34. Thick as Thieves

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

Valentine wakes up early the following day, long before breakfast is served even in a country house. He springs up, washes his face and hands, dresses, and resolves to explore the grounds until the rest of the household is up and about.

As the sun rises, an achingly beautiful fall day develops — clear and cold, with the scent of burning leaves heavy on the air. As Valentine walks the rambling, overgrown lanes, his thoughts are entirely taken up with Valykria. He remembers her fair skin, the flush that mounted in her cheeks when she made him tea, her hair — not the prim knot she wore at dinner, but how she tied it back in a queue while training, and the unruly black locks that escaped and curled around her temples. Her stride when she was wearing breeches: assured, almost mannish. How breeches and a linen shirt hinted at her figure — the slimness of her waist, the flair of her hips, her long, coltish legs. There was something deeply erotic about the switch from fighter to debutante, too. The dress she wore at dinner was modest, but it showed off her figure to great advantage, particularly her breasts, which are surprisingly ample for such an otherwise slender figure. And though their conversation was brief, he can tell that she’s bright and opinionated. She’s eager to discuss technical topics with someone who shows an interest. She has interests, unlike most female gray elves he meets.

As he walks, he alternates between considering her intellect and fighting skill, and dreaming of her beauty. He spends a good deal of time trying to decide exactly why she has such tremendous erotic charm. He’s happy, too, because he feels that they understand each other. He’s pretty sure she enjoyed their conversation, and that she’s inclined to like him, or at the very least, to prefer his company to Aramil’s. By the end of his walk, he’s worked himself into a high pitch of anticipation, though he couldn’t say what he hopes for, given that they plan to leave early the following day.

He returns after rambling the fields for a couple hours, and is relieved to find that breakfast has begun. Valykria and her sisters are at the table dispensing coffee. The smell of coffee and bacon has drawn Aramil downstairs, and though he grouses to Valentine that there’s no sausage or ham, he makes a hearty breakfast while Valentine nibbles buttered toast in a smitten way, and drinks cup after cup of coffee.

The squire appears late, eats in a great hurry, and disposes of his visitors’ time casually. “Aramil, you’ll want to see the estate and village. Valykria will be happy to show you around.”

Aramil has little use for the estate, village or eldest daughter, but no other plan, so he accepts the offered tour and guide with every appearance of delight. They set off soon after breakfast: Valykria, Valentine, Aramil, and the luckless Anne, a sacrifice to propriety. Anne proceeds at a dawdling walk, and Aramil, bless him, quickly perceives that it’s his job to fit his steps to hers, and to amuse her while Valentine deepens his acquaintance with Valykria.

From Valentine’s perspective, it’s a morning of unalloyed pleasure. Valykria proves to be a delightful companion. She quickly discards any pretense of describing the property, and instead eagerly peppers Valentine with questions about his adventures as a raider in the Underdark. Valykria is genuinely interested in how the Drow army works — in its tactics and training, and the specific role played by raiders. Because she’s interested, he explains the social arrangements that free Drow women from the burdens of childbearing and child-rearing, and tells her what he knows about his mother, Valeria — that she was an accomplished scholar and linguist prior to her marriage.

All morning they talk eagerly, excitedly. They share many interests, and because she’s clever and perceptive, Valentine finds it easy to share little observations and thoughts, knowing that he won’t have to explain them painstakingly. Because he’s trained and worked with women all his life, his manner is open and friendly, but not especially chivalrous or lover-like. Most young men would punctuate the day with little flirtatious gestures: to help Valykria over obstacles or guide her steps as they ford the little stream in the village. Valentine would have done this for Ariadne, since she was fragile and shy. He senses that Valykria would resent it, however, so he treats her as he would a comrade in arms.

By early afternoon they’ve thoroughly worn out Aramil and Anna with their wanderings; it’s time to head back to the manor house for luncheon. As they return, Valykria asks, “Do you miss the Underdark?”

Valentine hesitates. “I was always a slave, you know. Aspects of my life were unendurable. I’ve never regretted for a moment that I escaped. But there are things that I miss: raiding and combat, and having people to train with. There’s a lot that I don’t understand about life up here. Just the simple thing of women being thought to be fragile. I find I don’t have anything in common with most of them. Their lives are so different, so sheltered. That’s why I’m glad I met you. It reminds me —” he breaks off. It’s just as well. He’s gazing off at the horizon as he speaks. If he were to look over at Valykria’s face, he would see a shade of reserve cross her face at even this hint of lovemaking.

They’re almost to the farmhouse now. They’ll have to join the others at the table for luncheon. Valykria says suddenly, in a rush, “Valentine, there’s something I need to tell you. I have to ask your advice. After lunch, when everyone has retired, will you meet me in the library?” Her expression is dark, serious, almost forbidding.

“Of course,” he says.

They’re seated far apart at the table. As before, she’s placed between Aramil and the squire, and he’s stranded between her younger sisters. He glances at her face when he can. The morning’s talk left him elated. Hours of brisk walking allowed him countless opportunities to admire her stride and carriage, and the tight fit of her dress and pelisse over her bosom. They talked and laughed, and her eyes were on him uninterruptedly. She’s so clever, so beautiful!

The day has gone better than he could have hoped. Far from having to scheme to find her and talk to her, they spent the whole morning in conversation, with the prospect of a meeting in the library still to come! He’s not so far gone that he imagines she’ll confess her love for him. He’s satisfied that she trusts and likes him. He has no idea what advice she could need that he could possibly give, but he’s pleased to have a chance to continue their conversation.

Lunch drags on and on, of course, and it takes forever for the squire to retire to his study, and for the younger girls to drift off to a sitting room to practice voice and piano. It’s harder to dispose of Aramil. He follows Valentine into the library, and seems inclined to mope about, speculating whether he’ll be chained to a stool in a counting-house, forced to write trivial correspondence for an Undersecretary for Indescribably Dull Matters, or simply coerced into marriage with an unattractive heiress and forced to breed countless Ceralac-looking whelps.

Finally Valentine says, “Aramil, please go away. I’m meeting Valykria here.”

It’s a measure of Aramil’s depression that he doesn’t tease Valentine at all, but merely says, “Oh, very well. You two were certainly as thick as thieves this morning. Be careful, Sir Spider. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

“I can promise that much,” says Valentine primly. He opens the library door. “Out.”

Aramil retreats, the picture of wounded dignity. Valykria enters almost immediately — they must have passed each other in the hall.

Valykria is visibly agitated. She paces a bit, trying to gather her thoughts. She’s not given to drama or novel-reading, but she’s aware that she’s about to ask for something unusual, and that her pleas might be misinterpreted. Valentine is standing by the unlit hearth, puzzled but calm. “I hardly know how to begin,” she says. “I don’t know what to say.” She’s actually wringing her hands.

Her discomfort breaks through his elation, and his preoccupation with whether or not she likes him. He cocks his head. “Valykria, don’t stand on ceremony with me. Just tell me what you’re thinking, what you need. I’ll do anything in my power to help you.”

She looks relieved. “I’ve told you a little about my situation here — that I don’t have an inheritance. Our family isn’t wealthy like the Shelawns — in fact, we’re very poor. My brother is expensive. I’m under pressure to marry, and to marry well. I can’t do any of the things I love. I’m in constant disgrace. My situation is very bad. I hardly know how to explain.” She breaks off, takes another lap around the room.

“You’re certainly different from any other woman I’ve known here. It must be very hard — worse than I can imagine.”

“It’s dreadful,” she says in a rush. “I can’t stand it. I’m trying to think what I can say, how to explain it. It gets worse every year. I can’t stay here. I can’t stand it.”

“Can’t stand what?”

“Being forced to dress and act a certain way, to wear dresses, to be proper, to simper and suck up to the men they choose for me. I can’t do it! It makes me sick to try, and I always, always fail.”

“Valykria, I’m so sorry. It sounds awful. I don’t know what I can do to help. I can hardly understand your situation — the stupid restrictions they impose on you.”

“Help me run away. Please. Take me with you. Let me travel with you until I’m out of their reach and I can make my way on my own. Please.”

Valentine hardly knows what she’s asking. Certainly not to elope. “Take you to Amakir? Or Liamelia?”

“Wherever you’re going. Liamelia, the Underdark. I know I can’t travel alone. But if I can get far enough away —”

Valykria is lucky. She’s chosen to address her plea to a chivalrous and idealistic young man, one who’s largely ignorant of the intricate social structure around him, and who shares her outrage at the arbitrary limits placed upon her sex. In Valentine’s mind, the taboo against women fighting is so foolish and arbitrary that it should be ignored. He knows all too well the pain of not fitting in, of constantly being found wanting and delinquent. He knows what it’s like to have his freedom radically restricted, and the relief of freeing himself from those restrictions. He also doesn’t consider — can’t understand — how his actions will appear to others, the consequences of running away with a gently-bred young lady whose family has very different plans for her future.

And he’s half in love with her already. All day he’s been increasingly worried about whether and how he can see her again, what excuses he could possibly make. She’s so unique, so beautiful! It’s intolerable to think of leaving her and heading off to Amakir and the Underdark with no prospect of future contact.

As he examines the problem from all visible angles, he decides that she’s hit upon the best possible solution. She should travel to Amakir with him and Aramil, and to the Underdark and Liamelia after that. Since she’s in distress, he’ll take care not to trouble her with protestations of love. But if he can aid her flight, get her away from here and to a place where she can dress and act as she pleases…

She’s watching him in painful, speechless anxiety. She has no further arguments, no better plan to offer. Her hands are clenched in front of her, almost in an attitude of prayer.

He nods. “OK. I’ll have to let Aramil know what we’re planning. I don’t see how he could object, but I’ll discuss it with him, then meet you down here before dinner, when everyone is dressing.”

She bows her head. He sees relief coursing through her body at the prospect of escape.

He finds Aramil in the garden, poking at weeds with the tip of his sheathed rapier. He’d intended to drill, but surrendered to melancholy reflections instead. He listens to Valentine’s agitated account with indifference, says, “I suppose she might as well tag along, if she can’t stand it here. She seems to be taken with you. No doubt it will all work out. You can’t bring her into Amakir, though. The Ceralacs are a very starched-up bunch. They’d send her straight back here. You’ll have to stow her at an inn or something.” This is Valykria’s second stroke of luck. Aramil knows it’s a bad idea, but he’s too overwhelmed with his own troubles to object.

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