19. Flashing Eyes

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

Ariadne is buried immediately, due to the fear of poison. At first, Valentine can’t grasp that she’s dead. Long before he asked her to be his wife, she was his inner audience, the kind, sympathetic listener we all long to have. At her funeral, he keeps thinking of little things he wants to tell her when he sees her again. Without her he feels unmoored, unable to think.

Over the next few weeks, he slips into a kind of paralysis. Night after night, when he tries to find his breath to slip into trance, he feels that he’s choking. He hears the terrible hacking and keening that Ariadne made. He sees her confusion and pain, hears the doctor ordering him back, “It’s poison! Don’t touch her!” When he tries to force himself to eat, nausea gags him.

He withdraws from people, shuts himself off from their gazes. Speaking seems like an overwhelming effort. He despairs of being understood, and feels that he’s forgotten High Elvish, though he thinks in it all the time. He’s reminded of long stretches in his childhood when he never spoke because there was no one to talk to and nothing to say. He remembers performing his duties, whatever they were, in monastic silence. Silence comforted him then, but the longer he went without speaking, the harder it became to find words and pronounce them at the right intervals, with the correct timing, intonation and volume. Now, as then, he sometimes doesn’t hear other people’s words or feels that he hasn’t decoded them, even when the meaning is plain. Lapsing into this state feels seductive. He wants to stop talking to these people, trying to understand them, striving to make himself understood.

Eventually he realizes that his state has become dangerous; he’s unable to ask for help and no one knows how to offer it. His demeanor becomes cold, severe — he looks as if he’s choked by rage and disgust. In truth he feels ashamed of his condition, and he starts to fear that he’ll do or say something outrageous — burst out sobbing or cursing. Grief is ugly, and Valentine feels he’s turned into a fragile vessel brimming over — an overfull slop jar, or a basin spattered with vomit. He’s irrationally afraid of being punished or cast out because he cannot calm himself.

And so he sends Aramil and Albertus excuses, refuses all invitations, and stops training. He withdraws to the little indigo room and leaves only to ride short distances aimlessly. After awhile, it starts feeling like too much trouble to saddle and bridle the roan horse. He experiences no comfort in solitude, merely the absence of the shame and anxiety he feels around others. At this stage, Valentine knows that he’s feeding his despair and cutting himself off from any possible source of solace.

He’s vaguely aware that Sieia and Xardic have guessed his predicament. If he searches his memory, he’s pretty certain that at some point he barked something awful at Sieia through the door. Xardic always delegates emotional tasks to her, so there’s little risk that he’ll insist on a man-to-man talk. Eventually Marcus might get involved as the head of the Shelawn family. Otherwise, no one has the authority to order him back from this inner precipice. They may not know he’s there.

By this time, Ariadne has been dead just over a month. It’s difficult for these well-meaning strangers to say for certain that their cold young relative has surrendered to despair, and is quickly losing his mind.

Because it was Inglorion’s, the indigo room is sheltered from sun and noise. It’s simple to shutter the little window and draw the brocade curtain, bar the French doors, draw the hangings closed around the little bed. In this dark, cool refuge, Valentine’s mind can spin free. After a time, images of Ariadne’s illness and death become worn from handling, and he’s no longer tempted to relive every instant of that last day. He turns to spending hours struggling to recapture every gesture and look of hers, every remark that passed between them. They spent so little time together — just hours, really. After that first, golden evening, they made love only three times. Even the most powerful erotic memories become stylized and fade, lose their power and flavor, and this is true for Valentine now. It’s too painful to try to make up anything that didn’t happen — to speculate about what further sweet interludes he could have arranged that summer, or what their married life might have been. When all his memories have become threadbare, he imagines her listening with sweet, puzzled sympathy as he tries to describe how much he misses her, and the symptoms of his grief.

As the light of the present dims, the past comes to life. He’s been far from home for more than six months. The isolation, silence and darkness of the indigo room allow the Underdark to return to him, first dimly, as a series of patterns against a dark backdrop, and then like an image in a camera obscure: distant, inverted, but startlingly clear. For many days, he strives to bring those strange images into focus, to describe them to the sympathetic presence of his dead love.

He arrived quickly at his current state partly because its early stages are so familiar. As a child, he had no free time, no privacy, no way to express himself, and very little security. Because he was a sensible lad, and naturally shy, he learned to defer to his captors completely. While some children would sneak glances at their superiors or even stare defiantly, and might sneak opportunities to give and seek touch, Valentine distinguished himself through perfect, formal obedience. As he grew older, his compliance became an expression of contempt and a source of strength, and Valentine found a tiny margin of freedom in living strictly according to the rules he’d been given.

It’s hard to imagine what would have become of him — how entirely he could have disappeared within himself — if he hadn’t been selected for weapons training and drafted into the army. The harsh training Valentine was subjected to taught him courage and endurance. Though he felt a natural dislike for pain, hunger, thirst and exhaustion, he discovered that he had a gift for tolerating all four. As he disciplined his body, he added to his little store of mental and spiritual freedom.

At first, he didn’t think to seek actual, physical escape. He knew that he’d come from another place entirely, but he had no way to envision it, and no realistic hope of seeing it. Existence aboveground, in the presence of the sun and moon and stars, was an abstract promise, much like heaven. Long before he trained to go aboveground, he carried out raids against Underdark predators and rival Drow clans. Now, looking back, he’s certain that he could have lived that harsh, almost entirely unrewarding life indefinitely.

The Drow exercise great caution when choosing whom to send aboveground. Slaves who are adapted to the Underdark — certain dwarves, gnomes and halflings, other Drow — are unlikely to flee, but also fight poorly and die easily aboveground. The ideal aboveground raider is physically adapted to sunlight and entirely loyal to the Drow. Valentine appeared to have that rare and valuable combination of qualities.

Valentine remembers his first sight of the sun, of course, but it’s far beyond his skill to describe, even to the kindest imaginary listener. He’d never truly seen color before. Though he’d been carefully briefed and his section leader allowed him time to adjust and recover, he was physically and emotionally overwhelmed by even the simplest sights: the sunrise, the midmorning sky. The oxygen-rich air made him feel giddy and strong; the scents of greenery and flowers seduced him. The sheer sensual pleasure staggered him. His loyalty to the Drow, never strong, evaporated entirely in the sun’s rays.

It took two years to plan and execute his escape. He knew that if he failed, he would be flogged and tortured. Worst of all, he’d be cashiered from the army and assigned to a punishment detail. The Drow rid themselves of disobedient slaves by assigning them to dangerous work: smelting, mining rare earths, placing and setting off explosives. A strong dwarf or human might last a year or two before being killed or crippled; realistically, if he’d been caught trying to escape, Valentine would have been dead inside of six months.

In a very real sense, Valentine’s decision to escape meant risking everything on a single roll of the dice. The risk was immediate and the odds were poor; he couldn’t afford any unforced errors. During that time, he shifted from a near-absolute silence of exhaustion and disgust to a more calculated discretion. He took possession of his silence, and chose his conduct and demeanor. Now, as he lies on his back in darkness — heavy brocade draperies blocking off all light and sound, eyes attuned to his own ghostly thermal signature — he remembers at least a measure of the diligence and self-sacrifice it took to get out alive and collapse at the feet of a trio of shocked wood elf scouts.

I don’t know why I did it, he tells Ariadne. Once I saw the sun, I couldn’t stop trying. I had no reasonable hope of learning where I came from. I never thought of love once. I was accelerating towards a brick wall. When you died, I made impact. I strove blindly for this blank, this gap, this hole. And now I’m here. Tears run down the sides of his face.

He feels the slave tattoo burning cold on the back of his left hand. After the first half-hour of adjustment to darkvision, there’s an additional seven days where the cells of the retina turn over. At the end, adaptation is complete. And now, when he holds his left hand in front of his face, he sees not just the bold X for Xyrec, but his full slave name, Charon, in a ghostly tracery:

Xάρων

He’s been told it means “flashing eyes.” He doesn’t know how it was assigned, or by whom. It’s always been a part of him.

He pushes himself up, parts the draperies around the bed. He fumbles around, finds the tinderbox, lights a candle. He thinks vaguely that he should light a votive on the shrine, try to calm himself for trance. He kneels before Corellon Larithian, candle in hand, mind spinning. There’s a fresh votive in its glass holder. He thinks, dully, I should light that. Just reach up and do it. He rests there for a long moment, lit candle in his nerveless hand. He can hear wax pattering on the ground. He blows out the candle, lies down again.

All along, Valentine has felt a certain horror and shame, knowing that he’s a gray elf by birth, but thoroughly Drow by breeding. Like any gray elf, he needs sunlight to see and to thrive. He has other innate qualities — his height and reach in battle, his fair skin, which gray elves prize and the Drow don’t notice.

Ariadne died in a library lined with books printed in High Elvish. She was tended by a doctor trained in a High Elven university. Her funeral was beautiful and solemn. Breisis and Augustus, Ariadne’s brother, dyed their clothes black, and Valentine donned a black armband. The knocker of her family home was bound in back crepe. Every night, Valentine lights a votive before Corellon Larithian and prays for light, understanding, compassion, reason, moderation — a gray elf god, with gray elf virtues. Intellectually, Valentine recognizes that these values are good and worthy, and he sees that the gray are comforted by their rituals. He is not.

All around him Liamelia prepares for war. Lawyers establish a causus belli. The gears of state grind, producing uniformed soldiers, maintaining alliances through treaties, levying taxes to pay for it all. Among the Drow, matters are simpler, quicker, more direct. A handwritten challenge: “Charon, we see you.” At home, he would have crushed the attackers without hesitation or mercy. Intellectually, Valentine knows that revenge is wrong. It leads to chaos and endless feuds, to a war of all against all. Knowing that, he thirsts so desperately for blood vengeance that he cannot eat or drink or rest.

Now, lying in absolute blackness, Valentine knows that his will and spirit are Drow. His iron will, his inhuman patience and calculation — these qualities are Drow. Valentine hates pain and suffering and deprivation at least as much as the gray do. He also understands that absolute, reckless physical courage and willingness to accept suffering confer great strength. Without risk, pain and suffering — without the possibility of death and loss — Valentine will certainly die.

To his horror and fascination, Valentine also sees that that he doesn’t care about just war and a measured, proportionate response. The Theates clan murdered Ariadne. No proportion, justice or balance will satisfy Valentine. He needs revenge, feels that he will die without it. He knows now that his Shelawn looks and coloring are a cosmic error. Valentine Charon Claudius Shelawn is a paper-thin gray elven wrapper around a molten, white-hot core of Drow. In the end, logic plays no role. It merely constructs an explanation after the fact.

The author must acknowledge a truth now. Valentine, our hero, is no better or worse than any other character you will find in these pages. He’s neither an angel, nor a demon. He’s simply ours, in the way that your father and mother are yours, and you are theirs. Given time and inspiration, we could, perhaps, write an equal or better tale about Inglorion’s mother, Philomela, Duchess Theates. She has the advantage of sharing the author’s sex, and of having survived a fate worse than death. Aramil would have made a fine hero — he’s charming, cheerful, dashing, and comes equipped with a sense of fun. He’s a bit of a rogue, and breaking his heart and taming him could have provided hours of entertainment. Inglorion is older, and his character has more depth; his story is, if anything, more pathetic than Valentine’s. Sieia is loving and attractive, and her essentially simple character is enriched by divided loyalties and nostalgia — nostalgia for events that never occurred, which is more poignant than nostalgia for anything that actually happened. Valentine is our hero, not because he’s particularly good, but because he arrived here first. By being close, he becomes dear. After all, to his closest associates, even Tereus Shelawn was tragic and noble — a hero, in short.

If Valentine were perfectly just, he would value Philomela and Ariadne’s lives equally, and would spare Philomela. However, like most of us, he is profoundly unjust — a passionate, loving creature. He would cheerfully sacrifice 1,000 Philomelas to bring Ariadne back, to taste her lips and bathe in her scent and feel her fingers twine in his hair again. Ariadne is a mousy little girl — not brilliant or gorgeous or brave — but she was his love, his own particular property, his heroine.

And so Valentine rises again, lights another candle. He does not light a votive, however. The business before him is not for Corellon Larithian. He need not wake the Bringer of Light.

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