Another episode of Man Raised by Spiders, the coming-of-age story of Valentine Shelawn.
Once he lights the candle, Valentine says aloud, “Fuck it.”
Before he can lose his nerve, he scrawls a note to Aramil:
Cousin, I need your help tonight with an urgent matter. Please come as soon as you receive this.
He summons a footman. “No reply — make him return with you. If he’s not at his lodgings, find him and bring him here.”
While he waits, he gathers up several fresh neckcloths, a basin, kindling and matches. He straps on his throwing daggers. He writes out a verse, in Drow and then High Elvish. Soon after, he hears the clatter of boots in the hall outside, and opens the French doors to admit Aramil.
“I came as soon as I could. What’s up? What do you need?”
Valentine has a strange, fixed, crooked smile on his face. “You want to see some crazy Drow shit?”
“Of course — anything you need.”
“There’s something the Drow do — an act of mourning. I need to do it. I can’t rest. I know it doesn’t make sense, but I have to do a ceremony, and then get a tattoo. I need someone with me — a witness.” He laughs suddenly. “I’m sorry — this probably seems totally weird. It is. I don’t understand it myself. But I have to do it. I have to.”
Aramil smiles a lopsided smile to match Valentine’s. “I’m here, man. Do what you have to do.”
“All right, then.” Valentine takes the basin, places it on the hearth. He fills it with kindling from the fireplace. He snuffs all the candles, plunging the room into darkness. As their dark vision kicks in, he lights a match, sets the kindling ablaze. Once it starts to catch, he begins to chant, first in High Elvish for Aramil’s benefit, then in Drow, for his own. At first his voice trembles, cracks:
The Theates clan murdered my beloved Ariadne. Blood for blood. Grief for grief. Pain for pain. Their blood will be my food. Their grief will be my rest. Their pain will heal me.
He sucks in a deep breath, releases it with a sound like a drawn-out sob. “The Theates clan murdered my beloved Ariadne.”
He draws a dagger, takes one of his long, white-gold locks, saws it off at the root, throws it into the basin to burn. “Blood for blood.” It catches fire quickly, burns with that characteristic, rank smell. “Grief for grief. Pain for pain.”
He keeps going, shearing off handfuls of hair, throwing them in, stirring the fire, fanning the flames. “Their blood will be my food. Their grief will be my rest. Their pain will heal me.”
The smoke thickens, stings his throat — for a moment it’s hard to breathe without choking. “The Theates clan murdered my beloved Ariadne.” He coughs, swallows. “Blood for blood.” His voice steadies, grows stronger. “Grief for grief.”
With his hair shorn to pale stubble, Valentine looks older. His face is almost gaunt. “Pain for pain.” There’s still a tenderness to the nape of his neck, ears and jaw. “Their blood will be my food.”
When the hair and kindling are all consumed, he rolls up his sleeve, loops one of the neckcloths around his bicep to form a tourniquet. “Their grief will be my rest.”
Now Aramil sucks in a breath to steady himself. “Their pain will heal me.” Valentine makes a fist with his right hand, waits for veins to pop up. “The Theates clan murdered my beloved Ariadne.” He draws a fresh dagger.
Aramil chokes, turns away, forces himself to look back. “Blood for blood.” Aramil reels with a giddy sense of unreality, though he can smell the smoke, feel the heat of the flames against his cheeks. “Grief for grief.”
Valentine visibly steels himself, draws the edge across his exposed forearm. “Pain for pain.” Aramil sees the blade catch the skin briefly before Valentine bears down, slicing through. “Their blood will be my food.”
Aramil’s stomach cramps sickeningly with sympathetic pain. “Their grief will give me rest.”
The blood begins as a trickle. “Their pain will heal me.” Valentine holds his arm over the basin, tilting it to force the drops to fall. “The Theates clan murdered my beloved Ariadne.”
The blood drips slowly, reluctantly, so he makes a second, parallel cut. “Blood for blood.”
It patters down quickly now. “Grief for grief.” He releases the tourniquet. “Pain for pain.”
When the ashes are drenched, he takes a second neckcloth, stanches the bleeding. He tries to bind the wound, but the neckcloth keeps slipping. “Their blood will be my food.”
Aramil reaches over, and together they pull the bandage tight, knot it off. “Their grief will give me rest.”
Valentine presses his palms to his eyes for a moment, rocks himself, draws a series of a long, sucking breaths. “Their pain will heal me.”
He plunges his fingers into the basin, mixes the blood and ashes into a paste, smears the mixture on his face, from hairline to jaw, until he’s covered everything — cheeks, forehead, chin — lips, eyelids, nostrils — turning his face an eerie reddish black. His hands fall to his sides. His shoulders are heaving, his throat working painfully.
Valentine turns to face his cousin. He sees that Aramil’s cheeks are wet, his jaw is clenched, and his hands are trembling.
Valentine says, “Aramil Shelawn, you are my witness. The Theates clan murdered my beloved Ariadne. Blood for blood. Grief for grief. Pain for pain. Their blood will be my food. Their grief will give me rest. Their pain will heal me.”
Slowly, Valentine re-lights the candles, including the votives on the shrine, washes and dries his face and hands. It’s impossible to get all the soot out — traces linger on his hairline and knuckles.
As Valentine turns back to his cousin, Aramil hugs him for a long, silent moment. Valentine remains wary and stiff, strains away quickly from the embrace, but it seems to steady him.
Aramil wipes his eyes and nose, collects himself. “Now what?” he asks.
“Now we find a tattoo parlor.”