10. A Good Op

Another episode of Man Raised by Spiders, the coming-of-age story of Valentine Shelawn.

Valentine wakes up to a knock on the door, and the sound of Aramil’s voice. “Room service.”

“Oh, fuck. What time is it?”

“Just after seven.”

“Then what are you doing up? Fuck. You might as well come in.”

“I brought you coffee.”

Valentine accepts the hot mug from Aramil. “Well, that’s something. How’s the arm?”

“Fine. You were right about the landlord. He bandaged it up neatly.”

“Nice. He seemed like the type who would know. He recommended my tailor, too.”

“Do you want breakfast?”

“Hell, no. I can never eat in the morning. What do you want?”

“Where were you yesterday?”

“I had to run an errand for Xardic.”

“Are you going to tell me about it?”

“No.”

“So now you’re running Xardic’s errands?”

“Apparently. Some of us are born citizens, Aramil. Some of us have to earn it. In fact, I have to head over first thing — I wanted to catch him before he leaves for the office.” He takes a gulp of the coffee, burns his mouth, reverts to sipping it. As Valentine wakes up, he sees that Aramil looks even more animated and cheerful than usual. He cocks his head. “Why are you so chipper? What do you want, Aramil?”

“Do we have a lesson today?”

“I’m not sure. I don’t know how the day will go.”

“I have a business proposition for you.”

“That sounds dreadful. I’ll come find you when I get back. But only because we’re cousins, and you know where I live.”

Aramil spots Valentine’s boots in the corner. “Why are your boots muddy?”

“Because I forgot to leave them in the hall last night for the guy to clean. That’ll be delightful. Look, Aramil. Stop speculating. It’s not something I can discuss. I’m serious.”

“Are you a spy?”

“Yes, Captain Obvious. For Liamelia. Any other questions, or can I get dressed?”

“Ill bring you another cup of coffee.”

“Sure. Put some cream in it this time. No sugar.”

Aramil sighs, shakes his head mournfully. “Such a dick. There’s really no doing anything with you.”

“I get that feedback a lot. Get out of here, unless you want me to show you the size of my house token, give you a cousinly greeting Drow-style.”

Valentine emerges five minutes later, fully dressed, boots muddy. Aramil is waiting for him.

“Do the Drow really fuck their cousins?”

“I was just messing with you. The Drow have no idea who their cousins are.”

“Do they marry their cousins?”

“Probably. It’s a small city, without a lot of opportunities for exogamy. If this is a proposition, I feel like you should get down on one knee.”

“You know, if I were you I would just make shit up about the Drow.”

“I don’t know why I didn’t think of that sooner.” Valentine brushes his boots on the stoop, sighs. “Guess I’ll be tracking dried mud on Sieia’s carpets. Aramil, why are you still here?”

“I have to pay a morning call to Sieia.”

Valentine doesn’t want to add to the mystery, so he shrugs and they fall into step together.

“I do think you should start making shit up,” says Aramil. “I’m here to help. I see your story as a feel-good coming-of-age tale, a warm, funny story of a man raised by spiders who slowly uncovers his vertebrate nature.”

“I can see that. ‘Man Raised by Spiders: A Lad’s Tale.’ Honestly, I usually think of it as the worst porno ever.”

“Like one of those fake ethnographic things? ‘The female Drow caresses her mate, using subtle dark arts to bring her helpless captive to a violent climax. Before he can recover his wits, she draws a concealed scimitar and severs his head. It’s believed that blood harvested in this way is particularly delicious…’”

“Just my luck. I get asked to star in a porno, and it’s a snuff job.”

When they reach the townhouse, the butler hands Aramil off to a footman and shows Valentine into Xardic’s library.

Xardic is fretful. He doesn’t want to seem like the asshole who’s second-guessing decisions made in the field, but that’s exactly who he is right now. He’s uncomfortable with the ambiguous outcome: no Drow found, no leads on their location or objectives. Once he offers Valentine coffee and a seat by his desk, he starts in.

“How did the operation seem to you? Are you satisfied that Brutus did everything possible? What about the troops he selected?”

Valentine chooses his words carefully. “I’m wholly satisfied with Brutus’ command. His choices were very constrained: by the nature of the mission, the number and type of troops allocated. I was extremely impressed with him, and with the troops under his command. They’re all professionals.”

He continues, “Sir, no one likes the outcome. I don’t like it myself. I’m a raider, and part of me wants to engage with the enemy at any cost. But Brutus had clear objectives and limited assets assigned. It would have been poor leadership if he’d pushed us into a situation where we could easily be outnumbered, or trapped, or needlessly injured. Just to be clear, I’m not criticizing the civilian command — saying should have had more troops, or orders to engage, or anything else. The outcome was ambiguous, but that doesn’t mean we got bad orders, or that those orders were poorly executed. We gathered valuable intelligence, and no troops were lost. It was a good op.”

“Well, if you’re satisfied, then I am, too,” says Xardic with a deeply dissatisfied air. He frowns, pauses. “Did you learn anything helpful down there?”

“Nothing beyond what you heard at the debrief. I keep coming back to this: it’s not usual to deploy that many troops aboveground. They had a specific, high-value objective. I don’t know the Theates clan, unfortunately. All I can do is point you towards whatever intelligence sources you have.”

“If you had more intelligence, could you deduce more?”

“Possibly, but without background knowledge it becomes speculation. If we were facing troops from Physryk — Xyrec or Cyrx or Avril — I could tell you exactly how they’d reason and fight, what their decision-making process would be, what would push them into certain actions. It’s hard with a clan I don’t know at all, though I have been thinking about the calling card. A clan’s motto can tell you a lot about their strategy and tactics, and how they want to be perceived. ‘We see you’ is a funny motto. It implies that they can strike at any time — that they have intel, or scrying ability, maybe some kind of spell-casting. And yet they’re definitely ballsy. The Cyrx would have let those merchants go, or would have picked them off one by one through the open windows. The Xyrec happily slaughter armed troops at close range, but I can’t think of many cases where we would deliberately massacre civilians.” Valentine breaks off. “Honestly, I’d just have to know more, and give it more thought.”

Xardic nods. “We’re not at war, so the council of elders will have to decide how to proceed. I appreciate your help and insight.”

Valentine knows he’s being dismissed, but he hesitates. He can’t stop thinking about the token locked in Sieia’s jewelry box. It’s not appropriate for him to press Xardic about what intelligence he has, so in the end, he leaves.

Over the next few days, Valentine goes around and around in his head about the Beholder token. He believes that Sieia doesn’t know what she has. He doubts that she’s mentioned it to Xardic, and he’s confident that Xardic wouldn’t share intel with his wife. He can’t help but feel that the token is somehow connected to the Drow troops that cropped up and vanished — most likely, that they’re trying to retrieve it, or take vengeance for its loss and the death of its owner. At the same time, he doesn’t feel comfortable exposing Sieia’s secret — he doesn’t know why she’s keeping it — and it’s not his place to give her intel, or to convince her to confide in Xardic. Ultimately, Xardic has to see to his own intelligence sources.

Valentine argues himself to this conclusion several times a day. Each time, he can’t quite accept the conclusion, and starts over from the beginning.

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