12. Matters Between Men and Women

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

Valentine is delighted to discover that gray elves resemble the Drow in one important respect: engagements are long, and chaperonage is deliberately casual. Elves are not particularly fertile, so the risks are few, and the benefits are viewed with affectionate indulgence. Most marriages in Liamelia are dynastic, but that doesn’t prevent Sieia and other matrons from enjoying the spectacle of a love match developing between two gently-born youngsters.

Valentine isn’t inclined to question why he loves Ariadne; it seems natural that he should. Over the weeks that follow his initial declaration, he’s touched by her utter faith in him. She clearly believes that he’s the kindest, handsomest, cleverest, sweetest, most patient fellow in Liamelia. The fact that she once believed the same thing about Aramil doesn’t trouble him — if anything, this demonstrates her innocent, trusting nature.

As for Ariadne, being loved agrees with her. She quickly blossoms into a cheerful, pretty girl. Even Aramil is forced to admit to Valentine that she’s “a taking little thing — improved beyond recognition.” Valentine himself is generally considered to be improved by romantic success. Where before he seemed pragmatic and warlike to a tiresome degree, now his interactions with Ariadne reveal a side that’s protective, faithful and unfailingly kind. Over the next few weeks, then, Valentine and Ariadne find themselves in the center of a circle of warm civic approval.

There seems to be a general expectation that Valentine will press his advantage and make love to Ariadne. In theory he’s delighted to do so — certainly he’s rehearsed the moment extensively in imagination — but in practice he’s not quite certain how to proceed beyond passionate, partially clothed caresses. Barracks gossip has educated him about the bare physical facts. It still puzzles him that he wants to cherish Ariadne and protect her from harm, and therefore desperately longs to pin her down and enter her.

It’s become their custom to ride up into the foothills once a week or so, and to spend hours lying together watching the clouds mingle and the sunlight slide over the leaves, listening to breezes and rainfall. One summer evening, then, he makes a little nest for them as he always does, using his cloak to protect her from the damp grass.

After awhile, he says, “My dear, what did your mother tell you about…” he searches for the right phrase “…matters between men and women?”

Ariadne wrinkles her brow. “She said that men are beasts.”

“Oh, dear,” says Valentine, taken aback. It seems like a difficult charge to disprove. “Anything else?”

“That I’m not to ask questions about the company that you keep, and that I must always behave in a manner that befits my station. And that the Shelawns are a proud race. I think that’s it.”

Valentine blinks a couple of times. “Well, I hope matters won’t be like that between us.”

“I hope not, too,” she says. “I don’t think I would like it if you kept low company.”

“I don’t think I’m inclined to do that. Honestly, it gives me a very poor idea of your father.” Valentine feels that he’s lost control of the narrative, and he’s not certain how to regain it. They look out over the valley for awhile in silence. Presently he tries again. “Do you like kissing?”

“Oh, yes, very much,” she says with great sincerity.

“Well, I thought it wasn’t entirely disagreeable to you.”

“Oh, no.”

Suddenly Valentine sees the absurdity of what he’s trying to do. There’s no way to prepare her for what is to come. He’s entirely unprepared himself, and he’s a fool to pretend that he has some superior knowledge of matters between men and women. He turns to look at her, this sweet creature that remains fundamentally strange to him. She smiles up at him, and because she is trusting and dear, he kisses her. The embrace is so familiar — the taste of her lips, her subtle, sweet, spicy scent — that he recklessly discards his noble intent.

Because the sun is high in the sky and they are alone, he strips his shirt off. She wriggles out of her dress. This leaves her in her chemise, garters and pantalettes, and him in his breeches. Though Ariadne may be shy and small in a ballroom, she is a pagan beauty lying on the purple satin cloak, hair tousled, smiling at him.

She reaches up, twines her fingers in his hair, strokes it. They kiss again, and he feels her taut against him, yearning. He says, “Darling, undress for me — I want to see all of you.” Shyly, happily, she removes her garters, stockings and chemise. Her breasts are palm-sized, her nipples brown and taut. She hesitates, and he kisses her, cups her breasts, traces the curve of her waist to the small of her back, reaching the waist of her pantalettes.

“May I?” he whispers. She nods, giggles. He slides them down, and she kicks them from her ankles. He truly can hardly stand the sight of her thighs, her pussy. More kissing, further caresses. She’s seen him shirtless, of course, and stroked his chest while they kissed. She’s also felt him hard against her, but perhaps not with such urgency, such immediacy. She grips his hips, tries to pull him closer. He thinks, well, if we’re going to be married —

He unbuckles his belt, strips off his breeches, and they are naked on the ground with nothing between them. He plunges his fingers between her thighs. Her eyes widen, and her hips lift towards his palm instinctively. She’s slick, ready for him. She moans, looks confused, almost distressed. “Oh, honey,” he says. He removes his hand, and she tries to recapture it. They kiss. He knees her thighs apart, and he can feel her wetness.

“Oh, fuck. Oh, darling.” He grabs his cock, starts to press into her. “Honey, this will hurt the first time — I’m so sorry.” She may not even hear him, and he wonders later if he even spoke. He’s trying to get the angle just right — it feels wonderful but unfamiliar — she adjusts her hips in some way —and now the slick warmth, the way she beams up at him, full of trust and love, the curve of her ass as he grabs it — these impressions overwhelm Valentine entirely. For a long moment, there is nothing beyond the sensation of burying himself balls-deep inside of her, her lips seeking his, the pure, animal joy of claiming her. He fucks her, his darling, roughly and with complete abandon, and comes in a series of shuddering gasps.

The outside world returns slowly. Sweat and other fluids cooling between them. The heat of the setting sun on his back. The fact that he’s probably crushing her with his weight — she’s pinned beneath him with her legs spread wide. A lock of his own hair has somehow gotten into his mouth. He vainly tries to spit it out as he laughs with pure joy. He rolls off her and onto his side, and she curls up and presses her damp face against his chest, eyes still closed. He pulls her even closer, hugs her tightly.

“Oh, God, I am a beast,” he says. He’s thinking of the reckless conduct of his furry namesake.

She peeks up at him, surprised. “Why?”

“Didn’t that hurt?”

“A bit at first, but not terribly.” She strokes his hair, runs her fingers over his shoulders.

“Oh. Well, it won’t next time. That was the hard part. Now all we have to do is avoid low company and conduct ourselves in accordance with our stations, which shouldn’t be too hard.”

“And be proud Shelawns,” she says.

“And be proud Shelawns.”

They ride back shortly after sunset. A bat flutters against a backdrop of inky, rose-rimmed clouds, swoops down to drink from a nearby pool. They hear an owl. Later, Valentine will remember this measure of pure, unalloyed, carefree joy. Years from now, when the light is at a particular angle, or he smells basil, or sees a bat outlined against the sky, or hears an owl — when the clouds turn dark, or he feels his cloak’s satin lining, or hears the sound of hoofbeats at a canter — he will remember knowing with certainty that Ariadne was his, and that he had infinite time to work out the paradox of wanting to cherish her, and needing to crush her beneath him. He will remember how she reached for him, sought out the shock of his raw desire, tangled her fingers in his fair hair.

There are mild disturbances on the shining surface of their happiness. Periodically, Xardic indulges in bursts of worry about a possible Drow invasion. Valentine’s attitude — unspoken, but clear nonetheless — is that if the Beholder clan wants something in Liamelia, they should be forced to come take it. He’s not eager for a showdown, partly because he understands that the logistical risks form a real barrier, and partly because he suspects that the city’s offensive capabilities aren’t as overwhelming as Xardic believes.

Aramil’s manner is strange, too — he alternates between sulkiness and violent exhilaration. He and Valentine have spoken very little of Valentine’s romantic venture, and the civic approval it’s earned him. Valentine assumes that envy explains only a fraction of Aramil’s dissatisfaction. After all, several eligible young ladies still lavish hero worship on Aramil, swooning over his horsemanship and skill in the ballroom, and throwing their hands up in mock horror over his less-polite exploits.

One result of Valentine’s engagement is that it’s no longer considered proper for him to share bachelor lodgings with Aramil. His dignity, or the family’s, requires that he move to one of the family townhouses. Aramil’s father Marcus is the head of the Shelawn household, so for a brief, dreadful time it seems that perhaps he and Penelope will have to keep Valentine until he’s safely wed. Xardic is senior to Marcus in public service, however, and Valentine is felt to be Xardic’s project and property, so some obscure social and official calculus rescues Valentine from this fate, and bestows him and his single valise on the more lively Ceralac household.

When he arrives, Sieia says, “I’m glad you’re here. I’ve got the perfect room for you!”

She leads him to a set of French doors on the third floor, at the back of the house. The bedroom is lovely, though small, with ornate hardwood panelling and moldings. The draperies, bedclothes and carpet are all the deepest indigo silk. In the corner is a tiny shrine to Corellon Larithian. It’s an odd touch in this distinctly secular household, but not unwelcome. The dressing room is smaller still, with the only window, really just a porthole with shutters and heavy indigo draperies.

“I had a bed brought up from storage, and all the hangings cleaned. I hope you’ll like it.”

“This was just sitting empty? What a house of treasures this is, Sieia. Thank you.” It really is the perfect room for a bachelor with few possessions. Valentine unpacks his valise, bestows his few belongings, and begins the process of acting in accordance with his station.

Later, when Xardic comes to welcome him, Valentine is stretched out full-length on the bed, scratching in a journal that he keeps. Valentine hops up to accept Xardic’s courtly welcome. Xardic glances down in the middle of his rehearsed speech, does a double-take.

“Valentine, what language is that?” His tone betrays not just surprise, but suspicion.

“Drow, sir.” Because Xardic seems to be waiting for an explanation, he adds, “I speak Elvish fluently, but read and write it only with great difficulty. Perhaps I should have mentioned that sooner.” Xardic is clearly shocked, and for once Valentine struggles to meet his gaze. “I was taught Drow for my captors’ convenience, sir, much as a non-commissioned officer might learn to write Elvish. I had no opportunity to learn anything else; indeed, a slave who could read and write Elvish script would present an increased flight risk.”

As usual, Xardic allows Valentine’s candor to win him over. “Yes, naturally. It was just a bit of a shock. You’ll learn Elvish, of course, and take care that your notes don’t fall into the wrong hands.”

Valentine gauges Xardic’s mood, and says, “Of course, sir. Though if your concern is operational, I should point out that most Drow read Elvish comfortably.”

“Sieia will find you a tutor. We won’t discuss it further now.”

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