23. A Sense of Imminent Loss

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

In the wake of the battle for Liamelia, Valentine feels that he is slipping away, releasing his hold on the city and its people, the family he thought he’d found. His grief finds some solace when he memorializes his 10 kills with another tattoo, but the completion of a Drow ritual highlights yet another difference between him and the gray elves who are ostensibly his people.

Ariadne’s death changes everything, of course. It unspoken — or has not been spoken yet — but he feels that his future among the gray elves is no longer assured. There will be no rich wife to take him off Xardic’s hands, to ease the transition to civic respectability. Gently-bred gray elves are encouraged to take a profession, though it can be relatively idle and refined, like translating ancient texts or the design and repair of musical instruments. Drow economy and material culture differ completely from that of gray elves, making Valentine woefully unprepared for any profession besides soldiering. Enlisting is unthinkable for a Shelawn, so he continues to be a mascot around the barracks.

His importance is diminished in other ways. Xardic no longer consults him on intelligence matters. Valentine’s aware, too, that his role in the actual battle was small. He fought bravely, but he commanded no troops. In any case, the gray don’t value battle experience like the Drow do. Now that the Drow have been defeated, dinner guests are much less interested in their habits and customs, and Valentine is no longer a celebrity. He’s a tiresome fellow who has to have every common fact of life explained to him, who’s still bewildered by the complex ties that motivate the gray. He’s ignorant of so much: public and private history, day-to-day know-how, useful skills. He has no money of his own, and the lack of fighting to be done exposes the gaps in his education. His near-illiteracy galls Xardic. He asks Valentine how his studies are going whenever they meet, and Valentine suspects that he receives regular progress reports from Albertus.

The reports may not be particularly good. Xardic would like his newfound cousin to be a potential scholar or diplomat, though he would accept a budding general. Valentine is bright, but not bookish — writing and penmanship exercises quickly pall on him. He finds the leisurely pace and lack of structure in Liamelia galling. Out of habit, he reverts to the familiar structure of his military life. He studies a bit, but for several weeks following the battle spends most of his time drilling with troops and on his own.

The idea of family is abstract to him — he understands that these kindly near-strangers feel a deep, unquestioned tie to him, but he feels no reciprocal tie. There is little to connect him to his cousins’ daily rhythms and activities. Neither Aramil nor Xardic is a companion he would choose. He feels brotherly affection for Sieia, their differences in age, sex and station preclude real friendship.

In the end, Valentine lacks not only outward station, but the means to obtain and maintain it. He has natural family ties and actual, real family, but these puzzle him profoundly. The deprivation of captivity was radical. Drow deliberately cut all close family ties in the name of the clan and the city-state. Daily custom in the Underdark enforces and celebrates hierarchy: who can touch whom, who is permitted to look at whom. In such an environment, even a relatively privileged slave is deprived of physical intimacy, not to mention friendship. As a result, though Valentine feels affection for Sieia, for example, he’s inhibited by the fact that he has no idea how cousins act towards each other, or how a brother treats a sister. Valentine finds his situation agonizing precisely because he’s fundamentally affectionate. Though he has no memory of parents or siblings, he must have learned from them in preverbal ways. He can go into trance, and he feels passionate physical longing of which sexual desire is a relatively small share. The brief time — just a few hours total — that he spent with Ariadne showed him what was possible, and also taught him to long for it.

When he first arrived in Liamelia, Valentine severely curtailed his speech and behavior, and spent a good deal of time struggling to understand the culture around him. He’s mastered everything from the use of silverware to riding horseback, but every day he learns of some new deficiency that must be remedied. If he’s honest with himself, he admits that he’s exhausted by the constant calculations needed to seem normal and civilized; he feels inhibited, drained and frustrated, and as a result, he seems colder and more rigid than ever.

The greatest outward symbol of difference is his relationship with weapons and military life. Valentine can fight with long and short swords, and he’s a crack shot with a longbow, but he’s much more comfortable with classic Drow weapons — rapier, dagger and crossbow — and with the tactics associated with them. More to the point, though he’s confident he can defend himself hand-to-hand with no weapons at all, it feels deeply unnatural not to wear them. Drow clan identity is built primarily on combat style, and to Valentine’s constant amusement and occasional distress, his subtle and gradated knowledge, everything he would use to classify an acquaintance or opponent, is entirely unknown and irrelevant in Liamelia.

This is the oddest and most inescapable fact of all: Valentine feels a certain weary disgust with the life he lead in Xyrec — the endless training, the tendency to see every public and private encounter in terms of a battle or a brawl. But the attitudes in him and the skills he developed are a fundamental part of Valentine’s personality and how he solves problems. A Xyrec warrior is said to sleep with his boots on — to always be combat-ready. This is uncomfortable in Physryk, but exhausting and absurd in a culture preoccupied with morning calls and conducting official business, whatever that is. Instead of Country Mouse, Valentine is Combat Mouse.

A Xyrec warrior would strip and start hitting a punching bag without a second thought, just to while away a few extra moments. A gray elf in Liamelia is expected to apologize if he appears publicly in riding dress or muddy boots. If a Xyrec warrior is always combat-ready, a proper gray elf expends a good deal of energy creating the impression that mud, sweat and the smell of horses are unknown to him. Valentine understands that now he lives in a world of rainfall and sunlight, where horses are the primary mode of transportation, and he understands that life would be intolerably squalid if gray elves didn’t enforce standards and follow procedures. The gray have silk carpets and marble floors, and only an asshole forgets to put his boots out to be cleaned and spends the following day tracking mud and horseshit across expensive surfaces. But it’s not merely a matter of habit — it’s a matter of identity, of subconscious expectations about what the day could possibly hold. Gray homes are secure and remote, and therefore harmonious, luxurious, peaceful. Valentine finds them lovely, poignant, even. He marvels at details that the gray overlook, dismiss, find tiresome or take for granted: fresh bed linens and ornate rugs; galleries, libraries and archives; paper, ink and pens, sealing wax in a rainbow of colors; ribbons and colored thread.

As much as he marvels at these beauties, they are fundamentally at odds with his upbringing. Inevitably Valentine alternates between pride in his differences and contempt for these soft strangers, and shame at his lack of skill and refinement. He feels he is in a permanent state of transgression, and he is unsure whether to blame his kind but uncomprehending hosts, or his naive, well-intentioned and ill-equipped self. He is accustomed to making life-or-death decisions on the battlefield, but is anxious and inhibited when forced to mime normal social behavior.

A Xyrec warrior takes pride in not fucking around. Other Xyrec mottoes are, “If you start something, I’ll finish it” and “Bring the battle home — strike fast, finish strong, leave no opponent standing.” The Avril and Cyrx use poison and ranged weapon attacks, respectively. The Xyrec response is to shift any confrontation to more favorable territory — an open fight at close range with fists or an edged weapon — and to a decisive conclusion. The Cyrx don’t plink crossbow bolts at a lone Xyrec warrior because if they do, he won’t rest until he’s flushed the archer from cover, slit his throat, used his ammunition for kindling, robbed him of any valuables, and either left a calling card on his cooling corpse or hung the unlucky archer’s breastplate from the Xyrec family watchtower. Likewise, the Xyrec don’t beat up random Cyrx because they don’t savor the idea of the Cyrx taking payback shots until 6-12 Xyrec have been killed or crippled in sniper attacks.

Valentine recognizes that both attitudes are barbaric. He’s also been firmly indoctrinated with Xyrec attitudes, habits and modes of thought. He owes his life to his skill in combat, and to the aphorisms and teachings of the Xyrec. Thought he was the lowest and most despised of Drow warriors, he is thoroughly, deeply Xyrec and Drow. Civilized men may deplore the waste, idle luxury and economic exploitation of empire; with few exceptions, they do not give up agriculture, burn their granaries, and take up a nomadic life hunting buffalo on the Great Plains. Likewise, Valentine dislikes violence and deprivation, but finds it almost impossible to mind crops, fill a granary, start keeping tax records.

After the battle for Liamelia, a sense of imminent loss haunts Valentine. He becomes preoccupied with the thought that everything could be taken from him, that Liamelia itself could be swept away.  After all, his mother, father and siblings are merely an absence to him. He’s radically separated from his home — from its terrain, rhythms and sensations. He found and won Ariadne, only to have her disappear suddenly and completely. In trance, Valentine continues to review his history, to add to the story he tells himself about himself. As he learns more of life, tracing and retracing his history is becoming more uncomfortable. He is slowly learning just how much he has lost.

As he broods on these matters, Valentine often thinks of Inglorion, how he’s loathed and feared. He tries to imagine the crisis that drove him from the fringes of Liamelia to the Theates clan. Valentine feels that Inglorion is his photographic negative, his white-hot IR signature. Valentine is a true son of Liamelia, but utterly alien; Inglorion is a foreign element that the civic body must expel. Increasingly, Valentine dwells on the solution Inglorion found: exile.

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