said that already. Trust me, it’s shitty. How many brothers does Sieia have?”

“Just my dad, Marcus. He works in an office like Xardic does, signing shit and applying different-colored seals and ribbons to official documents.”

“Just one? She mentioned one who was traveling — who’s been gone for a long time.”

Aramil’s interest is sudden and acute. “Wait! She told you she has another brother? One who disappeared? I’ve heard rumors, but — what did she say?”

“I might have misunderstood her. It was the night of that first dinner party. You know how she lent me some jewelry so that I wouldn’t seem like such a barbarian? She was sifting through her jewelry box, and said, ‘Oh, this ring belonged to my brother.’”

“What was it?”

Valentine hesitates, choses his words carefully. “It was just a trinket, really. She asked me about it because it was Drow-made.”

“Really? Interesting. There was always this rumor…”

“What?”

“That she had some connection to the Drow — something in her past. And, yeah, that she had a long-lost brother. There was some scandal attached to him.”

“She mentioned his name, but I don’t remember it.”

“Was it Inglorion?”

“Yeah, that was it.”

Aramil gives a low whistle. “So it’s true, then. No one talks about it. But, yeah, supposedly there’s a second brother who’s mad, bad and dangerous to know.”

“Xardic hates the Drow.”

“Oh, yeah. That’s partly why no one talks about it. Good, repentant wife with ugly, scandalous background.”

“Interesting. You don’t know the story?”

“Nope — just that there’s supposed to be one.”

They stare into space for awhile, then Valentine says, “She introduced me to a girl. What was her name? Ariadne. I wonder if you know her.”

Aramil laughs. “A girl, huh?”

“Yes, a girl. You’ve heard of those, surely.”

Aramil ignores the jab. “Mousy little thing? Short? Brown complexion?”

“She was quiet, yes.”

“I’ve seen her around. She’s supposed to be an heiress.”

“What do you mean?”

“An heiress. You’ve heard of those, surely. Her family has a lot of money, and when they die, she gets it. In fact, I think she has a fortune already from a grandmother or something.”

“No wonder Sieia introduced us. Poor thing. She said Sieia wanted her to fall in love with me.”

Aramil gives a crack of pure, delighted laughter at the idea of a girl falling in love with Valentine. “Because you’re such a ladies’ man.”

“I know, right? She warmed up after awhile, but believe me, when Sieia first introduced us, it was like she was meeting the butcher. Or the hangman.”

Aramil shakes his head. “From Sieia’s perspective, it makes sense. She’s an heiress, but drab. Maybe she’d take you. And it would get you off their hands.”

“Oh, God. Am I really that bad?”

“Have you seen yourself in company? Especially around young ladies. I’m not sure I can describe it. Not disdainful, precisely. More like cold and stern.”

“Man raised by spiders?”

“Yes, that’s it!”

“Okay, wow. I’ll have to work on that. I don’t dislike women.”

“That’s a ringing endorsement.”

“The women here aren’t what I’m used to. They ask a lot of prying questions, and they can’t fight. Which pretty much describes the men, now that I think about it.”

“Shit, thanks. That’s how you judge people? Whether they can fight?”

“It’s all I’m qualified to judge. Everyone here looks rich to me, and I can’t tell if someone’s from a good family or has decent manners. But, yeah, I can tell instantly whether or not someone could give me a fight.”

Aramil looks shy suddenly. “Is there anyone here that you couldn’t beat?”

“I haven’t met everyone here.” Valentine hesitates. “This will sound weird, but I wouldn’t want to meet Sieia in a dark alley. She doesn’t train regularly, but there are some skills you never lose. She knows how to handle a dagger. That’s why I was curious about her brother — because there’s obviously a story there.”

“No shit! Sieia?”

“Yeah. Next time we see her in company, I’ll point some things out to you. It’s easy to miss because she’s gorgeous. But she’s definitely a skilled fighter.”

“Anyone else?”

Valentine cocks his head, thinks for a moment. “Nope.”

“Hey, what’s the deal with your note?” Aramil pulls the folded bit of paper out of his breeches pocket, unfolds it.

“What do you mean?” Valentine asks warily.

“This word — what is that?”

Valentine laughs. “Oh, that’s my Drow signature — my slave name, Charon. I wasn’t thinking. I’ll have to start signing things ‘Valentine.’ The wood elves christened me and took my oath to Corellon Larithian. It was early, of course, but I had the feeling that Mindartis wouldn’t let me out of there with a Drow name and no clear allegiance. I took it randomly — I didn’t know of any family names, and naturally I don’t have a last name. It was all very awkward and makeshift.”

Aramil looks surprised. “Of course you have a last name. I’ve heard my mother and Xardic refer to you as Valentine Shelawn.”

“Oh. Naturally I would be the last one to know. I suppose I’ll have to start calling myself that.”

“You’d better. It’s an honor, you know.”

“Poor Xardic. He deserves better. You know how I chose Valentine? There was this black-and-white cat that hung around the wood elves’ camps. They called it Valentine because it had a white face and a perfect black heart on the tip of its nose. I hadn’t seen a cat before, and I thought it was really neat — small and fast and vicious. It liked me, too — it would come sit in my lap and purr, and it left dead mice and rats on my pillow sometimes, which I took to be a friendly gesture. So when Mindartis asked me what name I wanted, I picked Valentine.”

Aramil gives a rude crack of laughter. “You’re named after a barn cat?”

“Well, pretty much. The wood elves don’t have barns, so whatever the next lower rung is in the hierarchy of cats. And believe me, when the females started coming into heat later that month, his behavior appalled me. I was like, ‘Whoa, dude, take it easy — you’re going to break her. And her. And her.’”

“The noble Valentine Shelawn: Cat Raised by Spiders. Don’t worry — your secret’s safe with me.”

“Well, I had to pick something. Thank God I didn’t show up here with a name like Charon. What does Aramil mean? I notice most the other Shelawns have Latin names.”

“Oh, I don’t know. It’s a Ceralac name. My mom suggested it. At the time, I wasn’t especially eager to be named after any of the Shelawns I’d heard about.”

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