[WIR: Magic’s Promise] 5-1: Brilliantly Awkward or just Awkward
“What?” Withen asked, his brow wrinkling in perplexity.
“I said, we have to talk. Now.” Vanyel walked slowly and carefully toward his father, exerting every bit of control he possessed to keep his face impassive. “About you. About me. And about some assumptions about me that you keep making.”
He stood just out of arm’s length of Withen’s chair, struggling to maintain his composure. “When I brought Medren in here, I knew what you were thinking, just looking at your expression.”
The fire flared up, lighting Withen’s face perfectly.
And you’re still thinking it-
Vanyel came as close as he ever had in his life to exploding, and kept his voice down only by dint of much self-control. It took several moments before he could speak.
“Dammit, Father, I’m not like that! I don’t do things like that! I’m a Herald – and dammit, I’m a decent man – I don’t molest little boys! Gods, the idea makes me want to vomit, and that you automatically assumed I had -”
He was trembling, half in anger, half in an anguished frustration that had been held in check for nearly ten years.
Well. This is some awkward territory. I get that this is a product of when this book was written, and that people were still having to make it clear that Gay People Aren’t All Pedophiles, Mkay?
But having this come hot on the heels of Melenna getting pregnant at young Vanyel’s age or earlier, or for that matter, Vanyel starting up his own first relationship with someone several years his senior in maturity and life experience. (Well, for a given value of maturity, given how things turned out, but…)
Teenage sexuality is an incredibly fraught topic. There is a very large and uncomfortable amount of daylight between the kinds of sexual relationship we as adults are comfortable with kids having, and the relationships that kids will choose to have. And, now that I think about it, Ned there was consenting, if not consenting enthusiastically. If Ned could have gotten out of his situation by seducing someone female and his own age, I’m sure that would have been his first choice. Mind you, it definitely shouldn’t have been his first choice, but…
Well, long story short, this shit’s complicated, and I can’t blame Withen for blanching when Vanyel walked in with this kid, any more than I’d blame him for blanching if Vanyel’s brother walked in with a 12-year-old girl in tow late at night.
Withen squirmed, acutely uncomfortable with this confrontation. “Son, I -”
Vanyel cut him off with an abrupt shake of his head, then held both his hands outstretched toward Withen in entreaty. “Why, Father, why? Why can’t you believe what I tell you? What have I ever done to make you think I have no sense of honor? When have I ever been anything other than honest with you?”
I’m tempted to do a re-skim of Vanyel’s previous conversations with his father to look for examples, but I’ll refrain. I also find it hard to believe that Vanyel has ever sat down and clearly talked about his own sexual preferences in detail with his father. And if all his father knows is that Vanyel prefers men, that his desires are shameful and forbidden, and ends up typical-mind-fallacying into “Well, if I preferred having sex with men, I’d want the most feminine men possible…”
Plus, I’m finding it hard to build up righteous indignation against Withen for the contents of his mind alone. If he suspected Vanyel of nefarious intent towards Ned for a moment, he clearly had stopped considering it a possibility by the time the conversation went on. Vanyel has every reason to be angry, certainly, but the assumption Withen made was not unreasonable, and he didn’t hold onto it or defend it when alternate explanations were offered.
Withen stared at the floor.
“Look,” Vanyel said, grasping at anything to get his point across, “let’s turn this around. I know damned good and well you’ve had other bedpartners than Mother, but do I assume you would try to-to seduce that little-girl chambermaid of hers? Have I looked sideways at you whenever you’ve been around one of her ladies? So why should you constantly accuse me in your mind – assuming that I would obviously be trying to seduce every susceptible young man and vulnerable little boy in sight?”
Vanyel, I’m pretty sure that if said chambermaid ducked off to a private room with Withen one night, and that Withen immediately followed by offering to personally finance an education and move to the city, and if people happened to know for some reason that the chambermaid was willing if not eager to trade sex for that education and move, he’d get a lot of sideways looks, too.
I’m also a bit disappointed in Withen here as a character (while giving him props as a dad and a noble patriarch). I think we’ve passed the point where I’d expect him to start shouting back. Given that this characterization hasn’t been about him being super-anemable-to-persuasion, either he’s listening carefully to his son, or he’s listening carefully to the distraught super-mage smack dab in the middle of his home, and both speak well of him.
Withen coughed, and flushed crimson. He’d probably be angry, Vanyel thought, in a part of his mind somewhere beyond his anguish, except that this frontal assault isn’t giving him time to be anything other than embarrassed.
Gee, now would be a great time to defuse that anger by setting down your own personal attractions, expectations, and standards, wouldn’t it?
“You – could use your reputation. As a – the kind of person they write those songs about.” Withen flushed even redder. “A hero-worshipping lad would find it hard to-deny you. Might even think it your due and his duty.”
“Yes, Father, that’s only too true. Yes, I could use my reputation. Don’t think I’m not acutely aware of that. But I won’t – would never! Can’t you understand that? I’m a Herald. I have a moral obligation that I’ve pledged myself to by accepting that position.”
“A quasi-horselike thingy said ‘Vanyel! I choose you!’ It was very formal and rigorous!”
I don’t actually remember hearing about a formal Herald oath, or about Valdemar’s actual age of consent laws, and any possible Romeo-and-Juliet exceptions.
I also think that both Withen and Vanyel are talking around another problem here. The kind of person they write songs about doesn’t need to actively use his reputation, any more than boy-band stars today do. That kind of reputation gets you a lot of lust, from people who almost certainly aren’t in a position to be able to act upon those lusts in a healthy manner.
Vanyel tries to explain a bit more about the Herald bits. (Not those bits. Shut up.)
“There’re more reasons than that; I’m a Thought-senser, Father, did you ever think what that means? The constraints it puts on me? The things I’m open to? It’s a harder school of honor than ever Jervis taught. There are no compromises, mind-to-mind. There are no falsehoods; there can’t be. A relationship for me has to be one of absolute equals; freely giving, freely sharing-or nothing.” Still no flicker of understanding. He used blunter language. “No rape, Father. No unwilling seduction. No lies, no deception. No harm. No one who doesn’t already know what he is. No one who hasn’t made peace with what he is, and accepted it. No innocents, who haven’t learned what they are. No children.”
Bwahaha. Yes, the Talia-Kris relationship back in Book 2 of the Arrows series was completely and totally a meeting of absolute equality.
This…isn’t even wrong. Presumably, if you’re an utter bastard and an empath, then the harm you’re causing is a perk.
I also feel like there was some sideline in here about Gays Corrupting Our Youth With Homo-Satanic Experimentation. I definitely feel that this is holding up a rather silly and unreasonable standard for sexual identity here. People’s preferences seem to be pretty much set in stone, modulo some wiggle room here and there, but people only get understanding of who they are by noting the dissonance. Loads of people find themselves identifying as “Straight as an arrow, except for that one person over there, or maybe that group, or this situation.”
And I am really wondering about that last qualification here. Clearly 15 is being held up as Not a Child, and 12 is Definitely a Child. But when we compare Vanyel and Ned, Vanyel at 15 had no idea where he was going or what he was doing, and ended up getting love-struck by Fate. Ned, by contrast, has formed a clear plan for his future, and is capable of doing cost-benefit calculations, taking calculated risks, and owning up to them. And, I note, Ned fits all of the other criteria. He wasn’t unwilling, wasn’t lying about anything, and knew that he was entirely straight, and was still making the offer.
Again, Vanyel’s talking about a kind of sexuality which isn’t actually practiced, and which would seem to imply that empaths have the worst sex lives. Not all sex is a numinous bonding of souls and bodies. Sometimes, your arms hurt and your abs are burning, you’re sweating and tired, and you’re hair’s gone everywhere and you’d rather stop, but your partner is enjoying themselves very much and so you continue for their sake. And then when you’ve both caught your breath, your partner powers on through their own momentary discomfort for your sake, not as part of a formal quid-pro-quo, but because they want you to enjoy yourself very much as well.
And now that I’ve written all this out, now I’m wondering if this whole bit isn’t to say that the Heralds do have formal standards of boning beyond “Be decent and wholesome and remember there’s a QHAT in your head feeling you lust after that person over there.”, but that Vanyel’s got a large amount of hangups compounded by Magic Complication and Fated True Love Complication and the default assumption that someone willing to break the rules around partner sex will be willing to break all of the other rules as well.
Withen looked away, fidgeting a little in his chair. Vanyel moved swiftly to kneel between him and the fire, where Withen couldn’t avoid looking at him. “Father – dammit, Father, I care about you. I don’t want to make you unhappy, but I can’t help what I am.”
“Why, Van?” Withen’s voice sounded half – strangled. “Why? What in hell did I do wrong?”
Well, the data’s pretty spotty, Pops, but I don’t think all those older brothers helped.
This is a case, I think, where Vanyel would benefit from actually displaying that kind of super-thought-sensing he just talked about. If he actually had that level of Gift, to the point where casual sex was categorically unthinkable, he should be able to dig into the root of his father’s misconceptions and get at them that way. Hell, I can propose a good plan of attack even without that. “OK, Dad, your father didn’t literally teach you to be attracted to women when you were a youth, right? You just naturally knew one day, right? Well, that is exactly how I feel about men. Nothing you did or do can change that.”
“Nothing! Everything! I don’t know!” Vanyel cried out, his words trembling in the air, a tragic song tortured from the strings of a broken lute. “Why am I Gifted? Why am I anything? Maybe it’s something I was born with. Maybe the gods willed it. Maybe it’s nothing more than the fact that the only person I’ll ever love happened to be born into the same sex body that I was!”
Wow. I was not expecting, in the midst of 80s-era PSAs, for the book to say “Upbringing can’t turn you gay, but maybe deific meddling and externally-enforced love can.”
That’s some heavy stuff, and Vanyel doesn’t stop there.
Grief knotted his throat and twisted his voice further. “All I know is that I am this way, and nothing is going to change that. And I care for my father, and nothing is going to change that. And if you can’t believe in me, in my sense of honor – oh, gods, Father -”
He got to his feet somehow, and held out his open hands toward Withen in a desperate plea for understanding. “Please, Father – I’m not asking for much. I’m not asking you to do anything. Only to believe that I am a decent human being. Believe in Herald Vanyel if you won’t believe in your son. Only – believe; believe that no one will ever come to harm at my hands. And try to understand. Please.”
The previous admission is not one I’d ever expect to read in this era’s fantasy lit, for assorted political reasons. But Vanyel? Vanyel doesn’t care about why he’s gay. He just knows that he is, and that is what he’s dealing with right now.
I also note how completely Vanyel has changed his position on his reputation as a legendary Herald. Before in the tavern, he literally fled from it, and now he’s desperately invoking it.
Vanyel’s entreaty is powerful, and moving. But it got one important thing completely wrong.
But there still was no understanding in Withen’s eyes. Only uncertainty, and acute discomfort. Vanyel let his hands fall and turned away, defeated. The last dregs of his energy had been burned out, probably for nothing.
“I – I’m sorry, son-”
“Never mind,” Vanyel said dully, bleakly, walking slowly toward the door. “Never mind. I’ve lived with it this long, I should be used to it. Listen; I’m going to make you a pledge, since you won’t believe me without one. Medren is safe from my advances, Father. Your grandsons are safe. Every damned thing on this holding down to the sheep is safe. All right? You have my damned oath as a damned Herald on it. Will that be enough for you?”
He didn’t wait to hear the answer, but opened the door quickly and shut it behind him.
Harsh. But not unexpected. You don’t get to ask other people to believe something, or not believe it. And you simply can’t usefully ask people not to be revolved by something they’re genuinely revolted by. The solution here, if there is a solution, is to spend years around letting Withen being out and nonthreateningly proud, and let him and his peers slowly get accustomed to a kind of sexuality they consider foreign and deviant and harmful, and see that it’s none of those things.
But Vanyel can’t do that, on many levels and for many reasons. I feel like we’re seeing yet more of Vanyel’s eternal war tours here. Any other Herald, I imagine, would have some idea how negotiation and persuasion work. They would have asked Withen to do something, to take some tangible action or some noticeable refrain, in exchange for an action of his own, and used that to build rapport and trust.
Because, now that I think about it, Withen really does have precious little reason to trust Vanyel. The last time he’s spent any significant time around Vanyel was a decade ago, and that Vanyel clearly could not be trusted to make good relationship decisions.
I can’t tell if this segment is brilliantly awkward or just awkward. We have Vanyel making a bunch of pronouncements about the appropriate ages for sexuality in a household where a 15-year-old girl getting pregnant isn’t particularly out of the ordinary, and is distraught about being suspected of possible impropriety with a youth who, let us remember, came to his room late at night and sexually propositioned him.
Knowing Vanyel’s history specifically, we can see why he reacted as he did to these events in a sub-optimal manner. But if this sequence was meant to evoke “Yes, he has a point, but in this specific situation, there are complications…” to imply that there have been complications every time the topic of conversation has come up, and this is why two reasonable people can remain at loggerheads for a decade on end, then this is a brilliant passage.
I am a little afraid, however, that Mercedes Lackey was blind to the questions and irregularities that arose in the specific cases here. But we’ve been dealing in a positive and nuanced way with serious topics so far, so I’m leaning very much towards the first option.