Another episode of Man Raised by Spiders, the coming-of-age story of Valentine Shelawn.
When Valentine returns to the townhouse, a footman intercepts him and leads him to Sieia’s withdrawing room. Apparently she’s decided to send footmen with verbal instructions instead of notes. He’s grateful for her delicacy — it saves him the trouble of questioning the messenger and dissembling.
It’s gloomy within — the fire has been banked, and a single branch of candles has been lit on the fireplace mantle. Valentine stops on the threshold, waits for his eyes to adjust. He sees that the chairs and occasional tables have been moved away from the hearth, to the far side of the room. Sieia is sitting in the gloom, tete-a-tete with a stranger. She springs up, leads Valentine over.
“Inglorion, this is our cousin Valentine,” says Sieia. “Valentine, you’ve heard of my brother Inglorion.”
As Valentine approaches, he studies Inglorion with curiosity. Sieia’s Drow brother is a few inches shorter than Valentine, and equally slight. He’s a decade older than Sieia, an age that elves consider to be the upper boundary of young manhood. He comes across as decisive, accustomed to command. He’s dressed in plain traveling clothes, and his boots and the hem of his cloak are splashed with mud. His weapons and ammunition are draped over a nearby chair and occasional table: two sheathed longswords, a longbow and full quiver, a coiled bullwhip.
Even in the gloom, Valentine sees that Inglorion is shockingly beautiful. His features are flawlessly molded: finely chiseled aquiline nose, high cheekbones, strong chin and jaw, generous lips with a perfect Cupid’s bow. His skin and hair are a pure, luminous white. Valentine himself is handsome, but the harmony of his features is muted by natural gravity, and like all of us, he’s prone to look peevish or tired at times. Inglorion’s beauty is inescapable. Even subtle changes in expression and pose — a slight tilt of his head, a fleeting smile, a half-turn of his torso — produce fresh charms, and thus continuous, overlapping shocks of admiration.
Instead of simply exchanging bows, Inglorion steps forward to initiate a handshake. Their gazes meet, and Valentine sees that Inglorion’s deep-set eyes are Drow: wide, brilliant, and entirely colorless, with the sheen of mercury. The odd furniture arrangement is a compromise between Sieia’s reliance on the so-called visible spectrum, and Drow infrared vision. Before releasing his grasp, Inglorion turns Valentine’s hand over, studies it. “You were a Xyrec raider.”
“So you can see that?” Valentine says. “I rarely think about it.” He extends his left hand. “Then you can read this, as well. I’ve had it since childhood.”
Inglorion touches Valentine’s fingers lightly, examines the back of his hand. “A Xyrec brand. The slave catchers must have you on a flash card. That fits — traditionally the Shelawns are either civil servants or outlaws.” He glances up. “Welcome to the company of fugitives.”
Inglorion consciously wields his gaze as a tool: raising and lowering his lids, tilting his head, glancing away. In a woman, a similar play of gaze would seem flirtatious. Inglorion does it because his eyes are so very different, and he’s aware of their effect. Valentine feels a thrill of kinship: In childhood he was flogged for his dark, creepy look, and in battle he sometimes gained a thin wedge of advantage just by leveling his gaze on an opponent or sparring partner.
Inglorion releases Valentine’s hand, adding, “I’m sure you know that Charon is the ferryman on the River Styx, who transports the dead to the underworld.”
There’s a knock; Sieia’s dresser enters, whispers to her. Sieia nods. “Dinner’s almost ready. If you gentlemen will take a seat, I’ll follow Madison down and help her to bring it up.”
When the door closes behind her, Inglorion says, “I have something of yours, cousin.”
He pulls a small bundle from his cloak pocket. “I don’t usually carry daggers, so I don’t have a sheath for it.” He unwraps an adamantine throwing dagger, holds it in his palm. “Drow workmanship,” he says, tilting it so that the dim firelight chases the spiderweb motif from hilt to tip and back. “An unusual piece. Unmistakable, really.” He looks up, pale eyes wide, offers it to Valentine.
Inglorion’s hands have warmed it. “Thank you, sir.” Valentine slides it into the empty sheath on his bandolier.
“No questions? You’re not curious how I found it, or where?”
Valentine cocks his head at Inglorion, permits himself a smile. “Would you answer?”
Inglorion gives a crack of laughter. “If I did, the answer might surprise you.”
Valentine withdraws before Inglorion’s sharpened interest, both risky and flattering. “I haven’t forgotten where I left it, sir.”
Valentine realizes part of the reason for his discomfort. In the Underdark, it would be taboo for Valentine, a former slave and younger relative, to look Inglorion in the face. Aboveground, it’s expected. Inglorion is treating him as an equal; because Inglorion is Drow, it takes a concerted effort for Valentine to converse with him, meet his gaze. Also, though Inglorion has employed no arts to seem dominant or masculine — his voice remains soft, his touch gentle — Valentine senses that his delicate cousin is extraordinarily strong, and vicious in battle.
The door opens. Sieia enters carrying china and silverware; her dresser follows bearing a tray loaded with serving dishes. They set the table. Sieia murmurs, “That will be all, Madison.”
None of them eats much, so their meal is over soon. Inglorion pours out a glass of wine for himself, but barely touches it. Valentine takes little part in the conversation, instead watching Inglorion and Sieia together. They’re so beautiful that he can hardly help himself. As he watches them murmuring together in the gloom, surface differences like sex, age, race and clothing melt away, and they look uncannily alike — two slim, feral children who share a private language. Their physical intimacy is striking, but Valentine feels it would be a vulgar error to imagine them embracing. Instead, they share an unconscious sympathy like twins, or brothers in arms. He’s certain they’ve bound each other’s wounds, nursed each other through illness and injury. They’re seamlessly aware of each other’s presence, as if they were limbs on a shared body. Sieia’s interactions with Xardic are formal by comparison. Watching them, Valentine silently admits that he envies them.
After a time, Sieia asks Inglorion, “Will you stay the night?”
“You gave our cousin my room; it would be awkward to kick him out now. I see you gave him my favorite cloak and pin, too.”
Sieia twinkles at Inglorion. “I couldn’t help it — indigo flatters his eyes. I won’t press you. All you need is your ring, then, and you can be on your way.” She fetches the jewelry box down from the fireplace mantle, places it on the table, moves the branch of candles closer. Using a miniature set of thieves’ tools, she picks the lock, and pulls out the obsidian ring: massive, ornate.
Inglorion slides it onto his left ring finger, admires it in the candlelight. Far from being lost or stolen, it’s clear that the ring was crafted to fit his hand.
She hands Inglorion a velvet pouch on a delicate mithrail chain. “Unless — you’re not planning to wear it, are you?”
“It’s tempting, but I have other risks to run.” He tucks the ring away and, in a curiously feminine gesture, gathers his long, white locks, allowing her to fasten the chain around his neck. He turns to her, catches her up in a hug, holds her for a long moment, murmurs, “I love you so much, honey.” He kisses her hair, and she nestles close, clings to him wordlessly. “I’ve never been good or careful, sweetheart, but I always think of you,” he says.
When he finally releases her, Inglorion’s gaze falls on Valentine. He says, “Well met, cousin. Sieia thinks well of you. I’ll try to do the same.”
“Likewise, sir.” They exchange bows, and Inglorion is gone.
Valentine builds the fire up at Sieia’s request. She seems to want his company, so they talk idly of Ariadne and other things. Valentine is reluctant to pry about her brother — what he’s seen seemed so intimate. Sieia explains nothing, simply says, “He was my closest childhood companion, you know.”
That night as Valentine lights a votive candle on the shrine and prepares for trance, he finds a playing card propped against one of the votive holders. It’s printed with a lidless eye over crossed longswords, and a motto underneath in Drow: “We see you.” The corners are decorated with elaborately bound fasces. He flips it over. It’s the Jack of Hearts, depicted brandishing a longsword in his right hand. His left hand rests on the pommel of a second, sheathed weapon. His skin, hair and eyes are white. His expression is curiously inviting — confiding, even. It’s not clear what Inglorion intended to communicate by leaving it. The room was once his; Valentine left it unlocked. Valentine can’t bring himself to burn the card, so eventually he puts it back on the shrine where he found it.