16. The Gallery

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

It’s overcast as Valentine walks to the Shelawn townhouse the following morning. After yesterday’s performance, he’s determined to start teaching Aramil at least the basics of archery, so he’s carrying his longbow and quiver. As he strides through the sweetly green city squares, the wind picks up and the pavement is spattered with raindrops. He notices with pleasure how rainfall fills him with giddy energy.

Aramil is waiting for him in the same large sitting room where they first met. “I was going to start teaching you to shoot, but the rain’s coming down pretty hard,” Valentine says. “Do you want to try to wait it out?”

“Oh, yeah — these summer storms usually pass quickly. What do you want to do? Have you had breakfast? I think there’s still some sausage left in the morning room.”

Valentine shudders. “No, I’m good. Unless — do you have coffee?”

There’s both coffee and cream to be had, so Valentine sips a cup happily while Aramil tries to think of a rainy-day activity for his warlike cousin. “Oh, wait — here’s something. Have you seen the Shelawn art collection? The whole fourth floor is a gallery, you know. It’s quite famous, and a nice example of an Etruscan-themed room. A couple of our ancestors came back from their grand tour with marble artifacts, and it’s been growing ever since.” Aramil adds naively, “I wouldn’t have thought of it, but some of the hangings are faded, and mom and Sieia went up there to see if they could match the colors.”

“Certainly. You know, in the Underdark we used to say that if you make it aboveground, you should definitely make a point of checking out a few Etruscan-themed rooms. What the fuck is that? Do you even know?”

Aramil says with great dignity, “Of course I do. The Etruscans are an ancient Mediterranean culture from the Roman peninsula. Early Georgian architecture — of which this house is a classic example, Sir Spider — often features colors and design elements from excavated ruins. The colors really are charming — oxblood, copper, a kind of parchment-colored white, blue accents.” He concludes in a disarmingly frank tone, “Gray elves did a lot of respectable grave robbery around that time and used the booty to decorate their houses.”

“You know, the more time I spend in gray elf circles, the more I question their idea of respectability. So I have to ask. What counts as respectable grave robbery?”

“I suppose it’s the age of the grave plus distance from your home. If you dig up an Etruscan dude who’s been dead a couple thousand years, you’re a collector. If you dig up your neighbor’s wife, you’re facing charges.”

Valentine mimes making a note. “I’ll remember that: Etruscan dude, yes; neighbor’s wife, no. Is there an equation I should be using?”

“It’s more what you can get away with.” They reach the top of the stairs, poke their heads around. The gallery stretches the full length and width of the townhouse, and has a high coffered ceiling and floor-to-ceiling windows. Penelope and Sieia are at the far end, fiddling with gold brocade curtains and a book of fabric swatches. Aramil and Valentine wave to the ladies.

Says Aramil, “I’ll show you the Hellenistic sculpture. It’s supposed to be good of its kind. The collection is by date. The older stuff starts on the left, and it goes counter-clockwise around the room. The newer stuff is on our right.” He steers Valentine over to inspect two marble fragments on pedestals: a man’s torso and a bust of a woman. Both are slightly smaller than life and carved from white marble. The torso is so naturalistic that it seems like the ribs ought to rise and fall with a young man’s breath. “Amazing, huh?” says Aramil.

“Wow, yeah.” The bust is equally lovely — a portrait of a matron with elaborately curled hair. The features are surprisingly individual — a long nose that droops slightly at the tip, a firm jaw and high forehead. The eyes are wide and blank.

“It would have been painted,” Aramil says. “The eyes, lips and hair, her jewelry. If you look closely, you can see traces. Her eyes were brown.”

As they bend over the statue to inspect its eyes, Penelope calls, “Aramil, come here and look at this straw-colored silk. Sieia thinks it won’t do.” He shrugs at Valentine, trots across the room dutifully.

A lively argument develops, and Valentine drifts over to the opposite wall to the more contemporary collection. This section consists almost entirely of paintings hung salon-style from the floorboards to the picture rail: landscapes, hunting scenes and portraits, the latter clearly commissioned by the family from painters of the day.

A life-sized portrait catches his eye. As Valentine inspects it, he has the absurd notion that he’s standing in front of a full-length painting of Inglorion wearing old-fashioned clothing and posed heroically on a generic battlefield. The finely molded features are identical: the curve of his lips, the high cheekbones, aquiline nose and broad forehead. His white hair is bound in a queue and tied with a black silk ribbon that flutters in a two-century-old breeze.

As he studies the picture, Valentine sees that his wide, deep-set eyes are violet. Also, Inglorion is noticeably fine-boned, while this man is taller and more solidly built. Otherwise, the resemblance is uncanny: the shape of his hands, one of which brandishes some kind of martial baton; his cool, enigmatic expression; the carriage of his head; his half-lowered eyelids and arresting, almost flirtatious gaze.

He feels Sieia by his side, murmurs, “I thought for a moment it was Inglorion. Who is it?”

“My father, your Uncle Tereus.” She studies the painting. “The resemblance is a bit of an illusion. He was painted at the age Inglorion is now, and with his hair powdered — that was the fashion in his youth. In life, it was pale gold, like yours.”

“What are you two looking at?” asks Penelope in a fake-jocular tone. “Aramil is all wrong about these hangings, Sieia. I need you here to tell him why.”

Sieia answers, “We were looking at the Reynolds portrait of my father. Penelope, don’t you think Valentine looks like him?”

Penelope and Aramil come over to see. “Oh, yes,” she says. “I’ve always thought so. The resemblance is striking. Something about the eyes. Valentine has that Shelawn look.”

Aramil inspects the portrait, then his cousin. “Grandfather was much more handsome. Valentine hasn’t got the high cheekbones. Or the perfect little aquiline nose. He got the Roman model.”

“True,” says Sieia. “But the expression, the stance?”

“Oh, yeah. That smoldering male model look, for sure.” He meets Valentine’s fulminating gaze with a bland smile. “And now he’s giving me the murderous glare that I remember so well from Tereus Shelawn’s later years.”

Penelope says, “You gave Valentine Tereus’ cloak and pin, didn’t you? He’s the properest person to wear them, certainly. That indigo doesn’t suit Aramil’s coloring, and I’ve never known Marcus to wear it.” And now that she points it out, Valentine realizes that his ancestor is depicted with the familiar satin-lined brocade cloak billowing dramatically around him.

Now that that’s settled, the two ladies return to debating over the fabric. Valentine calls out, “Wait, Aramil, I have something for you.” He pretends to search through his pockets. “Oh, here it is.” He pulls out his hand, middle finger extended. They snicker like schoolboys.

After an hour or so, it becomes clear that the rain won’t let up any time soon. Penelope offers to send Valentine and Sieia back in the carriage. Once they’re safely installed, with rain drumming on the roof, Valentine says, “I still can’t get over how much that portrait of your father looks like Inglorion. It’s spooky.”

Sieia says, “If you’d seen them side-by-side when Father was alive, you’d see that they were very different. Inglorion was thought to look very Drow, for one thing — his coloring and size. The sunlight pains him, you know. He was considered a runty creature, and sickly.”

“That surprises me. Perhaps it’s because I grew up among the Drow, but it’s hard to imagine him being sickly or weak.”

“No, of course he wasn’t. I’ve rarely known anyone so strong.” She gives Valentine a measuring look. “You remind me of him.”

“Of Inglorion?” She nods. He looks surprised and vaguely embarrassed. “I don’t see it.”

She smiles and smothers a laugh. Though the subject is serious, his diffidence amuses her. “To me, you two are very much alike. Your manner, the way you carry yourself. It’s the strength of your will, I think, and a kind of self-sufficiency. He loves combat in a kind of pure way, and it made him fundamentally reckless and cool-headed. And there are a lot of little things — the gaze, the tilt of your head, your hands. You both have a quality of innocence, which is the strangest thing of all.” She shakes her head. “I’m speaking of him as he was, when we were children. He’s changed, of course — his character has darkened. Our father’s did.”

The whole thing seems wildly improbably to Valentine. He also longs to hear more. “Perhaps I’m simply dwelling on the differences, like people did with Inglorion and your father.”

“There are differences, naturally. Inglorion is so stunningly beautiful that it’s hard to see beyond that. And your habits are different. Inglorion is a dog with women, and father was no better. It’s said that for a Shelawn, men will lay down their lives and women will pull up their skirts. Many people worshipped my father, could see no wrong in him, although there was so much wrong to see.” She give a wry smile. “I’m speaking very frankly now — I hope you’ll forgive me.”

He shakes his head. “I can’t help but be curious. I’d heard hints, things Albertus said in his courtly way.”

Sieia laughs. “I don’t think he knew about Inglorion, though his reputation was very bad. I couldn’t help but know, even before we ran away. We were so close for so long. And once we were adventuring, he was always in some foolish predicament or another. I lost count of all the sweet little villages that became too hot to hold us because he’d seduced the sheriff’s wife, the jailer’s daughter, and some prominent widow or another. I don’t know how he found the time. And to him, each one is a delightful girl — irresistible in her own way. Aramil has a bit of that lighthearted quality, I think.”

Valentine smiles. It’s a funny conversation to have with his female cousin, but now, in the privacy of the carriage, they can discuss things they wouldn’t talk about at dinner. “Men who have to collect the whole set. To me, that just seems like a lot of work.” He laughs suddenly. “That explains what Breisis said to Ariadne!”

“What?”

“I asked Ariadne once what her mother told her about married life. It’s old news to you that men are beasts and the Shelawns are a proud race, but I was floored.”

Sieia gives a trill of delighted laughter. “Oh, you poor dears!”

“Well, yes! And I felt I had no defense, because I wanted nothing more than to…. It was all I could think of in her presence.”

Sieia giggles, shakes her head. “I don’t think that’s what Briesis meant. I don’t remember her husband Porsenna well, but he always seemed like a poor creature. I doubt he made excessive demands upon her. No, no — she was almost certainly trying to warn the poor child that Shelawn men are known for their infidelity.”

“What about the others? My father? Marcus?”

“Marcus has made respectability his god for the last several decades. He’s discreet, gives Penelope nothing to complain of, as the saying goes. Though when he was much younger, before I left, I remember that he flaunted a mistress briefly, a famous demi-mondaine. He gave her a phaeton-and-four with match grays, and she drove them in the park as if she were one of us. She was a diamond of the first water. I don’t know what happened to her. He certainly wasn’t her only protector. She probably bought a place in the country with the proceeds, owns a vineyard or an olive orchard.”

“What about my father and mother? Albertus made it sound like a great romance — two brothers and two sisters marrying. My mother was supposed to have been the brains.”

“She wasn’t a beauty, poor dear, but she was amazingly lively and brilliant, I’m told.”

“That’s what Albertus said. It surprised me. Women here seem to have so little scope for their talents. It seemed odd that she was a scholar.”

Sieia shakes her head. “I don’t remember either of them well, you know. I was only 12 when I left, and I returned after the massacre. The story was that she hadn’t planned to marry, but that your father, Lucius, sought her out and won her over. Some of her friends were against it, I believe — thought her gifts would be wasted.”

“Were they?”

“I don’t know. I’m sure Albertus has an opinion, though he may not express it. I do know that Tereus and Lavinia overshadowed everyone around them. He was so dashing, and she was such a beauty, though the Arahirs aren’t considered to be a gorgeous race, not like us.” She laughs. “Listen to me! As if I weren’t an Arahir, with my red hair!” She pauses, considers. “But, yes, I think there was some apprehension when you first arrived at the idea of another Shelawn man loose on the streets. Then you were so reserved and cold and Saturnine! If it hadn’t been for your coloring, we would have thought you were a changeling.”

“That’s what Aramil tells me — that I seem to be this impossibly cool, disdainful creature. In fact, I’m just struggling to mind my manners and keep everyone’s name straight. Things are so different here — it’s impossible to be lighthearted in company.”

“Yes, of course. And there’s never truly been any doubt that you’re one of us. It’s just that in your character, the emphasis is different.” Her sunny smile breaks through fully. “It’s nice to have you here. It makes me miss Inglorion less. And now that you have Ariadne, you’ll do all the things he never did — have a family, take your place in the city.”

“Oh, I hope so!” he says fervently. “It all seems so difficult and strange.”

“You will, my dear. It takes time, but the claims of family and race and city can’t be denied.”

One thought on “16. The Gallery

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s