5. The Labyrinth

Aramil has left a message saying he’ll join Valentine in the stable yard to train. Valentine begins a series of strike drills, alternating bursts of punches with push-ups. Valentine finds it comforting to train. It’s the one time when he knows what’s expected of him, and feels competent to handle any challenge. In truth, he misses combat: the adrenaline rush, the sense of calm purpose. The sun is high in the sky, and it’s humid from rain the night before. Valentine strips off his shirt without thinking, drapes it over a fence post, hammers some more on the punching bag.

Just then, Aramil enters the clearing with Ariadne, Penelope, and two fashionably dressed young women. Ariadne sees Valentine in the center of the clearing, lashing out at the punching bag with shocking speed and force. She freezes. Valentine senses their presence, looks up. In the instant before he recalls his surroundings, his dark gaze is serene and utterly feral, then his lashes flutter, his gaze falls. Later, Ariadne will remember the halo of his gold hair, his torso sheened with sweat. He’s unusually thin, muscle and bone deeply etched against pale skin. He drops into a resting stance, straight and tall, then turns to retrieve his shirt. Along with the rest of the assembled company, Ariadne sees that his back and shoulders are covered with overlapping scars that disappear under his belt and into his breeches.

The next few moments are awkward, but Aramil and Penelope smooth them over. The young ladies are whisked beyond the tree line while Valentine dresses and composes himself. As they return to the house, Ariadne is even more breathless and bashful than usual. Uncharacteristically, Valentine feels a duty to set her at ease, so he keeps up a stream of gentle small talk.

Back at the house, they meet Ariadne’s mother, Breisis, a richly dressed but otherwise unremarkable woman. She and Penelope have little to say to each other beyond commonplaces. The other two ladies — sisters who are visiting Briesis — are named and described to Valentine, and the young people simper at each other for the benefit of their elders. Penelope orders refreshments, and the little group settles down for a morning call. Once Valentine recovers from his remorse at having shocked the ladies, he’s amused and curious. After a good deal of preliminary chat, it’s established that the gentlemen are needed to escort the ladies to the park nearby; the fashionable young visitors have a wish to see the labyrinth there.

The cavaliers are outwardly complaisant but inwardly reluctant. Once Aramil establishes that the younger sister is engaged and the senior is more senior than he fancies in a flirt, he feels that the labyrinth is poor sport compared to working on his disarm technique. Valentine doesn’t object to seeing the labyrinth, but he can’t stop marveling at the delicacy of gray elf females. If the two visiting sisters were Drow, they’d be a few years into their first military command, not soliciting male protection for a visit to a public park in full daylight. As the party dawdles along a park path, Valentine tries to think how to fish for further information on this subject without seeming rude. Breisis and Penelope are arm-in-arm, shielded, one supposes, by their matronly knowledge. Aramil has devoted himself to entertaining Ariadne, leaving Valentine with a sophisticated young lady on each arm — the elder, Camilla, on his left, and the soon-to-be-wed Cassandra on his right.

Cassandra seems eager to brief a fresh audience about the details of her wedding arrangements, so he inquires a bit about the day, ceremony and groom. He’s soon lost in a welter of earnest talk about the difficulties of finding a proper venue. His High Elven vocabulary is no match for her mastery of detail, and her eagerness to confide in a fresh audience. He makes a few abortive attempts to steer the conversation — how will her rights and duties change with marriage? How strict is chaperonage during a gray elvish engagement? — only to realize that he probably sounds like he’s hoping to tempt her to elope with him.

As Cassandra chatters along about the jealousy and protectiveness of her fiancee, Valentine can’t help but notice that Aramil is going to some lengths to charm Ariadne. He keeps pulling her aside to admire some leaf or flower. He drops his voice to a murmur, and she unthinkingly follows suit. She’s plucked a few flowers, and he makes a show of asking her for one and having her secure it in his waistcoat buttonhole. She’s flushed with excitement, biting her lip. His manner is gentle, not openly flirtatious — precisely calculated to please a very shy maiden overcome with hero worship. It’s obvious to Valentine that he’s amusing himself with Ariadne in the absence of more lively sport; it’s unfortunate that his technique is so good, and his audience so unsophisticated.

Watching Aramil in action reminds Valentine forcibly of his own shortcomings. Aramil is funny, undemanding and lighthearted, whereas Valentine is serious, obscure and tormented. He cringes when he thinks that he talked to Ariadne about beatings in the Underdark. Valentine resigns himself to dying a virgin bachelor, most likely after a career tutoring Aramil’s bastard progeny, borne by a string of genteel maidens he’s heartlessly despoiled and abandoned. Naturally they’ll all confide in Valentine about their love for Aramil, as if he were a gay uncle or a harem eunuch.

Cassandra breaks in on this pleasing train of thought: “But tell me, Valentine — what are weddings like among the Drow? Are their customs like ours?”

He says, “I haven’t seen a Drow wedding, actually. Slaves can’t marry or act as legal witnesses, and I can’t enter a Drow temple because I never swore allegiance to Lolth.” On this awkward note, they reach the opening of the labyrinth. Valentine offers to purchase refreshments while the others stroll among the hedges. It’s too cold and damp for iced drinks, but he lingers with the lemonade seller anyway, walks a couple of brisk laps around the perimeter of the labyrinth, then, when he judges it’s safe, starts to trace the path to the center.

When he gets there, he finds Ariadne sitting disconsolately on one of several benches. “Where did Aramil go?”

“He told me to wait here. He said the would be right back. He met some friends.”

“How long ago was that?”

“About half an hour. Do you think he got lost and couldn’t find me?”

Valentine hesitates. It’s a labyrinth, not a maze. “I don’t think so. Do you want me to walk you out? It’s kind of damp and chilly.”

She looks embarrassed, but also stubborn. “He said he would be right back.”

Poor Ariadne. Valentine says, “I’ll wait here until he gets back, then. It’s dull for you to be alone here.” She looks cold sitting there in the shade of the high hedges, so he unfastens his cloak and wraps it around her. “Is that better?”

“Yes. You don’t have to wait. I’m fine.”

“I don’t mind. I’d rather sit here with you than further my acquaintance with those fine ladies.” They sit in companionable silence as the sky steadily darkens. The green of the hedges is particularly rich. Valentine decides that Ariadne definitely smells ever so slightly of basil and strawberries.

Presently she says, “Why do you think…?” Her question trails off, but Valentine can guess what she’s asking. Aramil has been so charming and attentive to her today. How could he forget her entirely?

Valentine sighs. “I know. He’s very charming. I feel it myself, and I’m a man.”

“But why did he…?”

“I don’t know if I can explain.”

“Please try.” She looks sad.

“Honey, Aramil is charming to everyone. Footmen, waitresses, barmaids. Not that you’re a servant — not at all. But charm comes easily to him. I don’t think he even knows he’s doing it. When he smiles at a pretty girl, there’s no cost to him, and no consequence.”

She ponders this. “So when he talks to me like that — takes me aside and is so kind — it doesn’t mean anything?”

“I can’t know for sure. I don’t know his heart. But I see him do it all the time. It’s easy for him — effortless. What’s hard for him is to do things that seem boring, that aren’t easy or obviously fun.”

“It’s hard to come back for me?”

“I think so — to remember that you’re here, to peel away from his friends, to stop sporting around and take care of you.” Despite his best efforts, Valentine’s tone hardens.

Ariadne is silent for awhile. She shakes her head as if dismissing a thought, looks up at him. “I want to ask you a question, but you might not like it.”

She looks so grave and apprehensive that Valentine laughs. “If I don’t like it, I can decline to answer. But I don’t think I’ll be angry.”

“This morning, when we came to find you…”

He flushes, looks down. “I’m sorry about that. I didn’t know you were coming, and…” he cuts himself off and laughs. “Honestly, it was hot and I wasn’t expecting you.”

She shakes her head. “No, it’s not that you weren’t wearing a shirt.”

“What, then?”

“On your back…”

“Oh, God.” He covers his eyes for a moment. “I didn’t even think of it. Of course you were all shocked. I’m sorry you had to see that. There’s no good story there. I was a slave. I’ve been whipped and flogged. A lot.” He drops his hands.

“Did it hurt?”

He feels a flush of angry impatience, then looks down at her upturned face. She wants to understand what happened to him, but doesn’t know how to ask.

He takes her hand, looks her in the eye. “Yeah, it did. Sometimes it hurt terribly. Whipping isn’t bad — it’s over quickly — but being flogged is overwhelmingly painful. Men die from it. You never get used to it. It’s dreadful. Is that what you wanted to know?” She looks hurt and ashamed, as if she might cry. “It’s okay. I don’t mind that you asked.”

“I know that it hurt, of course. I wanted to know — how you could stand it — how you could stand so much pain.”

“I don’t know. It probably helps that I didn’t have any choice. It’s part of life down there. It sucks, you’re terrified. There’s no question of nobility or courage. I would just think, ‘Hey, let’s not die. Let’s start there — just live through this.’” He gazes into the darkening sky, the shrubbery that’s almost black now. “People react to it differently. Some people spend the rest of their lives trying to avoid pain and stay safe. They cringe and flinch all the time. But when I get through something like that I think, ‘Well, that’s one less thing to be afraid of.”’

He catches himself, looks down at her. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

She shakes her head. “No, that’s exactly what I wanted to know. Does it bother you, having the scars?”

“I feel bad that it made people uncomfortable. But, no, I’m not ashamed. Honestly, it doesn’t seem that strange to me. Back home, if someone saw me training with my shirt off, they’d think, ‘He’s a slave — of course he’s been knocked around a bit.’” His expression darkens. He realizes he’s still holding her hand, and releases it. “I should get you back. It’s almost dark.”

She tries to capture his hand again. “What is it? What are you thinking?”

“How different I am. That I want to fit in here, but I don’t know if I can.” He sighs. “I truly didn’t consider it. I should have. I’ve seen Aramil training without a shirt on, and of course he’s —” He cuts himself off.

“What?”

He looks down at her in disbelief, but her eyes are wide, innocent.

“He’s not scarred like I am. No one here is,” he says quietly. Then, “I’m sorry, Ariadne.”

“Why? Why are you sorry?”

“I shouldn’t have said that — Aramil’s my cousin, and he’s been kind to me. And you’re good and kind and very young, and all of this is strange. ”

“Yes. But I’m glad you told me — because you’re different, and I wanted to understand.” She pauses. “Do you envy Aramil?”

“Of course I do. I’m not a saint.” He takes her arm. “Let’s go back.”

When they emerge from the labyrinth there’s a little stir. Aramil is in elevated spirits, having won some stupid wager with his friends. He makes a careless excuse to Ariadne, and she seems inclined to accept it. The party walks home through darkened streets. Penelope felt obliged to find and hire linkmen to light the way, so she’s irritated. Valentine falls into step with Aramil and says in a low voice, “That poor girl waited for you for an hour in the cold. Just because you’re charming doesn’t mean you can be a dick.”

Aramil laughs, “My dear Valentine, that’s exactly what it means.”

“She has a crush on you, you know.”

Aramil looks amused. “Does she? Of course. The mousy ones always do.”

“‘The mousy ones always do.’ Fuck you. Don’t do it again.”

“How will you stop me?”

Valentine’s voice stays low and level. “I’ll blacken both your eyes, bloody your nose, take you down and stomp on your balls before you can put your guard up.”

“I suppose you could do that.”

“I can and I will. Don’t try me.”

“Jealous?”

Valentine realizes that Aramil is ashamed and wants the last word. “No, envious. Satisfied?” He quickens his pace, falls in with Penelope, and starts making small talk.

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