Another episode of Man Raised by Spiders, the coming-of-age story of Valentine Shelawn.
Valentine’s day begins with a series of pleasantly efficient jailhouse negotiations. For a reasonable sum, he secures not only clean linens and a hot meal, but a late-night snack service called “tea,” permission to bring a change of clothing and spare socks, and 24-hour jail access for himself.
“I would have bought you conjugal visits, too,” he tells Aramil, “but I wasn’t certain you could produce a plausible wife on short notice, and I didn’t want to waste Xardic’s money.” He plops down on the stool that the guard has thoughtfully placed outside of Aramil’s cell.
“You’re awfully chipper,” says Aramil sourly. “I guess you didn’t wake up to a palm-sized cockroach in your washbasin.”
“Or felony charges. Don’t do the crime if you can’t take the time, cousin. That’s the first rule of thug life. Or is it, ‘Money over bitches?’”
“Much you know about bitches. What’s going on? Have you seen my father?”
“There was a full-on family meeting last night. It doesn’t look good. They’re determined to press charges. Xardic thinks you’ll have to plead guilty or stand trial. Your mother’s taken to her bed. Your father thinks you’re ruined.”
“Well, yes.” Valentine slides a bundle of clothes through the cell bars. “Put these on. They changed your sheets, right? You don’t want lice on top of everything else.”
“Lice?” Aramil strips, changes, bundles up his dirty clothes.
Valentine gestures imperiously. “Hand them over. I’ll have them taken care of.”
“What happens next?”
“I’m not sure. I suppose Marcus will find you a lawyer. They’ll offer you some kind of plea bargain.”
“You really don’t mind this, do you? I’m totally fucked, and you’re acting like nothing happened.” Aramil’s expression is sullen, but there’s also that slight bit of curiosity.
“I’m the Man Raised by Spiders. You can’t expect me to see it like the rest of the family does. I don’t know how to have the vapors. I could lecture you about the honor of the Shelawn family, but I might not be able to keep a straight face. You’re not totally fucked, Aramil. Look — the way you’ve lived, I know you see it that way. There’s a blank wall marked ‘Totally Fucked,’ and you can’t imagine what’s on the other side.”
“What are you talking about?”
“What’s the worst thing you can imagine? The worst possible outcome from all this?”
“Standing trial and being convicted. Getting sentenced to 20 years.”
“If that happens — if you’re publicly humiliated, get convicted and sentenced, sent to the Big House, your mother and father screeching the whole way, you still have to wake up the next day, the first day of your prison sentence. You have to figure out what to eat, how to get clean linen and dry socks and toilet paper, make sure you don’t get lice or tuberculosis, learn the power structure, make allies, have some kind of plan. There are infinite shades of fucked, cousin.” He pauses. “Come on, this is a stroke of luck for me. I get to feel useful. I’m lucky you’re not getting married — I’d be shit for a best man.”
Aramil grins weakly. “Who says I’d pick you?”
“That’s what I’m saying. If you did, you’d be stuck planning your own bachelor party. Here I can make myself useful. I bet I’m the only guy you know who’s planned a successful prison break.”
“But can you fence stolen goods?”
“Nope. You’ve got me there. Look, Aramil, I wish this hadn’t happened. It fucking sucks. If you’d asked me beforehand, I would have strongly advocated against a life of crime.” They both fall silent for a moment.
Aramil keeps trying to fiddle with his rings, being surprised by their absence. He says softly, “I was miserable. Bored, frustrated, aimless. I felt like a caged animal a lot of the time.”
Valentine is surprised, touched. “You were?”
“Oh, yeah. I was losing my shit. I thought you knew. My mom thought it would help if you trained me — it would give me direction, you would be a steadying influence. In some ways, it made it worse. I could tell you had a real life, serious things — spy shit, combat. You fought the Drow. I couldn’t enlist.”
Valentine shakes his head. “I didn’t know.” He thinks back on that time, his own confusion. “It sounds stupid, but I assumed you were all happy. To me it looked like, ‘The sun’s shining! There are clean towels everywhere! Fresh fruit and vegetables for everyone!’ I thought you guys had it all figured out. I was an illiterate, a virgin, had never ridden on horseback.”
“You were a virgin?”
“Yes, Captain Obvious. I’m not anymore, if that helps.” He glares at Aramil. “Wipe that grin off your face, cousin.”
Aramil says merrily, “You don’t seem like a such a slow-top.”
“I paid to have your laundry cleaned, Aramil. I can pay to have you shanked.”
Aramil adopts a solemn expression. “Go on. You were saying?”
“I was done. You were saying you were miserable.”
“I was fucking bored.” Aramil looks at Valentine thoughtfully. “Weren’t you? I mean, when you weren’t spying or fighting.”
“Oh, hell yeah. I was bored all the time. I thought it was just me being Combat Mouse.”
“You know the story about Country Mouse and City Mouse. I’m not either. I’m Combat Mouse.”
“Combat Mouse, hm? Not Jailhouse Mouse? Or Spider Mouse?”
“Combat Mouse,” says Valentine firmly. “The point is, yeah, I was bored. I felt stifled. If you want the truth, after Ariadne died, I was thinking of leaving Liamelia for awhile.”
“Yeah. For some reason, I didn’t hit on armed robbery as a solution.”
Aramil nods. “It’s understandable. For an escaped slave, a felony conviction is a step down.”
“Well, that’s what I thought. Keep it classy, you know.” He sighs. “Shit. I should check in with the family, tell Penelope you haven’t been eaten by rats, or suffered a fate worse than death.”
“Rape, my dear boy.”
“Nope. I haven’t even jacked off. It’s too bright in here.”
“Well, you have clean socks from home. So that’s solved.”
“Is that how it works?”
“I’m afraid so. Let’s see, what would Penelope say? Oh, yes!” Valentine buries his face in his hands, sobs, “Vulgar wretch!”
“She called you that?”
“I think it was you, actually. Some nasty Shelawn man or another.”