45. This Lesson Is Free

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

A gypsy child walks up to Valentine on the street, tugs on his sleeve. “Sir, a word with you.”

“What, child?”

“Listen carefully.” He bends down, fixes his gaze on her face. “This evening you will travel one mile down the highway. Secure your mount in the stand of willows, and climb fifty feet up the north drainage channel. Arrive at sunset. Someone will meet you there.”

Valentine studies her face. Even as he watches her, her features blur, shift slightly, settle back. It’s a charm. This is not a gypsy child.

“Repeat what I just told you,” she says. He does. “That’s correct.” Though she doesn’t run or jump, or seem to walk at all, she blends into the moving crowd, is carried away like a drop in a fast-moving river.

It could be a trick, an ambush of some sort. It could be any number of things. But it’s almost certainly a message from Inglorion, who’s already refrained from killing him once.

He leaves in plenty of time, finds the landmarks with ease. As it happens, fifty feet up the north drainage channel provides a good view of the sunset over Liamelia. Valentine leans against the east bank, waits. Just as the sun drops below the horizon, Inglorion appears on the west bank, down-climbs it easily and silently. He strides over to Valentine.

“Good to see you, cousin. I hope you’ve settled back in with the gray.”

“As well as can be expected. You know how they are.”

“None better. It’s why I put up with the bad air and food of the Underdark. I wanted to explain our arrangement and ask you a few questions. I may have an assignment for you, as well. This may take awhile — let’s make ourselves comfortable.” They settle side-by-side on a level strip of sand, with their backs to the east bank. Valentine’s pleased that he still has a good view of the sunset. “That’s better. OK, here are the basic terms and conditions.

“Number one: use extreme discretion when telling anyone anything — even minor details of schedule — that might reveal our arrangement. If you blow your cover, the race will be on. Liamelia will bring charges and try to hang you, and the Theates clan will dispatch an assassin. There are ways out, but fucking up isn’t one of them.

“Number two: when I request information or assign you a task, I’ll tell you if it’s optional or mandatory. If I say it’s mandatory, it must be done, no matter what it is. I won’t do that lightly.

“Number three: I’ll explain my motives or provide background when I can, but sometimes I’ll need you to act or provide information without knowing why.

“Number four: if you need to contact me, a calling card or token left with the king of the local gypsy clan will reach me in a few days. Insist on seeing her alone and face-to-face, using my name if necessary. In a real crisis — a matter of life and death — a calling card left with Harrison Henschel at Hairy’s Tattoos will reach me almost immediately. Sieia doesn’t have any means of contacting me. That’s by design.

“Number five: Never use writing in any language for any purpose. Use a calling card or token combined with verbal instructions. Speak of these matters only in the open air, as we are now, or in a residence or business where you have confirmed that the servants are loyal.

“That concludes the terms and conditions part of the program. Any questions?”

“Do you mind if I smoke?”

“Tobacco?”

“Yes.”

“Only if you don’t roll me one. I would have bummed a cigarette first thing if I knew you had them.”

Valentine rolls Inglorion’s first, lights it for him. Inglorion takes a deep drag. “Shit, that’s amazing. How did you pick up the habit?”

“Valykria got me started.” He rolls his own, lights up. “Yeah, that’s pretty great.”

“She seems like a good find. Gorgeous, knows her way around a longsword. Mannish habits, too — I like that in a girl.”

“Yeah, so do I,” says Valentine deliberately. “We’re going to be married.”

“Shotgun or or by choice?”

“Yes.”

Inglorion grins. “I won’t ask. Congratulations. It’s a trick I never managed.”

“You could have any woman you wanted.”

“Well, yes. I like to keep things light. It’s one of the little ways I have of making sure I don’t wake up one morning and realize I’m Tereus Shelawn.”

“That seems low risk.”

“Low risk, high consequence. That fucker was a brute.” They smoke in silence for a little while as the final glow drains from the clouds. After a time, Inglorion appears to shimmer white against the cool background of sand and stone. Dark vision is beginning.

Something about the dark and quiet, punctuated only by final trills of birdsong, prompts Valentine to say in a low voice, “If you want the truth, she’s kind of gun-shy. She’s had some awful experiences with men.”

Inglorion winces. “Poor thing. Freaks out when you try to make love to her?” He looks up at Valentine, takes a drag on his cigarette. The flare of heat on the tip almost blots out the rest of his features: his pale, narrowed eyes, furrowed brow. “You want some advice?”

“Sure. I can always ignore it.”

“The only way out is through. You can’t linger in the lobby forever, and you can’t live in fear of making a wrong move. So, the next time she starts to freak out, stop where you are, look into her eyes. Give it a count of two or three. Give her time to get back in the present, remember who she’s with. Once you know she’s there with you, press on.” Valentine looks appalled, starts to protest. “No, I know what you’re thinking. But nothing you’ve done or will do is anything like what she’s been through. You can push your luck. You almost have to. Women are complicated. Just keep your head about you, stay with her. If you start to lose your cool — get overheated or angry — stop. You have to be in full control the whole time. You have to be doing it for her — for both of you — not just for yourself.”

“Have you ever been with a woman who…?”

“Of course,” he says cooly. “I’ve fucked a lot of women. I try to leave things better than I found them. I guess what I’m saying is, don’t buy into her fears. Don’t start to think that your dick is a weapon, and that she’s some kind of fragile, broken flower. Women are incredibly tough and resilient. They have to be. She can take an injury on the field and bounce back. So try it. If it backfires, fair enough. You seem like the type who errs on the side of caution. I’m sure you’ve built up some trust with her.”

“I hope so.”

“Keep trying different shit. She’s a prize worth winning.” He finishes his cigarette, grinds the butt under his heel, then buries it and scuffs out the marks. “All right, Part Two: information gathering. Why did Aramil Shelawn go to Amakir?”

“He was banished after committing a series of armed robberies on a lark. His family sent him to Amakir — gave him a letter of recommendation, points of contact in the civil service.”

“Are you familiar with the conditions of his banishment?”

“I was present during the negotiations.”

“Do you have reason to think that Liamelian intelligence plans to recruit him?”

“The plea agreement seemed to be written with that in mind. It struck me at the time. I don’t think Aramil realized that was what they intended.”

“Do you think he’ll do it?”

“Probably. He knew I provided intelligence — that wasn’t closely kept. It seemed glamorous to him, exciting. Do you want another cigarette? I’m going to smoke another.”

“Fuck, yeah. I thought you’d never ask. That brings us to your task. Do you think Aramil could be persuaded to provide information to the Theates clan?”

Valentine gives a choke of laughter. “Be a double agent? That’s his wet dream. He might regret it later, but he’d do it.”

“Are you willing to recruit him? Notice that I’m asking you, not telling you.” He accepts a second cigarette and a light from Valentine. “Thank you. Fucking awesome. Now I just need a pack of cocoa leaves and two loose barmaids. Or, no, two widows. Maybe a blond and a brunette.”

Valentine lights up his own cigarette. “What’s the alternative if I don’t?”

“I might try my hand at it, or I might let it go.”

“He’d probably jump into your arms like a loose barmaid.”

“I won’t steal that pleasure from you, Valentine. Will you do it?”

“Sure.”

“Then that brings us to the bonus round, Spying 101: How to Recruit a Source. First, determine if he’s already spying. Find out what he’s doing, and for whom. If no one’s approached him yet, wait until they have, and he’s been activated. He’s no use to me unless he’s a double agent.

“Get compromising material, or some other leverage over him. If you decide to run him, you’ll keep the kompromat yourself. In many ways that’s easiest and most secure. If someone else ends up running him, you’ll hand off whatever information you have.

“When you raise the subject, do it suddenly, and with no warning. Don’t be coy or indirect. Make it clear what you’re asking. If he refuses indignantly or threatens to notify the authorities, drop the subject. If he doesn’t reject the idea outright, determine what his objections are and answer them as best you can. Candor works for me, but it’s not necessary.

“Don’t allow him time to consider. Get a verbal commitment immediately. The idea of spying rarely becomes more attractive when examined with care. Think you can do it?”

Valentine takes a long drag, considers. “Yeah. Why do you want to recruit him?”

“I want to tap into whatever information stream Liamelia has. If it’s useful to them, it’s probably worth knowing. I’d be reluctant to use him in any other way.”

“He’d be in danger.”

“Yes.” He cocks his head, smiles. “From what you tell me, he’d thank you for providing the opportunity. And he can always refuse.”

“Aramil’s a poor judge of risk.”

Inglorion’s grin widens. “That’s what I’m counting on. It runs in the family, doesn’t it?”

“I suppose so.”

“You’re free to say no, cousin. But I do need to know tonight.”

“I’m in,” says Valentine.

“Good. Take your time with it. You only get one chance. People can surprise you, and as soon as you ask, he’s in a position to blow your cover.”

“Understood.”

They put out their cigarettes, bury them, scuff out the marks. Inglorion says, “You’re Aramil’s heir, aren’t you? You come next in the succession?”

Valentine says slowly, “I suppose so. Aramil’s an only child. And, anyway, I think he might have been disinherited when he was banished.”

“So if Marcus Shelawn is hit by a carriage in the street before Aramil can redeem himself, the whole Shelawn fortune will be yours.” Valentine considers, nods. Inglorion regards him with a kind of awe. “Valentine, this lesson is free. Never let facts like that catch you by surprise. You didn’t think of it because you’re Drow, but that’s all the gray think about. I promise you, his parents have thought about it already. The succession may not affect your actions, but it will drive theirs. Watch and see if I’m wrong.”

Valentine rides back on a loose rein, letting the roan choose its path and pace.  He doesn’t understand his own actions. Aside from all the obvious dangers, Inglorion may be lying to him. The game they’re playing may be beyond Inglorion’s skill. Certainly Valentine is no judge. What he’s agreed to do is foolhardy, and perhaps cruel. These facts are clear, but the path still seems inevitable and right. It’s thrilling to defy his own judgment, to accept harsh terms and real danger.

This is how it felt to plan his escape, plunge into the unknown, sunlit world. It’s how he felt when Valykria confessed that she couldn’t love him, and he replied by swearing recklessly and hopelessly that he loved her. Perhaps it’s the thrill Aramil felt while robbing a coach, or the illicit sensation Tereus sought each time he unlocked Philomela’s cell.

In the end, analysis is meaningless.

Valentine doesn’t intend to stop.

One thought on “45. This Lesson Is Free

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