35. Cactus Always Looks Smooth from a Distance

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

Their plan is simple. Valentine and Aramil had already arranged to leave well before daybreak. Once they reach Amakir, they’ll park Valykria at a respectable inn on the outskirts of the city for a long luncheon. Valentine will plead urgent personal business to avoid staying overnight with Aramil’s Ceralac cousins, and double back to collect Valykria so that she can avoid the questions that would arise if she tried to rent a room without a chaperone or courier. They’re counting on throwing Valykria’s family off the scent by avoiding post roads and inns, and eventually descending into the Underdark. The plan is almost too sketchy to deserve the name, but it satisfies Valentine and Valykria.

As they head off in the chilly, damp predawn, it would be hard to find a more ill-assorted party. Valykria’s mood is best described as recklessness born of fear. She knows that her father will react to her flight with uncontrolled rage, and that her actions will trigger consequences that she can’t imagine, most likely unpleasant ones. As long as there’s a chance of escape, she believes she can weather the storm of her family’s disapproval. She knows that her vague plan of joining the Drow army is farfetched. If she thought it were plausible, she would have sought Valentine’s advice. Really, she just feels that she’ll die if she stays; she requires freedom, no matter how brief, to continue living and breathing. Her actions are desperate because she is desperate. In her innocence, she thinks she has nothing to lose, and that her true plans concern no one but herself.

Meanwhile Aramil has settled into an uncharacteristic, bleak silence. His aspect is that of a man traveling to attend his own execution; one who, absurdly, is forced to do so in the company of a cousin who’s making a big mistake about which Aramil chooses to remain ostentatiously silent. At any other time, Valentine would feel grave concern at this radical shift from Aramil’s usual animation and volatility. However, Valentine is sanguine about Aramil’s prospects among their Ceralac cousins. He thinks privately that it might not hurt his cousin to indulge in a period of sober reflection, consider the consequences of his actions, and decide how he plans to live now that he’s been banished and disgraced.

Valentine’s spirits that morning are high, inappropriately so. He’s delighted to have Valykria along, and hopeful that she will come to see him as something more than a chance-met companion. Helping her to escape suits his chivalry and idealism, and lends purpose to his ill-defined notion of seeking his fate and somehow ending the blood feud. He feels bad that he won’t have time to help Aramil settle in, but he comforts himself by thinking that, after all, Aramil is an adult. What service could Valentine possibly provide, beyond agreeing that it is indeed hard to forswear armed robbery in favor of a sedate life spent among dreary, unfashionable relatives? Anyway, Aramil is snobbish, but also inclined to be pleased with his company. Valentine bets that within six months, Aramil will delight the Ceralacs and mollify the Shelawns by deciding that one of his cousins is a charming girl, then wooing and winning her.

By midmorning they’ve entered the outskirts of Amakir and found an inn where Valykria can have lunch and her mare and the roan can be groomed and baited. Once they arrive at the Ceralacs’, Valentine decides that Xardic and Penelope are definitely the pick of the litter. Taken as a whole — and they all do assemble in the parlor to greet their exotic Shelawn cousins — they seem like a thrifty and practical crew. They’re not especially attractive: A beautiful Ceralac would make a substandard Shelawn. Judging from their clothing and furnishings, their taste is cheap, conventional and middle-class, and they’re moral to the point of priggishness. Valentine doesn’t dislike them, but he feels no desire to linger beyond the requisite luncheon, which is rendered uncomfortable by Aramil’s cold replies to his cousins’ natural solicitude and curiosity.

At luncheon, Aramil is seated between his aunt and the eldest daughter of the house, a buxom, shrewd young lady whose rubicund good health and matronly aspect fill Aramil with thinly disguised revulsion. As always, Valentine is relegated to younger daughters. These ones are painfully aware of Valentine’s reserve and refined good looks. Cynthia, on his left, communicates entirely in knowing giggles; Lucretia, on his right, blushes fiercely each time he addresses her, and can barely stammer out replies to his routine inquiries about her habits and hobbies. Valentine lacks the necessary art to put them at their ease, so to him they both seem irredeemably awkward and unattractive.

Valentine escapes with relief shortly after luncheon, without exchanging further words with Aramil. Back at the inn, as Valykria checks the horses and Valentine packs the saddlebags, Valentine feels that there’s a speech he needs to give.

“Valykria?” he says.

She glances over. “Yes?”

He clears his throat nervously. “I found this when I was packing, and it reminded me. There’s literally a price on my head.” He pulls out the Two of Clubs with his vital stats — the one the wood elves brought to him and Xardic — and shows it to her.  “As we get closer to Drow territory, the chances increase that I’ll be recognized, and that we’ll be pursued by slave catchers.”

She glances over the card, nods briskly, hands it back, returns to checking the roan’s hooves.

He continues, “The situation with the Theates clan is a little different. I don’t know whether they still intend to kill me. I do know that they murdered the person I loved most in the world. She pretty much died in my arms.” He pauses now, strives to catch Valykria’s eye. “I know you came with me and Aramil because you couldn’t stay with your family. We were happy to take you away from that. But what I’m about to do is tremendously risky. I would never forgive myself if I didn’t at least try to explain that.” He breaks off, laughs. “Valykria, I’m not kidding. I’m walking into a trap. You don’t have to follow me. No one would recommend it.”

She looks at him thoughtfully, seriously. “If it’s that dangerous, why did Aramil let you go alone?”

“He has his own problems right now. And in his mind, I’m a badass, and badasses never die. He’s seen me take on crazy odds and survive, and he can’t imagine that my luck might run out. I don’t believe in that shit. I spent 75 years in prison, fighting hard just to stay alive and unbroken. I’m not a badass. I just know how to endure pain.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Consider your alternatives. You can stay here in the city, or I can take you to Liamelia before I go to the Underdark, or you can go somewhere else that makes sense, if you have family that would be willing to take you. Anything that’s not so dangerous. You shouldn’t do this unless you’re really okay with being injured or dying for some other guy’s problems.”

“Are you telling me not to go with you?”

He hesitates. “No. I’m not saying that.”

“Do you think it might be better if I were along?”

“I think so. Maybe.”

She shrugs. “Then I’ll go with you. If you think I’ll be useful, and it will help, then I feel like I owe it to you.”

“Valykria, you don’t owe me your life because I helped you to run away from home.”

She gives him a hard, cold look. “You don’t know that. Anyway, it’s my decision. Thanks for the information. Unless you tell me not to, I’m coming with you.”

He’s both stunned and relieved. It’s an unexpected gift, and he can’t flatter himself that it’s a compliment to his masculine charms.  “Okay. Thank you,” he says.

“Good. That’s settled.”

And so they canter towards the woods, the limestone cliffs beyond, and the network of living, breathing caves beneath.

Valentine has devoted a fair amount of thought to the problem of finding Inglorion. No workable plan has presented itself. As is so often the case, this particular cactus looks smooth from a distance, but as he and Valykria drow closer to Drow territory, thorns present themselves.

Of course, Valentine knows how to find the major egress point for Physryk — it’s where he left the Underdark, and Mindartis’ troops could easily direct him there. It’s an easy enough way to get to the Underdark, but suicidally stupid. If he’s caught, they won’t take him in for questioning — they’ll kill him, cut off his left hand, and collect the reward. If he were alone he might try it, but he’s reluctant to accept such poor odds in the company of another fighter who’s entirely innocent of the ways of the Underdark.

He does know the location of one egress point for the Theates clan — the cave opening he assaulted single-handedly on Hill #81. Strolling down there in search of trouble seems moderately crazy, but not entirely fucking mad. After all, the Drow aren’t the only creatures that live underground. If they move quickly and use stealth, he and Valykria may be able to make it through the usual antechambers, airlocks and random Dwarfish settlements that separate the true Underdark from the world aboveground. They may gather valuable intelligence, find allies — learn enough to move through an unfamiliar Drow city. However, Valentine’s too practical to believe that this approach is plausible. Even a well-rounded party of adventurers would find it difficult to sneak or fight their way into the presence of Drow nobility. He and Valykria would certainly be captured and enslaved or killed. Worse yet, there’s a fair chance that one or both of them would die in some trivial, idiotic way: fall down a mineshaft, get devoured by a roving pack of giant spiders, inhale poisoned mushroom spores.

A third possibility occurs to him as they move through wood elf territory. All Drow tribes collect information on occurrences aboveground, either through reliable local sources or intelligence collected firsthand by patrols and raiding parties. If he and Valykria travel openly and slowly towards Hill #81, seek safe passage from the wood elves, signal their presence in every possible way, the Theates clan is bound to get word. The Drow will track their movements, and eventually send troops to meet them. Inglorion may get advance word and succeed in intervening, or Valentine may be able to get word to him once they’re captured. This approach fits with Valentine’s Xyrec temperament, and if nothing else, it’s an act of real bravery, and it may arouse curiosity among Drow troops.

Perhaps most importantly, he has no better plan. So they begin to travel towards Hill #81, the Theates clan’s egress point.

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