17. The Carnival

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

Valentine and Ariadne are relaxing on a garden bench, waiting for Aramil to show up for a midmorning weapon lesson. Ariadne is reading a novel, and Valentine is lying with his head in her lap, observing the bees’ trajectories as they shuttle to and fro with loads of pollen.

Aramil strides up scolding, “This is a sad spectacle — I could have killed you five times coming through the trees just now. You’re a poor example to youth, Valentine.”

Valentine sits up slowly, stretches like a cat, says affably, “I’m encouraged to hear that your archery has improved since we last practiced. Unless — perhaps you were talking about a generic enemy? One who could actually shoot? You know, there’s something familiar about the way you crash through the underbrush. It’s like a tiny, slow boar is coming to visit.”

“Well, this tiny, slow boar has excellent news. The carnival is here!” Aramil pulls out a handbill, reads from it. “We’re promised ‘juggling, knife-throwing, fire breathing, fortune-telling,’ and one freak of unspecified nature. ‘Performances all afternoon and into the evening, five copper pieces per head, one silver piece per family. All are welcome,’ it says. Elves raised by spiders and their prospective brides are particularly encouraged to attend.”

“Oh, Aramil! Such good news for you! Your people! I assume you’ve scheduled an audition? Unless — you said they already have a juggler, but perhaps he’ll take you on as an apprentice!”

“Oh, I know — you’re above such trivial enjoyments. Your bride isn’t, though.”

Valentine turns to Ariadne. “Would it give you pleasure?” She nods vigorously, eyes wide with excitement. “Then of course we’ll go. We should take Sieia, too. We’ll ask her, and order the carriage to be ready at noon. You and I can train while the ladies attire themselves.”

The carnival is just setting up when they arrive. It’s just a couple of rows of shabby booths and trailers, and the pace is leisurely. There’s no crowd yet — presumably things pick up at dusk. “This is perfect!” Aramil says. “We can really take our time and see everything.” And as they start to drift from booth to booth, it’s a great way to spend a lazy afternoon. Ariadne and Aramil take uncritical pleasure in every spectacle; Sieia is her usual bubbly self; Valentine enjoys Ariadne’s childlike enjoyment. They spend quite awhile with the fire-handlers at Aramil’s insistence. They’re true professionals, a hardened, tattooed team of three men and a woman, each of whom likes nothing more than to set objects ablaze and manipulate them in different ways. After this, Aramil flirts extravagantly with a young, buxom Gypsy fortune-teller who sees in his palm that he has a swarthy, dark-eyed lass in his immediate future; he claims to know that she’s about to fall wildly in love with a black-haired, green-eyed elf. He allows Sieia to drag him away, while Valentine says, “No! Leave him! He’s clearly destined for Gypsy life.”

The juggler is also in the knife-throwing business, much to Aramil’s delight. He’s reluctant to perform for an audience of four, but after a bit of wheedling from Aramil, he calls his assistant out, and they get to work. His lovely assistant, a stocky, phlegmatic Gypsy girl, climbs onto the target platform with little fanfare, spreading her legs and arms wide so that the knife-thrower can buckle her down into conveniently-placed leather cuffs. Once he’s got her in place, she stands patiently, with the air of someone who’s making, if not easy money, then money that requires little skill or initiative.

The knife-thrower gets to work, making a show of pulling highly ornamented daggers from his bandoleer, hefting them, taking careful aim. All six land with an impressive, quivering thud in a predetermined location: one by either ear, one in each armpit, and two between her spread thighs. Except for Ariadne, the party is underwhelmed; he’s throwing from 15 feet at a fixed target. Valentine and Sieia trade glances, and drift over to the next booth, which promises ice-cold strawberry lemonade.

It takes awhile to find the lemonade seller, a fat old lady sitting and fanning herself under a nearby tree. She seems to feel unequal to the task of selling lemonade on a hot day. Just as she heaves a gusty sigh and starts to push herself to her feet, Aramil trots up and says, “Son of Spiders is needed back at the juggling booth.” He looks a little sheepish and adds, “I told him you can throw daggers by quick-draw and while blindfolded, and he insisted it’s not possible. We have a little wager going.”

Valentine shakes his head mournfully. “It will serve you right to lose the bet, Aramil. You’ve never seen me throw a dagger. For all you know, I wear them for show.”

“No, no, you wouldn’t do that. I know you can do quick-draw — you do everything quickly in combat. Come on, it’s a small wager. It’ll be fun! Ariadne’s excited to see it. And so’s the knife-thrower.”

“Oh, very well,” says Valentine, “but afterwards we’re going to sip lemonade and sit in the shade like rational creatures. Ariadne’s got a lot of sun already.”

They allow the lemonade seller to slide back into her natural torpor, and stroll over to the knife-throwing booth. “The wager is simple,” says Aramil. “One silver piece says you can beat his time throwing six knives at a live target, without any loss of accuracy. Two silver pieces says you can hit the bull’s-eye blindfolded.”

The setup is quickly determined: the knife-thrower will go first, timed by Aramil’s watch. Valentine will beat his time using his four daggers and two borrowed ones. “I’ll need to take a practice throw with each of yours,” Valentine says. “I’m not throwing an untested knife at a live target.”

The knife-thrower lines up. When Aramil gives the word, he methodically delivers six knives to target. “Fourteen seconds,” says Aramil.

“So I have to beat that time, with the same placement?” says Valentine. He says to the assistant, “If you’ll step down, I’ll take a couple of practice throws.” The knife-thrower hands Valentine two daggers, which he tucks into his belt loops. Valentine lines up, hefts and throws both knives, sinking them side by side in bull’s-eye. “Oh, yeah, those will do.” He looks over at the assistant. “Are you comfortable with this?”

She shrugs, hops up, pulls the knives out, hands them to Valentine, then silently steps up to the target, adopts the crucifixion pose.

“Aramil, give me a count backwards from three, and start the timer on one.” He sticks the borrowed daggers back in his belt loops, lines up in a resting pose, arms by his sides.

“Three… two… one.”

Six knives hammer into the wood in quick succession. It’s over so fast that it’s anticlimactic.

“Four seconds,” says Aramil. Everyone looks a bit stunned and disappointed, then Ariadne lets out a little cheer.

Valentine laughs, turns to the knife-thrower. “Well, that was terrible showmanship. I think we just demonstrated why you take your time.”

He joins in Valentine’s laughter. “Yes — it’s impressive, but it wouldn’t draw a crowd.”

“I like those knives of yours. I thought they were a bit fancy-looking, but they’re a pleasure to throw. Of course you need good tools to do this perfectly day after day.”

“Looks like I owe you gentlemen a silver piece.”

“Not at all. We used your equipment and took up your time. In any case, we have to forfeit the second bet. I don’t throw blindfolded.”

“No? Your friend here seemed so certain.”

“Aramil misunderstood how I’ve trained. I can throw without ambient light, using the target’s heat signature. But that’s not much of a stunt — it’s just dark vision.”

The knife-thrower admires Valentine’s Drow daggers, and they leave on excellent terms, with handshakes all around.

“I thought you could fight blindfolded,” says Aramil as they’re walking away. He sounds disappointed.

“Oh, God, no,” says Valentine. “Drow can fight blind with melee weapons, but it would take years for me to learn, if I could do it at all. I think they use a combination of echolocation and kinesthetic sense. As for ranged weapons — I’m sure there are Cyrx archers who can shoot blind, but I’ve never seen a Xyrec warrior even try. Fighting blind is real badass shit.”

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