54. Honor and Responsibility

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

Sieia told Valentine to meet with Marcus, and now it seems like it must be too late. He doesn’t need to seek approval for anything. The whole thing is bound to be awkward. And yet, when Marcus returns to Liamelia, he sends Valentine a note indicating that he has business to discuss, business that has, perhaps, been postponed too long.

The butler ushers Valentine into the library of the Shelawn townhouse: yet another fantastic room, full of graceful architectural detail. Apparently past Shelawns have collected, not just visual art, but first editions.

Marcus starts up to meet him, shakes his hand, leads him to a chair by the fireplace. “Thank you for coming,” he says, and he sounds genuinely grateful. Marcus — usually so formal, poised, proper — seems disconcerted. It’s as if he doesn’t know where to begin. “I’m grateful to you,” he says, distracted. “But then, I’ve always know I could rely upon you.”

Valentine’s not sure what he’s supposed to have done, so he remains silent. Marcus’ gratitude and high opinion seem to bode ill rather than otherwise. Valentine has been preoccupied with his engagement to Valykria, but clearly his cousin is concerned with some other matter.

“You just got back from your travels,” Marcus says. “I don’t suppose you’ve heard the news out of Amakir. I’ve had very disturbing reports about Aramil’s behavior.”

Valentine waits for a moment, then says, “I’m sorry to hear it. How bad is it?”

“Very bad. It sounds — it sounds like he’s lost to us entirely. He never showed up at the ministry, or used any of the letters of recommendation that were provided.” Another long pause. “I have reason to believe he’s joined a thieves’ guild, disappeared into the underworld there. There was some risk in sending him, of course. It’s a known distribution point for black market goods. There’s an assassin’s guild there, a handful of established crime families. I didn’t fully understand that. We had family, I had connections, I hoped it would be enough for him to go away, to have some independence.”

“I’m so sorry, Marcus. That must be a terrible blow.”

“It is, to me and to his mother. More than I can easily explain.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Did you know anything? Did he tell you anything beforehand? I’m not making accusations,” he says humbly. “I just want to understand what happened.”

“No, sir. I didn’t know. Honestly, I’m surprised. I could tell that he was very unhappy — dangerously so. I tried to raise the subject of his sentence, but he laughed it off, refused to discuss it. I was afraid for him, but I didn’t have any indication that he planned to do that.”

“What did he say? What discussions did you have?”

Valentine hesitates, tries to think how to explain Aramil’s mindset and his own to this much older, punctilious diplomat. “I could tell that he was extremely downcast, as bad as I’d ever seen him. We’re fairly close, but he absolutely refused to discuss the future. I could tell that he dreaded it. I had personal business in the area, and I asked him to consider coming with me, deferring his arrival in Amakir. He said, no, he would take his medicine. And that’s what his mood was when I left him. It’s very hard. I don’t know what I would have done differently. He’s older than I am, and the head of the family after yourself. I don’t entirely trust his judgment, but he’s not a child, either. I had no real alternative to offer. I just urged him to take time, think about it, not do anything that couldn’t be undone.”

“Please don’t think I blame you. I know you’ve always done your best, tried to act in the best interest of the family. You’ve been a steadying influence on him.” Marcus speaks heavily. “Xardic was right. He ruined himself.”

“It is too late? Is it total ruin? I always felt that the terms of banishment were generous — that there was room for him to simply take time, grow up, change. That’s what I kept trying to tell him — it wasn’t either, fit into this tiny slot or plunge into a life of crime.”

Marcus shakes his head. “That’s a generous way to see it. You’re very generous. But I have to accept that he was offered a clear alternative, and he made his choice. He’s not capable of reform.”

Valentine nods. It’s true that on Marcus’ very narrow terms, Aramil is almost certain to fail — that’s been the problem all along.

Marcus continues, “There’s been so much scandal, so much pain over the years. I’d like it to stop here. We’ve all had so much to bear — Sieia, Xardic, Penelope — It’s bad for the city itself. A family like ours should serve the public, not make demands on its patience, its charity. We have a real duty. It grieves me to say it — it grieves me terribly — but that public duty never meant anything to Aramil, to my own son.”

Valentine bows his head. There’s nothing to say. It’s true that Aramil is incapable of a life of sober public service.

“There’s something I should have done,” Marcus says. “When Aramil was banished, he lost all right to his inheritance. The Shelawn fortune is entailed, and the terms of the entail are simple. The family fortune in its entirety goes to the oldest legitimate male relative who is a legal citizen of Liamelia. That’s you.”

Valentine can’t help but notice precisely whom the terms exclude: not just Aramil, who is no longer a citizen, but Sieia because of her sex, and Inglorion, whose birth was illegitimate. Simple, arbitrary legal distinctions. He says quietly, “I didn’t really think about it. I never thought — it seems very strange to me. But I understand that it’s an honor and a responsibility.”

“Everything you’ve done has been right and proper. I’m the one who has been remiss. The moment Aramil signed the plea agreement, you became the legal heir. I should have taken steps immediately to recognize that fact, and to formalize it. I think you can understand why I didn’t — why it was so hard for me.”

“Of course, sir. And, honestly, I had no expectation…” He breaks off. “Aramil is the closest thing I have to a brother.”

Valentine is looking down at his hands, uncomfortable. Marcus captures his gaze, holds it. “You are the heir, Valentine. When I die, you will be the head of the family. It’s been hard on me personally, but it’s best for the family, the city, to recognize the truth.” He clears his throat, makes a deliberate effort to lighten the mood. “I’ve taken the most important steps already. You will have an income from the estate, like Aramil did. There’s a townhouse that has traditionally been used for bachelor quarters — I lived there before my marriage, and if you agree, I’ll have it transferred to you now. The management of the estate will remain in my hands, of course, but it’s appropriate for you to know the sources of income, and to be consulted on all major decisions. The responsibility is significant.”

Marcus pauses, then says, “There’s one more thing we should discuss. I understand from Sieia that you contracted an engagement to the eldest daughter of the Amakir family, but that the marriage is unlikely to come off.”

Valentine nods. “I did. We’ve agreed that we won’t suit.” He pauses for a moment. There’s nothing to be gained from pouring his heart out to Marcus, so Valentine emphasizes chivalry and propriety. “Lady Amakir was in distress; I offered to escort her to Liamelia, not realizing how our actions would be perceived. Once I understood that her reputation had been compromised, I offered marriage. It was the honorable thing to do. Subsequently, her family arranged a marriage for her as a way of resolving the situation. It was a good arrangement — there were significant financial advantages — and it relieved me of the necessity of honoring an engagement that I didn’t intend, and that was hastily made.”

Marcus nods thoughtfully. “I know you intended to act honorably, and strictly speaking, you did. However, as the heir to the Shelawn fortune, you’ll need to exercise unusual caution and prudence. I have nothing to say against Lady Amakir — I know nothing of her. But there are young ladies who will attempt to draw you into a connection in precisely that way. You’re well out of that scrape. Such an alliance wouldn’t add to your consequence. Her family is significantly financially embarrassed. Their liabilities would have made a serious dent in even the Shelawn fortune.”

Valentine is tempted to defend Valykria, but but he knows that nothing can be gained by it, so he merely says, “I was very naive, I’ve afraid. I didn’t fully understand my own situation, or the rules governing her conduct and mine. In the future, I’ll seek advice before contracting a marriage.” It’s easily said, and it might even be true.

“If you seek advice and counsel, you won’t go far wrong. When the time comes for you to marry, you’ll want to please yourself to some extent; and certainly none of us would urge you to contract a marriage of convenience, or an alliance that’s distasteful to you.”

Valentine is abashed by Marcus’ confidence in him. It’s hardly deserved. He inclines his head, murmurs, “I’m glad you understand how it was, sir.”

“None better. You’re young and chivalrous, and you’re still learning our ways. Your sensibilities and instincts are correct. You weren’t bred to this position, but your birth will stand you in good stead. It already has.”

Valentine leaves feeling as if he’s gotten over heavy ground very lightly indeed. Only later does he realize the true extent of his luck. When Marcus talks about significant responsibility, he means tremendous wealth. The Shelawns have one of the largest private fortunes in Liamelia; Valentine’s allowance alone will make him a rich man.

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