Another episode of Man Raised by Spiders, the coming-of-age story of Valentine Shelawn.
At the end of their second day of travel, Valentine and Valykria are lying side-by-side in front of the fire. The air is sharp and cold, but they’re snug under his cloak, talking in low voices about nothing in particular. Valentine wants to kiss Valykria, and senses that she wants to be kissed, but he’s also feeling a pleasant lethargy from a long day traveling on horseback.
During a lull in the conversation, Valykria says, “You said the Drow whipped you when you were a slave.”
Valentine sighs. “Some of that, but more specifically, they flogged me. Different implement. A whip rarely cuts or leaves a scar — a cat almost always does. And the Drow flog Roman style, using cats tipped with bone fragments. The lictors aren’t supposed to kill you, but it definitely happens. The more privilege you have, the less you get flogged. Once I was in the army, I never caught a flogging. Anyway, they only use a knotted lash.” He laughs. “Any time you hear bullshit about a soldier being silent under the lash, know that he didn’t get the full treatment. Hand that guy over to a couple of lictors for an afternoon, and I promise you he’ll sing out or end up dead or in shock.”
“Why do they do it?”
“To terrify you and keep you in line. Oh, you mean for what offenses. Usually for something that challenges their authority or violates hierarchy. They have a fetish about gaze. You never look a social superior in the face. It’s very strictly enforced.”
“No shit? Just for looking at them?”
“Oh, yeah. That was the source of so many beatings. Every kid gets roving eyes beaten out of him early. But once you’re old enough to be flogged — 12 or 13 — there’s a lot of, ‘Did you look at me, slave?’ ‘No, ma’am.’ ‘Are you calling me a liar? Forty lashes.’” He shudders. “God, it fucking sucked.”
“Did it happen a lot?”
“I got pretty good at avoiding it. It was worst when I was in my late teens — I got the full treatment three times. After that, they confined themselves to my back, usually 30 or 40 lashes. You could still lose an eye or rupture a kidney if some asshole doesn’t know how to ply the lash, but most Drow are handy with a cat. At that point, they’re just issuing a reminder.” He laughs, looks up at the stars, takes a drag on his cigarette.
Valykria says quietly, “Did I tell you that my dad whipped me?”
Valentine looks over, startled. “No. God, I’m sorry. That’s horrible. What did he do?”
“He used a belt. He never broke the skin. But, yeah. My brother got it worse, I think.”
“What an asshole. I’m sorry to say that about your father, but that’s a terrible thing to do to a kid.”
She laughs ruefully. “Oh, no, not just when we were kids. He whipped me the day you guys came for being seen in breeches. I was pretty sore under that dress at dinner, I can tell you.”
“Really? That fucker. That’s barbaric. Well, that settles it. You’re never going back there.” He shakes his head. “Fucking gray elves. They do all the same shit that the Drow do, but privately and with less flair.”
“Do you feel weird about it?”
“What, about having been flogged? Sometimes. To be honest, I feel kind of weird about it around you because you haven’t seen the scars. I don’t know. Do you feel weird about what your dad did?”
“I never told anyone but you. I guess I would have, if anyone knew. You want to show me the scars? Get it over with?”
“Sure. Let’s pop that cherry.” He sits up, stubs out his cigarette, unbuttons his shirt, then hesitates. “I’m only going to show you my back. That’s where most of the action is. When I take my breeches off, it’s not going to be so that you can inspect a few old lash marks.” He says it coldly, with bravado, but he feels anxious and ashamed. It’s hard to know if the scars are as ugly and disfiguring as he fears. Ariadne never seemed to mind, but he remembers how the others — even Sieia and Aramil — maintained a kind of painstaking silence once they’d seen his shoulders and back.
He’s facing her as he takes his shirt off, and she sees that he’s very thin — his ribs show clearly — but gorgeously muscled. She reaches up, lightly touches the ornate black tattoos across his shoulders and pecs. “What’s that?”
“I have a blood oath tattooed on my neck and shoulders. This one redeems the oath — ten enemies killed in battle.” She doesn’t notice the new, clear one. By now it looks like a scrape that’s scabbing over. He turns around. “There’s the scar tissue.”
He feels her cool fingertips tracing the scars. “Wow,” she says, “that’s crazy. My dad never left a permanent mark, but it still hurt like a bastard. Did you cry out?”
“I’m sure I did. Everyone does. To tell you the truth, I don’t remember it well — not when it was really bad. The first couple of times I passed out, had to be revived before they could continue.” He feels her fingertips tracing slowly down either side of his spine. He says, “They go all the way down. Not to the soles of my feet, thank God, but to my calves.”
She leans over and kisses the back of his neck. “You really are a badass,” she says.
“No, just fucking unfortunate.” Her lips and tongue are soft, warm. He feels her teeth close gently on his nape, just below his hairline. He turns around, takes her hands. He can’t quite look at her. He says softly, “I was unfortunate. Now I’m very lucky.”
He kisses her. The night before, he was tender, delicate — feeling his way. Now he’s rougher, more demanding. In this moment, he feels that he truly needs her beauty and grace. They kiss passionately for a moment or two, then, without thinking, he draws her close, starts to press her down onto her back. He feels her go rigid. “No Valentine, please,” she whispers. “I’m sorry.”
He pulls back, lets her sit up. He catches his breath, and the moment passes. He’s still holding her hands — she hasn’t pulled away entirely. He kisses the backs of her hands one by one, releases them. “I’m sorry, honey. Are you okay?”
She nods. “I just panicked. I felt —”
“No, I’m glad you stopped me.” He shakes his head as if to clear it.
He smiles at her. “We have time. We’ll figure it out.”