28. Twenty Questions

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

To while away the time in jail, Valentine and Aramil play a game they call 20 Questions, which really just consists of them asking each other things they wouldn’t normally ask. Aramil reclines on his cot; Valentine is kicked back with his feet propped up on the cell bars, the stool balanced on two legs. They study the abstract pattern of the ceiling, with its stains from water leaks, rust and mold growth. It has a kind of irregular, cloud-like beauty, though the colors are different: rust and viridian against a backdrop of pale gray-green institutional paint.

Aramil starts off. “How did you manage to remain a virgin all that time?”

“Lack of opportunity. There are women everywhere — I trained with a lot of them — but Drow women were strictly off limits. Early on, before I was in the military, if I looked any Drow in the face, I’d be flogged. And even later, there were guys who tried, but that seemed to me like a quick way to get your cock cut off. My attitude was, ‘My cock and I are playing a long game. I can wait.’”

“But weren’t there other prisoners? Servants? Something?”

“Oh, yeah, of course. But slaves are prisoners of war, usually other races. So you’d be in with this jumble of half-orcs, dwarves, humans, maybe a sad halfling or two. I don’t know about you, but I don’t fancy those dwarf chicks. And, to be fair, it would be a hard sell. They don’t go to sleep dreaming of some pale, little elf. ‘Mmm, those violet eyes! He’s so… refined and tiny…’ Prisoners and slaves tend to stick with their own kind, and I was a rare little bird in the Underdark. What about you? How did you manage to lose your virginity?”

“Dad sent me to a whorehouse when I was 15,” Aramil says in a matter-of-fact tone.

What?” Valentine almost tips over backwards, rights the stool with difficulty. “Uncle Marcus sent you to a whorehouse? Really?”

“Oh, yeah. It’s a pretty typical arrangement. He gave me a French letter, said, ‘You won’t use one of these with your wife,’ which at the time raised more questions in my mind than it answered, and gave me the address of a classy little establishment. No cheap molls, only young ladies of refinement.”

Valentine is appalled. “You just show up and…”

“Well, you know, some of them specialize in that kind of work. They’re sweet, jolly girls. It’s an easy paycheck for them. And I will say, you don’t leave with any questions unanswered. If you’re curious about something beyond the curriculum, she’ll just say, ‘Of course, love — that’ll be three gold pieces.’ I think I ran a tab for awhile, then Dad told me to make my own arrangements.”

“Did Penelope know?”

“I suppose she must have. She does the household accounts. I’m sure there’s a line item.”

“No wonder she thinks you’re a vulgar wretch. Is that usual here?”

“It’s not unusual, certainly.”

“I don’t think I could do that,” says Valentine with a shudder.

“I think you’d find that you could. Like I say, they’re sweet girls. Not educated — half-elves and wood elves, mostly — a bit down on their luck. Most of them are lovely. I think the first one, Molly, had a crush on me,” he says naively. “After all, it’s not like I’m some sailor on shore leave. My turn. So, Sir Spider, what’s the nicest thing about coming aboveground?”

“Oh, that’s easy. Sunlight. Clouds. Rain. The sky. Everything’s so beautiful.”

Aramil pauses, feels his way. “What’s the hardest thing?”

Valentine looks away uncomfortably for a long time — so long that Aramil thinks he won’t answer. “I’m not sure I can explain it. Okay. So, after the funeral I was standing in the hall with Sieia. You know how people are always kind of relieved and happy after a funeral? So, people were almost jocular. I felt blank. Numb. Like I’d been left back at the cemetery. Breisis came up to us, and I could see that she felt the same way — just gutted. I shook her hand and said goodbye. Sieia just looked at her in that way she has. She opened her arms, and that terrible old woman snuggled up to her. Breisis cried and cried, and Sieia held her for he longest time. I mean, it went on and on. I felt tense and uncomfortable and like I should sneak away. Finally Sieia let her go, and Briesis put on her coat and left.

“Ever since then, I keep thinking, I have no fucking idea how that works — how Sieia knew to hug her, and could just be so kind and patient and hold her for so long. And how Breisis could seek that comfort and accept it.

“The hardest thing is, I’m really scared something’s missing in me.” As Valentine says these things, he can’t look at Aramil — he’s sitting hunched over, arms wrapped around himself. “It’s not just being illiterate and not knowing how to ride or dance or use silverware. It’s not knowing how to touch people and look at them and talk to them. She was my heart — she connected me to everything. I thought, it’s not too late. I’ll have a family. We’ll have children. We’ll figure this out together. I felt like I knew how to talk to her and touch her.

“Then she was dead, and I thought, Fuck it. I can’t do this. I lost too much. I need that promise of love and family and I need her. If I can’t have her, I quit.” He falls silent for a long time. He looks back at Aramil, who’s watching him from his little prison cot, under his thin blanket that smells of bleach. “It wasn’t just losing her. I felt like I lost everything all over again. Which is fucking childish — the big, bad universe kicked me in the nuts and I’m going to lie here and refuse to get up until the gods see that they were mean to me, and — what? Apologize? Pick me up and dust me off tenderly? Great fucking strategy.” He shrugs. “So I cut all my hair off, sliced my arm open, got a tattoo. The Drow aren’t stupid — they know how to shift pain into the body, make it concrete. Change the terms of the argument from ‘Woe is me’ to ‘Fuck it. I always feel better after I kill something.’”

He stops. He’s staring down at his hands, remembering how he was forced to strip his clothes off and burn them, wash her scent from his hands, put her in the ground. “I’m sorry. All this is so stupid. I don’t know what I’m saying. I don’t understand anything. I don’t know anything.”

Aramil says, “Hey, cousin.”

“Yeah?”

Aramil stands up, slips his hand through the cell bars. Valentine looks at it uncomprehendingly. Aramil says, “Come on, man,” and Valentine reaches over, grips his cousin’s hand. After a moment, he leans against the bars. His movements are graceless and ugly. Aramil says softly, “You don’t have to understand.” He strokes Valentine’s short, fine hair. “You were so good to her.” He’s searching for words. “Ah, shit — she died knowing you loved her. Not everyone gets that.” After a long moment he adds, “And I am so fucking grateful you’re here. If it weren’t for you, I’d be the prison wife of some half-orc sailor. And I’d have lice.”

Valentine gives a bark of laughter, pulls away, reclaims his stool. “Am I standing in the way of love? Shit, man, I hear once you go orc you can’t go back.”

“You can’t go back because no decent elf will have you.”

“Thanks for being willing to go to jail. I had this romantic idea about family where we’d all sit around hugging in the ancestral mansion and inheriting money from each other. Turns out it’s more like, ‘Congratulations! Your uncle committed an unspeakable crime, so you were born into the middle of a blood feud involving your bastard half-cousin. You’ve got another cousin in jail for crimes he admits he committed, and everyone looks down on you because you don’t know which fork to use at dinner. Enjoy!’”

Aramil gives a rude snort of laughter. “You ungrateful little Drow bitch! Before you got here I’d never seen the inside of a tattoo parlor. I learned things in the men’s room of Hairy Tattoos that I can’t un-know.”

Valentine adopts a spurious air of compassion. “Which one was it? The nun with the hot dogs? She seemed like a sweet, jolly creature. She might not be a real nun. It’s easy money for them, you know. And it’s not like a hot dog is a sailor on shore leave.”

“Shut up and bring me my half-orc prison husband, you vulgar wretch.”

They lapse into silence. As Valentine sits contemplating his newfound ability to accept comfort and kindness, a guard bawls down the corridor, “Visitor for Caramel Shoelorn!”

A small, bookish-looking elf with red hair and sallow skin comes around the corner. He looks to be an Arahir, and sure enough, introduces himself by saying, “Aramil Shelawn? I’m Sulla Arahir — a second cousin through your grandmother, Lavinia. Xardic Ceralac asked me to represent you in the matter you have pending before the criminal court.” He and Aramil exchange bows, and Sulla casts an inquiring look at Valentine.

“My cousin, Valentine Shelawn,” Aramil says.

Valentine steps forward to shake hands, and Sulla says, “Valentine. An unusual name. It sounds familiar.”

“We’re related in some fashion,” Valentine offers. “My father, Lucius, was married to Valeria Arahir.”

Sulla makes the connection, apparently finds it awkward. “Of course, yes, I’ve heard of you. Your child name was Claudius.” He turns back to Aramil. “I’ve met with the prosecutor and the magistrate at the mayor’s request. I’ve come to explain the charges they’re prepared to bring, and the evidence they have.” He’s no older than Valentine, but Sulla’s manner is pompous and formal. Aramil stiffens visibly. Valentine stood to greet him, so Sulla gestures towards the stool and says, “May I?”

Aramil replies mockingly, “Yes, by all means, have a seat. I apologize that I can’t offer you refreshment.” He perches on the edge of his unmade jail cot. Valentine crosses his arms and leans against the corridor wall. Though he doesn’t realize it, he’s a forbidding figure: tall, tattoos visible around his collar and cuffs, wearing boots, spurs, and an expression best described as Resting Badass Face. Sulla reaches into a legal file, starts arranging papers on his lap. Once they’re laid out to his satisfaction, he glances at Valentine, then at Aramil. “Would your cousin care to leave us?”

“No. He wouldn’t,” says Valentine.

“All right, then,” says Sulla. In a surprisingly sonorous voice, he begins to read a list of charges stemming from the most recent robbery. Their number and variety is surprising, especially to two young men unacquainted with the gray elven legal system. After several moments Sulla pauses to flip to a second sheet, clears his throat, and reads off a more detailed list of charges connected with the stolen goods found in Aramil’s lodgings, and the robberies associated with them. Throughout the performance, Valentine deliberately focuses his gaze on Sulla, and ignores Aramil’s attempts to get his attention. Sulla pauses once more, then, unbelievably, locates and starts to read from a third list, a troublingly thorough summary of evidence connected with the first set of charges.

Aramil cuts him off. “So what you’re saying is, I’m fucked.”

Sulla titters at Aramil’s language. “Your legal position is extremely difficult, yes.”

“Most of us would call that ‘fucked.’”

“Yes, if you like. The evidence I’ve read to you is only the beginning, you know.” As he studies Aramil, the lenses of Sulla’s glasses catch the light, obscuring his dark brown eyes. Aramil is frightened, feels that Sulla is goading him. Sulla senses that Aramil would have casually bullied him in school. Both of them are young enough to react instinctively from their respective social positions.

Valentine breaks in, his voice quiet and calm. “Sulla, does the prosecutor seem inclined to offer a plea bargain?”

“We only had a very preliminary discussion, but he’s inclined to proceed with the case.” Aramil slumps back like a marionette whose strings have been cut.

“What about the magistrate?” Valentine asks.

Sulla taps his pen thoughtfully. “Right now, his role in the case is informal. He’s inclined to help, but politically his situation is difficult. The same is true for Xardic. Neither of them can afford to be seen to excuse a series of violent felonies because the perpetrator happens to belong to a prominent family.”

Aramil seems inclined to take issue with Sulla’s words. Valentine quells him with a look and says, “Sulla, we’re very much in your hands. If you see a solution that would be agreeable to all parties… Xardic mentioned a suspended sentence in exchange for banishment. In your opinion, is that a real possibility?”

Sulla presses his fingertips together, considers. “I can open a discussion around the possibility.”

“You’d be doing the family a great service. It’s a difficult situation.” Sulla nods, notes something in the margin of one of his lists. Valentine continues, “Do you get the sense that there’s any enmity against the Shelawns or against Aramil in particular? Or are the parties looking to reach an agreement?”

“The latter,” says Sulla quickly. “They just need to come up with a solution that allows everyone to save face.”

Valentine’s severe demeanor breaks into a smile. “I’m sure Xardic has confidence in your ability to find that solution.”

Sulla says, “I believe so, yes. And I don’t think his confidence is misplaced.” He directs a small, cold smile at Valentine, then looks back at Aramil. “You’re aware of the charges and evidence. I’ll open a discussion with the prosecutor about a guilty plea. You have no evidence to offer against anyone else?”

Aramil says, “There’s no one else to blame. I was the ringleader for the original robbery, and I worked alone after that.”

Sulla restores his papers to their folders. “I’ll get back to you as soon as I have further news. I can find my own way out.”

As soon as Sulla has turned the corner and is out of earshot, Aramil groans, “What a little prick! I can’t believe that’s who’s going to be representing me.”

“You could do much worse,” says Valentine. “Being cool, or even kind, is probably a liability in his line of work.” He reclaims the stool, continues in a cold, quiet voice. “I’m going to give you some advice, cousin. When you’re dealing with someone who has that much power over you, be deferential, be polite, use some flattery.”

“That little prick has power over me?” says Aramil contemptuously.

Valentine’s tone shifts to a sound like the crack of a bullwhip. “He absolutely does, and you know it. Don’t fuck that up. You’re used to people thinking you’re hot shit because you’re cute and you’re a Shelawn. Put that out of your head now. You’re behind bars. You have no bargaining power — none. No one here or in the court system owes you shit.  When you play bullshit games like that, even in your own head, you just makes things harder on Xardic and your father and mother. And on me, for that matter.” He cuts himself off, realizing that Aramil’s face is white with shock and anger. Valentine sighs, passes a hand over his face. “I’m sorry, Aramil. I’ll stop being a dick now. I’m worried, just like everyone else.”

“Valentine, do you think I’m screwed?”

“Honestly, I don’t know. It feels to me like it could go really wrong. Your connections and so on — that kind of thing is totally out of my experience. I’m sure it means more than I know. But, God, Aramil, why take any fucking chances? What makes you think this will all work itself out? I’m asking the question seriously — I don’t understand how you see it.”

“I didn’t think it would ever get this far. I guess I thought that if I got into trouble, Xardic would settle everything.”

Valentine shrugs, “Maybe he will. But if I were you, I would start to think seriously about what happens if he can’t.”

One thought on “28. Twenty Questions

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s