2. The Beholder

Musical Score: David Bowie, Starman (1972)

The next morning, Valentine receives a dinner invitation from his cousin Sieia, Xardic’s wife and, apparently, one of his many living Shelawn relatives. It’s delivered by a servant who was told to wait for an answer. Valentine gives a verbal reply: “The invitation is for dinner tonight?” The servant nods. “Please tell her I’m honored, but must refuse. I haven’t had time to purchase evening clothes.” A reply comes within the hour. The footman summarizes it: “Lady Sieia says, come as you are — my guests are interested in your story, not your attire, and she is eager to meet a long-lost cousin.”

It seems impossible to turn this down, so Valentine arrives at the Ceralac townhouse at the stated hour, dressed in the best clothes he owns. The footman takes one look at him and ushers him into Sieia’s withdrawing room. She comes tripping in minutes later, attired in a fragile silk dress, her hair elaborately curled and pinned.

Unlike some wealthy matrons who bear the title, Sieia is rightly called a famous beauty. She has wide, deep-set violet eyes, a perfectly straight aquiline nose, and high cheekbones. Her skin is perfectly pale and creamy, with just the slightest bronze undertone. She has a charming figure: long-legged and slim, but with a full, high bosom. Detractors may point out that her features aren’t classically perfect: her mouth is too wide, her jaw is strong, and instead of the preferred white-gold shade, her hair is a rich, Titian red. However, her appeal lies as much in her manner as in her face and form. She’s rich and married to a leading citizen, but retains an appealing playfulness and candor. Most of the time, a smile plays at the corners of her mouth — it’s as if she’s overflowing with sweet, sympathetic mirth.

Indeed, when she sees Valentine, she bursts into friendly laughter: “Oh, dear, you really are an original.” She offers her hand, then embraces him, “Since we’re cousins.” She seems to grasp his situation intuitively, so her remark seems frank, not unkind.

Valentine looks helpless. “What is it? I told you I didn’t have any evening clothes.”

“I know — I know. I should have realized. It’s just — no one wears weapons anymore. Maybe my father’s generation. He was a military man, and I think I remember him carrying a ceremonial foil at times. It isn’t done now.” She smiles at him wryly. “We’re so safe here.” 

She steps back, studies his appearance. His outfit really is bad: he’s dressed like a wood elf about to go on a three-day raiding party. His clothes are clean and well-made, but entirely functional. He’s not wearing any jewelry, and his boots are polished but worn. His manner is unusual: self-possessed, quiet, sober. As she studies him, she has to remind herself that he’s quite young — he just took his adult name, and did it early. She notes that he’s handsome in a way that’s unremarkable among elves: lithe, almost delicate, with chiseled features. He’s still thin from his captivity and escape. His greatest asset is classic Shelawn coloring: alabaster skin, white-gold hair, deep violet eyes. 

“I’m going to make a few small changes. May I?” He nods. She unbuckles and removes the sheathed rapiers, sets them aside, then examines the bandolier of daggers. Her touch is light, impersonal. He can smell her perfume: roses and jasmine, mingled with a deeper note of ambergris. “These are beautiful. Drow workmanship?” He nods, unsheathes one for her to examine. It’s adamantine, perfectly balanced for throwing; the hilt is elaborately etched with a spiderweb pattern. She nods, hands it back. “You should wear those. You’re not my husband’s size, so we’ll go with the clothes you have on. You don’t have anything from the family? A signet ring?”

Valentine’s manner has been one of patient endurance, but now he breaks into a smile. “Ma’am, I was a slave, not an honored guest. They took everything I had.”

“Yes, of course.” She looks playful rather than ashamed or awkward. “Wait here.”

She darts out, then reappears with a jewelry box and cloak. She replaces his plain linen cloak with a dark blue one embroidered with oak leaves and lined with indigo satin. The cloak smells of cedar, and deepens the violet of his eyes. From the jewelry box she selects a matching silver cloak pin and circlet, both fashioned to resemble oak leaves. His hair is tied back with a ribbon. She lets it down, and it reaches to his shoulders. 

“Drow wear their hair down, don’t they? We’ll leave it down.” She combs it out with a little ivory comb, then twists a lock and pins it back to keep it from falling in his face. “What else?” She sifts through the jewelry box again. “Oh, I’d forgotten about this. It belongs to my brother. It’s Drow-made.” She holds up a signet ring made of adamantine, set with a massive oval of polished onyx. Valentine tilts her hand so that the stone catches the light, sees that it’s etched with an image of a beholder. 

He recoils. “Ma’am, I can’t wear that. It’s a house token of some kind. Only a clan member can wear one — they have to be earned.”

“What did you call it? A house token?”

“Yes. They’re crafted for an individual. It’s a kind of identification badge. When the owner dies, the token is destroyed. They can’t be transferred or inherited.” 

“What can you tell me about this one?”

He takes it from her gingerly. “It was meant to be worn openly, so whoever owned it was nobility or royalty.” He examines the setting. “See the fascia here? A bundle of crossbow bolts bound with ribbon? That’s the symbol of a ducal house. I don’t recognize the insignia — it wasn’t used by any clan I know.” He studies the inside of the band and then the underside of the stone, tilting it to catch the light. “There. The sign of Lolth. I swore an oath to Corellon Larithian when I was among the wood elves, you know. I shouldn’t even touch this.” He hands it back, then says hesitantly, “You said it belongs to your brother. I don’t understand. I’ve never seen a token away from its owner.”

Sieia looks troubled, confused. “He told me to keep it for him.”

Valentine pauses. She’s a wealthy matron in a society he doesn’t understand. He’s a recipient of her casual patronage, a guest in her home, and a strange guest, at that — one without family, money, or connections. “Ma’am, no disrespect to your brother, but that’s not a piece of family jewelry that’s gone astray. The token system is sacred to the Drow. Every clan and faction in the Underdark would unite to destroy this, and to kill him, you and anyone who knew about it.”

She laughs ruefully. “I’ve had it for years.”

“You have to get rid of it.”

“I can’t. Inglorion gave it to me.” She laughs again, fondly. “It’s so like him — he knew I’d never wear it, that I’d just lock it up and forget about it.” 

“It’s not his to give. Even the owner couldn’t give it away. You should destroy it — melt down the setting and smash the stone.”

“I can’t do that.” She slides the ring onto her thumb, admires it, and smiles up at Valentine impishly. “Anyway, there are no Drow here.” She puts the ring back in the box and locks it. Valentine relaxes slightly once it’s out of sight. 

“Where is your brother?”

“I don’t know,” she says lightly. “He shows up when he likes.” She glances up at the clock on the fireplace mantle. Valentine wants to ask more questions, to persuade her to destroy the ring. But as he watches her, he realizes that she may not be as sheltered and foolish as she seems. He suddenly remembers her sure touch on the dagger’s handle. He suspects that she judged its fighting qualities before noting the ornamentation. 

Sieia steps back and looks at him. “You’ll do. People are expecting something exotic, and they’ll get it. Just be yourself.”

Because she seems kind, he says, “Remind me again: who am I?”

“You’re Valentine, a famous swordsman who made a daring escape.” He offers her his arm, and she leads him down a series of passageways, to a large salon. Two footmen stand by the door: one to open it, and one to announce them to the brightly dressed company gathered within. “Come on,” she whispers. “It’s mostly family.”

She introduces him to roughly a dozen people gathered around the hearth: young cousins, matrons, older gentlemen who appear to be politicians or civil servants. He and Xardic exchange bows. Everyone is exquisitely dressed, with a kind of casual affluence that stuns and fascinates Valentine. He’s accustomed to life in the Underdark, where stone, gems and metals are common, but cloth, wood and leather are hard to come by. China, paintings, rugs — these items fascinate him, and he wishes he were free to inspect every object he sees, to just marvel at their beauty and opulence. 

He’s seated between a young woman and an older matron for dinner. The dishes and food seem too valuable to touch or eat. The array of silverware fascinates him, and he finds himself stroking his fork almost for comfort. He feels dizzy and short of breath, and struggles to answer his companions’ attempts at conversation. 

The young lady on his right is unafraid to broach obvious questions: “What are the Drow like? One hears so many stories.”

“It’s hard to say. It’s a whole civilization, and there’s so much I didn’t see.”

“It’s said that they’re cruel.”

“That’s true. The Underdark is a cruel environment.” His answers sound hesitant, but also cold, like he could say more, but doesn’t think she’s worth the trouble. 

“I’m sorry if I’m being rude. Perhaps I shouldn’t ask.” 

“Not at all. It’s hard to explain, and I’m not eloquent.” 

The older matron turns out to be a cousin by marriage, Penelope Shelawn. Her husband, Marcus, is Sieia’s older brother, and the head of the family that Valentine has suddenly joined. She inquires about his plans and goals now that he’s returned home. When he says he plans to offer weapons training, she tries to engage him to teach her son. “He’s a prodigy with weapons, but very undisciplined, unfocused.” 

As they talk, Valentine catches snippets of conversation from further down the table, and worries that he’s being discussed. “No one knows who his family is. An orphan? Convenient. More like an adventurer.” “He seems like a quiet, thoughtful boy.” “Do the Drow have spies?” “He’s my guest, and I won’t have him abused!” This from Sieia, in a slightly raised tone. 

The evening passes in an uncomfortable blur. The men are respectful but uninterested — they treat him as they would a famous foreign scientists or philosopher, correctly assuming that they have little in common. The women are more difficult. They notice details of his dress and conduct. Three or four playfully insist that he has an accent, and he can’t be certain that he doesn’t, though he’s spoken Elvish all his life. 

At some point, Xardic delivers an eloquent prepared speech to the assembled guests, by now 40 or 50 people. Valentine doesn’t recognize the cruel, rapacious enemy Xardic describes, but if such an enemy exists, he would certainly feel obliged to stamp them out. Xardic’s account of the Drow raid that killed his family nearly moves the audience to tears. Valentine’s captivity seems more extreme and less squalid than it actually was, and the escape that he describes is so breathtaking, clever and daring that Valentine feels genuine respect and awe for the swashbuckling fellow who accomplished it. Valentine is forced to reply, and he manages to maintain the illusion by keeping his remarks short and cryptic and appearing grim and noble rather than shy and appalled. Throughout, he is well-served by his former servitude. He remains outwardly calm, studies his surroundings, strives to grasp his role and play it well. He’s aware that the game is his to lose — they want to believe in the enemy Xardic has crafted, and they need the courageous young elf he’s supposed to be. 

Afterwards another young woman corners him for questioning. She’s remarkably well-informed about Drow mating habits, particularly the boldness of their women. Valentine lets her ramble, allowing her to answer her own questions. After a long time, he finally says gently, “I wouldn’t know. I was a slave, not a concubine.”

“You’ve never been with a Drow woman?” She says archly. “You can’t expect me to believe that.”

“In my position, it would have been foolish in the extreme.” She opens her mouth for a follow-up question, and he cuts her off: “My dear, female spiders devour the males after copulation. I’m not that bold.” An uncomfortable lull follows, and he tries to turn the subject. “Sieia mentioned a brother — I can’t remember what she said, though.”

“You met Marcus and his wife, Penelope.”

“I thought there was another — he’s been traveling, perhaps?”

She shakes her head, looks troubled, or just confused.

“I must have misunderstood. It’s been a long night. You’ll excuse me?” By now they’re both eager for him to mingle.

As the guests take their leave in clusters, the matron reminds him to come by her family’s mansion the following day to begin instructing her son, Aramil, in the use of rapiers and crossbows. She assures Valentine that Aramil is sure to be an excellent student, though inattentive, unruly and difficult.

This is how midmorning finds a reluctant Valentine walking through tidy city streets, wearing his usual rapiers, daggers and crossbow. He gets a lot of shocked, uncomfortable looks, which tell him in no uncertain terms that gray elves do not commonly arm themselves before making morning calls. 

When he reaches the Shelawn townhouse, a servant shows him into a formal sitting room. The center has been cleared of furniture, and the silk carpet has been rolled up and stashed against one wall. His student is lounging in front of the fireplace, twisting the rings on his fingers and occasionally pushing back an unruly lock of black hair. Aramil is expensively dressed, and though his eyes are green and his skin is bronze, he resembles Sieia in some indefinable way. Perhaps it’s simply that his features are strikingly mobile, and become more expressive in the face of Valentine’s subdued manner. 

“I’m Aramil. You’re Valentine?”

“Yes.” Valentine sets down the case of equipment, awkwardly joins Aramil at the fireplace. 

“You’re here to teach me?”

“Yes.” He looks expectantly at Aramil, who has begun to jingle the change in his pockets. “What do you want to know?”

Aramil pretends to consider. “Do you know any tricks?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Weapon tricks, like shooting flaming arrows, or fancy rapier attacks. You fight with rapiers?” Aramil isn’t precisely sneering — there’s some room in his tone to take him seriously, engage with him.

“I learned longsword and short sword, but I’ve fought with rapiers the longest. Your mother said you were interested in learning to fence.”

“You’re supposed to be this incredible swordsman. You must know some pretty cool shit.”

“I very much doubt that.” Valentine’s manner has gone from an assumption of polite friendliness to cold and abrupt. “What do you want to learn? What kind of fighting do you expect to do, against what opponents? Do you have weaknesses that you want to correct? Techniques that you want to learn?” 

Aramil looks childishly disappointed, and slightly ashamed. “My parents thought I’d like to study with a swordsman of your fame and stature. Someone my own age.”

“They might well be wrong. I met your mother at a dinner party. She’s had little opportunity to judge my swordsmanship.” 

“You never felt tempted to learn any tricks? You can’t juggle those daggers, or throw them at pretty, tied-up ladies?” Aramil grins slyly.

Valentine smiles, conceding Aramil’s charm, then says apologetically, “I’m not imaginative in that way. I just know how to fight.” He pauses, cocks his head, studies Aramil. “You’re good, aren’t you? No one here has much to teach you, because you guys don’t fight all that much. Surrounded by this beautiful, high-walled city. Even your militia must have trouble staying sharp.” Aramil looks uncomfortable — irritated, even. “I’m sorry. That sounded rude. This is a beautiful city. You’re lucky to have all of this.”

They both look around at the graceful moldings, silk and brocade draperies, the delicate chairs and side-tables that Aramil has pushed against the wall. Aramil realizes with a jolt that this is all deeply strange to Valentine — that his simple clothes, well-worn boots and oiled weapons are not an affectation. He falls still for just a moment, trying to gauge the distance between them.

Valentine says, “Wait. You’re fast, right? And you fight with a dagger. I might have a trick to show you. But it has to be dark in here. We have to close the drapes.”

Together they draw the curtains on the high windows that line one wall. The room isn’t black, but it’s decidedly gloomy. As their eyes start to switch to darkvision, Valentine hands Aramil a dagger. “It’s simple. I’ll stand in the center of the room with my eyes closed and my weapons sheathed. Attack however you like, from any direction.”

“What the fuck? Really?”Aramil looks glances at the dagger, notes that it’s terribly sharp and weighted for throwing. “What if I hurt you?”

“I don’t think you will.” Valentine laughs abruptly. “If you do, that’s when things get interesting, right?” 

He hears Aramil’s answering laugh. “Right.”

Valentine stands in the center of the room, eyes closed, hands clasped behind his back, still, at ease. Aramil removes his boots, cloak and jewelry. In his stockinged feet, Aramil is silent. He pads around the room a bit, studying Valentine, hefting the dagger. 

Aramil is used to fighting with practice weapons — blades with guards or buttons, armor, masks. He feels a rush of excitement and dread as he attacks Valentine at half-speed, feints at him really, from the side.

Valentine disarms him, twisting his wrist down cruelly, tripping him, then catching him before he can fall. He places Aramil back on his feet. “You’re not that slow. Come at me full speed, like you mean it.” Valentine picks the dagger up and hands it back.

Again, Valentine stands calmly, eyes closed, hands clasped. This time Aramil comes straight at him, aiming an overhand strike at Valentine’s exposed throat. Valentine deflects the blow, mimes a series of strikes at Aramil’s face, and darts to the far side of the room. Aramil still has the dagger.

“Fuck,” says Aramil. 

“Yeah, fuck. Do it again. Don’t give up because I deflected your strike. Next time, keep coming. Any angle, any strike. Throw it if you want to.”

Again, Valentine in the middle of the room, Aramil stalking him, heart pounding. He sucks in a few deep breaths, forces his breathing to even out, then rushes Valentine from behind, tries to shank him underhanded, aiming for the kidneys. Valentine deflects the blow, grabs his fist two-handed with terrifying strength, twists the dagger away and flicks it across the room, kicks Aramil’s front knee out from under him, sending him crashing to the floor. Valentine whips both rapiers out with a sickening metallic whistle, and Aramil feels the tips cold against his throat for an instant before Valentine sheathes them, offers Aramil a hand up.

They study each other through the gloom. Aramil’s breathing is audible, ragged. “How did you learn that?” 

“In a dark prison cell, surrounded by bored guards. Then standing watch for a raiding party.” Valentine cocks his head again. “Aramil — it’s Aramil, right?” Aramil nods. “Look, Aramil, killing is a business. I don’t kill for sport, or out of anger. I’ll kill you because my breakfast is cold, and I’m tired of fucking around.” His tone is cool, and not unkind. They open the curtains, and the sunlight floods in. Aramil is flushed, and looks ashamed. Valentine gazes out the window. “It’s so beautiful here. The city, the sunlight.” 

Aramil doesn’t hear him. He’s putting his boots and cloak and rings back on, retrieving the dagger from under a gilt chair. He keeps glancing up at Valentine, different expressions chasing one another across his face: petulance, awe, humiliation — cloudy, then brilliant, then dark again. “What was it like? How did you get away?”

Valentine looks out the window for a moment as if he hasn’t heard, then says softly, with precision: “It’s dark. The air is always stale.” Aramil waits for him to continue. “I waited until I was assigned to a raid aboveground, with others I could trust. We fragged the Drow guard and fled. Two turned back when we ran out of food, and two died from injuries and exposure. I knew I couldn’t help them, so I left them behind.” He glances at Aramil, who looks somber. After a little pause, he asks, “Can you really juggle daggers?”

Aramil breaks into a grin. “Can’t you? If I carried that many daggers, I’d definitely learn to juggle them.” He’s still absently holding the first dagger. He holds out his left palm, and Valentine hands him a second. Aramil begins to juggle them. When he’s got a rhythm going, Valentine passes him the third, then the fourth. After a moment or two, Aramil pulls them out of flight one by one, and hands them back to Valentine, who sheathes them as they come. When Valentine restores the last one to his bandolier, Aramil bows with a flourish. 

Valentine smiles. “Nice. You really are quick.” 

Aramil walks Valentine down. They shake hands in the foyer. As the front door closes behind him, Valentine descends the stone steps. He looks back at the elegant townhouse, then up at the sun. As he crosses the green and well-groomed square, people turn to look at him, and point him out to each other. From here, they seem radiant, curious and kind.

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