11. I Couldn’t Turn Back If I Wanted To

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

Valentine has dutifully shown up at a ball of Sieia’s, largely to distract himself from his internal ethical debate. He’s distracted, though. The weather itself has a kind of moody intensity. Even here, in a stuffy ballroom lit and heated by dozens of candles, he can feel a thunderstorm rolling in.

He sees that Ariadne has no partner and is sitting and looking forlorn next to Sieia. “Ma’am, would you mind if I take Ariadne out on the porch to get some fresh air? I’m sure she’s feeling the heat.”

“Not at all. Just mind that she checks her dance card, and doesn’t stand anyone up.”

The breeze has picked up — on the back porch it’s almost chilly. They curl up on a wicker chaise lounge and watch the lightning play across the clouds. Within a few minutes, the rain starts to fall, and Valentine can feel Ariadne shiver. “Cold?” She nods. “I can take you in. I just wanted to hear the rainfall for a little while.”

“No, I like it. I’ll stay.”

“Here, get under my cloak. Is that better?” She nods. “Just for a moment, then, while the rain comes in.” The patter becomes drumming, and then pounding on the roof. As the rain continues to fall, Ariadne feels Valentine’s breath become deep and even. Perhaps because he’s been up for so many days, he’s fallen into a trance.

Ariadne thinks of when she saw Valentine in the clearing, alone, flooded with light like a gladiator in the arena. His pale gold hair, which she can feel now against her cheek; that cold, dark stare, which is soft and unfocused now. She gingerly examines other impressions: the speed and precision of his fists striking the punching bag, his lean grace as he stood in front of them, then turned away. It is strange, confusing, almost distressing to feel the length of his body softening against her.

In a moment or two, his trance ends. He blinks at her and whispers, “Can I tell you something?” She nods. “I’ve been wanting to tell you.” He turns onto his back, looks up at the rafters. “I’m the only one who made it out, you know. Two turned back after a couple of days, when we ran out of food. One was injured, another got sick from the cold. They couldn’t move, so I made them comfortable and kept going. I promised to come back for them.

“I didn’t have any food, and it rained every night. My clothes were wet, and after dark it was terribly cold. I realized that I was lost — I couldn’t turn back if I wanted to. I was moving in circles with this kind of panicked determination. At some point, I just stopped. I found a gap in the rock and took shelter. All day I listened to the rain and watched the clouds move overhead. Later, the storm ended and the sun broke through. I watched the sunset and saw the stars come out. Those things had happened every day, but now I was really seeing them. It was all so beautiful and strange.

“I stayed there for two more days. I can’t describe it. Everything was so beautiful — the sun, the shadows moving across the rock. I felt this intense awe and joy, and I thought, no matter what happens — if I’m injured or I starve or I die here — I escaped. I have this amazing, wonderful place. No matter what happens, I win.”

“What happened next?”

“I started moving again, because I truly didn’t want to die. I think I was delirious. I kept thinking about the other two. I wanted to find them and make sure they were OK, and show them the place that I found. The wood elves found me and took me in. I didn’t die.

“It makes me so happy that I got out. I got to see the sun, and to hear the rain and feel the wind. There’s this incredible, miraculous beauty. No matter what happens.” He turns to look at her. His face is gentle, earnest. “Does that make sense?”

“Oh, yes. That’s a wonderful story. Thank you for telling me.”

“You’re welcome, honey. I’m going to take you in and give you back to Sieia now, okay?”

“Why?”

He pauses. “Because I really want to kiss you, and I don’t think that would be wise.”

Her gaze falls — she’s disappointed. Suddenly Valentine knows that she could be his — he just has to take her.

And so, on the back porch of Sieia and Xardic’s townhouse, in the middle of the pouring rain, Valentine kisses Ariadne tenderly, then passionately, and then they are kissing very hard indeed, gasping and laughing between kisses. She understands why she was so troubled and fascinated to see him shirtless and sweating, and he realizes the absurdity of his noble impulse of self-denial.

Presently he pulls back, stops kissing her, and says, “Now I really do have to take you inside.”

“You do?”

“Yes.” He places a finger on her lips. “I can see that you’re going to ask why. It’s because if I don’t, some cousin of yours is going to come back here looking to lead you out in the cotillion, and he’s going to catch me making love to you in the rain.” He laughs, “And don’t ask what that means — you’ll find out soon enough.” As they straighten their clothes and prepare to go in, he says, “I’ve always assumed that your family wouldn’t have left us alone if they had some objection to me as a suitor. Do you know if that’s true?”

“I think so. I know Sieia will be pleased, and my mother follows where Sieia leads.”

“That’s good. Oh, dear. I don’t think your hair was like that before. You’ll have to fix it. Even I can see that it’s very unsuitable.”

Her hands fly up, and she twists and re-pins some of the curls. “Take me to the withdrawing room and send Sieia to me. She’ll help me fix it.”

“So that’s what the withdrawing room is for! I always wondered.”

“That, and if you step on one of my flounces, Sieia’s dresser is there with a needle and thread to mend it.”

“I’m glad matters didn’t get that far. You’ll have to show me where it is.” She takes him down a series of back passageways to a little room just off the ballroom. As promised, Sieia’s dresser is sitting there, fanning herself. Valentine hands Ariadne over to her, then finds Sieia in the ballroom.

Sieia calls out playfully, “Valentine, what have you done with Ariadne? It’s not like you to abandon her on the porch.”

“There was an accident to her hair. She’s in the withdrawing room.”

Sieia catches his guilty expression and a peal of laughter bursts from her. She lowers her voice. “What a rogue you are! I’ll go to her.”

“Thank you, ma’am. I hope you’re not displeased.”

“On the contrary, I had every hope. She’s happy?”

“Oh, yes. We both are.”

“You’ll pay a morning call to her mother tomorrow. I’m glad — not every scheme of mine works out so well.”

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