53. What Did You Do to Your Hands?

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

He masters an impulse to flee the house, ride up into the mountains. Instead, he forces himself to go to Sieia’s sitting room. He finds her seated by the fire.

“Did you see her? What happened?”

“I did. I don’t know.” He drops into the chair opposite hers.

“What did you do to your hands?”

He looks down. They’re still bleeding. “I forgot about that. It’s nothing. God, Sieia, just give me a moment, OK?”

She says with asperity, “You’ve got blood on your cuffs already. Let me patch it up for you.” She withdraws for a moment, returns with a basin, bandages and such.

“It’s fine — please don’t fuss over me.”

“Don’t be an idiot, Valentine. Next time, have your valet take care of it if you don’t want me to. Give me your hand. Hold still — this will sting a bit.” He submits to her firm, gentle touch. “You’re a fool, Valentine. I’ve done this scores of times for Inglorion — stitched him up, too. I’ve never set a broken bone, because our groom knew how, thank God. I was glad to have him when Inglorion snapped his tibia and fibula jumping off a second-story fire escape.”

“I’m surprised. You would think Inglorion would know how to take a fall from that height.”

“None better. I don’t remember why he blew that particular landing.”

“Has Xardic ever split his knuckles?”

She ignores the question, merely says, “OK, that one’s done. You can take the bandage off later — it’s just to stop the bleeding. Let me see the other. How did you do that? You should know by now how to throw a punch without hurting yourself, dear.”

“I used the guest room fireplace mantle for a strike drill. I pulled the last punch, and I had the sense to take off my signet ring first.”

“Well, that was wise,” she says. “Mithrail is durable, of course, but I believe onyx is a soft stone. I’m sure the marble learned its lesson, and will watch itself around you the future. There you go. Same thing with the bandage. Let it air out after the bleeding stops.” She folds everything up neatly and sets the basin aside. “Now, dear, tell me what happened.”

“I hardly know. I read the letter from her grandmother. Did you see it?” Sieia shakes her head. “It was awful. I think she plans to go back to her family. I told her to tell you what she plans to do.” Anguish washes across his face. He breaks off, clears his throat. “There’s nothing I can do.”

“I’m so sorry, darling. What did the letter say? She seemed so determined not to go back.”

“It was very clever strategy, actually. Her grandmother told her that all the Shelawns are bad seed, that I’m dangerous and violent, and that I must be hiding all sorts of things.” He shrugs. “Of course, the truth is bad enough, and I hadn’t told her everything — there hasn’t been time. It didn’t help that I disappeared for a day and a half.” He sees a question in her eyes. “Sieia, you know me. It wasn’t anything like that. But I couldn’t tell her where I want or why.” She catches his meaning. He swallows, looks down, covers his eyes. “The thing is, she never loved me.”

Sieia says with quick sympathy, “Oh, Valentine. I was afraid of that. I could tell you adored her, and she was very careful never to suggest… When we spoke of your marriage, she never mentioned love.”

“I knew she didn’t love me. I thought she could learn. It’s what she intended, I think.”

“Oh, darling. I’m so sorry. You know, Valykria is a very honorable creature — I don’t think she understood that you can’t will yourself to love someone.”

“Well, I certainly had no idea,” he says ruefully. “Her grandmother is up to every move on the board. She beat me soundly. Oh, God, Sieia. None of that would have mattered if she loved me even a bit.”

“That’s true, my darling.”

“How could she think that of me?”

“Think what?”

“That I would hurt her. I would never do that. It’s not in me. I’m not capable of it.”

“I know you wouldn’t. I’m sure it seems terribly unjust. I don’t know if I can explain it, really. It’s so different for women, and of course things are different among the Drow.” Sieia’s eyes drift into the distance. “We reason from what we know. Her brother and father hurt her. She probably hasn’t seen much else. A few eager suitors. If you haven’t seen something, it’s very hard to imagine.”

“Sieia, Inglorion told me something about Tereus and your mother. He said that Tereus beat her — you were afraid for her life.”

“Yes. It’s part of why we left. I was lucky, you know. I had Inglorion, from the time I was a little girl. A man who loved me, who would never hurt me, who would do anything to protect me. That experience gave me the courage to trust Xardic, and to marry when the time came.”

“But Inglorion hasn’t married.”

“No.” She pauses, considers. “Sometimes I think men have the harder role, my dear. A woman knows so little of what’s inside a man, and has to trust him blindly. A man knows himself in part. Just well enough to fear that he can’t be trusted at all.”

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