30. One Thousand Sunsets

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

After a few weeks of negotiation and wrangling, Aramil signs a plea agreement that will result in his being banished. By the time it happens, he’s accepted that it’s his only choice, short of imprisonment or hanging. Though the charges are dire, to Valentine the terms of banishment seem lenient. There are several ways that Aramil’s citizenship could be restored through service. It seems clear to Valentine that the city is eager to forgive Aramil in time.

Xardic has written a letter of introduction to several Ceralac relatives in Amakir, the nearest large city. At Marcus and Penelope’s request, Valentine agrees to escort Aramil there, and to see him safely bestowed in middle-class comfort. It’s as good a plan as any, and it suits Valentine’s need for exile.

The night before Aramil will be released from prison and formally banished, Valentine seeks out Sieia in her sitting room. They sit quietly by the fire for awhile, and Valentine finally says, “You know that I’m leaving tomorrow to escort Aramil to Amakir.”

“Yes, dear. I know. Where will you go afterwards?”

“I’m not certain, but I think I’ll go to the Underdark. Not to Physryk. I’ll try to find the Beholder clan, try to find out what happened at the end of the battle. Why they withdrew troops, why I was permitted to live.”

She nods. “You’re looking for Inglorion.”

“Inglorion, or his mother. You know, I don’t even know her name.”

“He’s never told me. I’m not sure anyone here ever knew it. Perhaps not even Tereus.”

“And maybe that’s a part of it — restoring that history, since I can’t escape it.”

She nods again, and he feels her sadness and resignation. “I miss him terribly,” she says.

“I know you do. I’m sorry, my dear. I’ve been a poor substitute, in any case.”

“I wish there weren’t so much sadness,” she says abruptly. For once, Valentine sees this perfectly harmonious, lovely creature sniffling, fighting tears.

“Oh, honey,” he says, and takes her hand. “What are you thinking of when you say that?”

She turns away, trying to hide her overflowing eyes, then says in a rush, “We were happy when we were children. At least, that’s how I remember it. But I don’t think he ever was. How could he be, living in the margins of our lives, being blamed for Tereus’ sins? He was, you know. That’s why I ran away — because I couldn’t stand the injustice of it. I stole Father’s cloak and pin and gave them to Inglorion because those things should have been his. He had no inheritance — nothing. He was so charming, so sweet, so full of humor and spirit and joy — so carefree. That’s how I remember him.

“But I know now that he was deeply unhappy. He trained so hard, fought so hard, broke himself again and again. He was determined to be strong, invincible. I felt so bad that we had everything and he had nothing. I hated our hypocrisy and comfort.”

Valentine strokes her hand gently. “I’m sorry, honey. I’m so sorry.”

She’s crying openly now, and Valentine realizes that he’s never seen Sieia cry. She’s relentlessly cheerful, or, in times of crisis, tough, pragmatic. She says, “He was so kind and sweet and generous by nature. He took care of me when no one else did. Mother and Father never cared a whit for me. Mother loved Father, and Father loved Father, and they had everything they needed right there.” She’s still weeping softly. “Oh, Valentine. The years he and I were together — that was the happiest time of my life. I knew it couldn’t go on forever, but I miss it all the time, just the pure, carefree play of adventuring. I love Xardic, and I’m happy here. Inglorion was right to bring me back. No woman could be out there forever. It’s a miracle he was able to protect me that whole time.” She looks up at Valentine, and her face is anguished. “But that light in him — it went out. You know? It makes me so sad. I love him more than anyone, and I can’t make him happy. I can’t share what I have. I really, truly feel like a part of myself died then, when we were parted.”

It’s hard for Valentine to do, but he reaches down and hugs her. He’s stiff, and it’s awkward. He puts his head in the wrong place somehow, and nearly butts heads with her. He says softly, “I know, honey. I know.” And, strangely, he does know. She turns to him, snuggles into his arms, and sobs. He’s dismayed and alarmed — his cousin, the beautiful Sieia! But he’s also pleased, because he genuinely wants to comfort her.

After a time, she swallows down her tears, wipes her cheeks. She smiles up at Valentine mistily. “Thank you.”

“Of course. I only wish…” he sighs.

“No, of course you can’t stay. I know that, silly.”

He still feels the need to explain to her, if to no one else. “At first I thought that no one here understood me. I’ve realized that no one here needs to understand me. I do my little Drow thing — I’m the Drow cousin — and they furrow their brows and keep inviting me to dinner parties. I really am a citizen. I really am one of you. I’m just the Drow one.” He smiles down at Sieia. “The problem is me. I don’t have words for it. But I can’t accept myself yet, like you guys do. God, that sounds like something a douchebag would say.”

“No, I think I know what you mean. When you first got here, it seemed like such beautiful symmetry. You were so shy and cold and shellshocked. You came to life very quickly — you’re a such a passionate, vital creature. It was like seeing —” her voice cracks, and she presses on. “For me, it was like seeing Inglorion —” she stops. “But it wasn’t that simple. It never is. You’re your own person. We each have a different stake in your success. You want to go somewhere where the past won’t weigh on you quite so heavily.”

He laughs, delighted. “That’s it! It really is just that. I need some privacy. I love everything — the sun, the clouds, the rain, the moon. Everything is new, and I want to experience it for myself. I’ve been reborn, you know, and I want that private miracle of sensation. I have a lot of growing up to do.”

She smiles. “You will be very happy. There’s so much joy waiting for you, Valentine — all the scents and colors. A thousand sunsets.”

He kisses her hand, says, “I’ll miss you, cousin. You and Xardic have made me feel at home here. Thank you.”

“Take good care of Aramil. We hope to have both of you back when you’re ready.”

 

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