Most stories have a good love interest somewhere in there. The hero or heroine pines after this fella or that girl while in the midst of fighting the forces of evil or passing the bar or getting the band together for one last gig or whatever. We’re humans – we’re saps for a good romance. Fantasy fiction is no exception, either. I might even go so far as to say that the ‘love interest’ angle present in a lot of fantasy novels is, in some ways, more central to the plot than in many other genres. Maybe.
Well, if not more central, then certainly odder and potentially more problematic.
I’ve written previously about my difficulty with the female image in fantasy literature; this isn’t precisely about that. What I’m talking about is less the objectification of women and more about the romanticized idea of love. In fantasy novels, there is a certain male and a certain female character who are destined to fall in romantic love with one another and that is that. We all know who it is, too. Mad Martigan and Sorsha, Conan and Valeria, Rand Al’Thor and Elayne, Min, Aviendha and god-knows how many others in that series…
I could go on, but you know what I mean. Did any of us honestly think Luke was going to walk off with Leia? Nope. She was for Han the whole time. We could tell, you see, because they fought. Fighting means love, folks. If you don’t bicker, you don’t care. I know if I were locked in a rusty old space freighter for what was probably months with some woman I was always fighting with, we would almost certainly fall in love and make babies. Obviously. That’s how love works, right?
Fantasy and science fiction have a tendency to treat romance with idealized and ham-handed attention. They make it into something it’s not, they warp and define it to suit the story. Some of this can be blamed back on the old fairy tales of our youth – normalized gender relations rendered into gory and terrifying metaphors about witches and towers and wolves in the forest. Others can be blamed on the typical audience for fantasy and science fiction literature – young, single men. The idea of romance is tailored to suit their fantasies, as silly as that is. That these fantasies are wrong or even offensive to women (and men!) is only understood by those with a little age and experience behind them. In other words: when I was 14, much like all men, I had certain romanticized ideas of what falling in love would be like, and they were almost all entirely wrong. I blame the books I read for this, and the books I read were primarily of the fantasy and science fiction persuasion.
Some things I learned:
Terrifying Experiences Do Not Enhance Romance: Horror movies are one thing, but actual terrifying things do not make you want to cuddle. Or, if they do, it isn’t the kind of cuddling that involves making out and fondling each other in front of a roaring fire. It usually involves shivering while one or the other of you sobs and the other one tries to find some way to make the other feel better by cracking bad jokes. No sex is had. None at all.
Not All Women Admire Your Competitiveness: Remember that scene in the movie Red Sonja, where Arnold and Red Sonja fight each other all day until eventually discovering they loved one another? Well, that might be a thing if you’re going after Red Sonja, but in general being over-competitive jerk who wants to beat his girlfriend at Trivial Pursuit to the point where he’s grimacing at the game board and cursing at a die roll of ’3′ is not sexy. They think you’re crazy. They are right.
Violence is Not a Turn On: No matter how much you think otherwise, gents, beating the crap out of somebody, no matter how much of a douche they are, is not likely to engender the affections of the opposite sex. Most girls will just be disgusted with the entire affair, since fighting (contrary to fantasy literature) is an unattractive thing to witness.
Sometimes You’re Just Friends: Look, guys, you are not the main character in your own epic saga of fantastic adventure. All the women will not be falling for you. Even if they’re nice and they seem to like you, that doesn’t mean you are just one date request away from deep and abiding love. Sometimes they just like you because they like you, not because they want to be with you. Sorry, them’s the brakes, kids.
The Opposite Thing From That Last: If a girl treats you badly and makes fun of you and abuses you physically and says she hates you, guess what? SHE HATES YOU. It is almost certainly not a game and, if it is, I’d suggest looking elsewhere since this girl seems to have severe self-esteem issues if she feels the need to abuse those she likes. In either event, the whole ’love you until you stop saying no’ concept is both bonkers and borderline creepy. Cut it out. In the real world, people tell you who they are.
Now, the caveat here is that all people are different and all relationships operate differently, so I suppose it’s arrogant of me to say all of the things I said above – ‘your mileage may vary’, as they say. That said, I think it’s fair to assume that basing our expectations of our love lives based off of works where people ride dragons and throw fireballs from their hands is, speaking generously, completely ridiculous.
To give the genre credit, many of the most recent crop of fantasy novels (A Song of Ice and Fire, The Kingkiller Chronicles, The Lies of Locke Lamora, and so on) do a pretty good job of interfering with the standard tropes, and romance has become a much more complicated affair in those worlds of late. Still and although, it is often the job of the fantasy reader, hard as it may sound, to separate the fantasies we choose to believe and the ones we don’t when taking our magical journeys into dreamland and beyond.
CHING! Chance clattered to the ground. Tyvian’s hand was numb from the disarm.
“No more playing, Reldamar.” Remieux edged Tyvian away from the sword and waited. “Go on, plead for mercy, thief.”
“Remieux, don’t kill him!” Jaliette’s hands were balled into fists as she watched, rooted to the spot by her father’s hand on her shoulder.
“Kill him.” Lady Velitiere glared at Tyvian’s back, her fingers playing with the empty clasp that held the Eye.
Remieux was breathing heavily—more heavily than Tyvian. That much, at least, was going in his favor. His blade lay four paces to his left, Remieux was but two paces in front of him. Artus was rapidly being discounted as a factor in his plan. This fight had to end, and now. Oh, and it was rather integral that Tyvian win. Being run through would muck up the remainder of his plans quite a bit.
Tyvian made as though to dive towards his sword. Remieux moved his blade to intercept, but realized too late that it was another feint. Tyvian stepped past LeMondeux and, with all the force of his momentum, kicked Remieux in the groin.
Remieux whimpered and collapsed like a cut-string marionette. Tyvian kicked him in the chin and then kicked LeMondeux away. He left Remieux to bleed on the floor so he could get Chance back in his hand.
No sooner had he snatched the weapon up than the hiss and crackle of Etheric energy cooked the air around him. Chance went very cold as it absorbed the brunt of the invocation. Tyvian escaped with a slight singe to his tunic.
“Nice shot, Orsienne. I must confess, my mother’s a bit better at deathbolts than that. Keep practicing, though.”
The exertion of channeling the Ether had left Lord Orsienne green around the gills. He flapped his hands and pointed wildly at Tyvian. “The blade is warded! Guards! Get him! Don’t let him escape.”
“As though the guards were thinking I was to be let go…” Twelve men, all armed to the teeth with firepikes, thunder orbs, and a variety of other expensive magical weapons, surrounded Tyvian.
They all tightened the ring a pace. “Artus, if you’re out there, I’d just like you to know that I’m very displeased with you right now, and I am strongly considering releasing you from my service.”
The ring tightened. The blazing tips of the firepikes were close enough to feel. Tyvian forced a smile. “Now then, gentlemen, no need to go setting anyone on fire.”
Lord Orsienne managed one last bullfrog croak. “Set him on fire!”
The chandelier fell. Tyvian, who was half expecting it, saw it before it hit the ground, and afforded his closing captors a wink. Everyone else was stunned. The collective screams of the noble audience was almost more frightening than the awful racket made by the chandelier itself.
Over years of adventuring, Tyvian had found that the funny thing about distractions was that, no matter how prepared an enemy is to not be distracted, they always, always are. The guards, all twelve of them, looked in the direction of the chandelier. Chance struck once, twice, crippling two men and creating a window wide enough for Tyvian to dart out.
Artus, his broad-bladed pokk knife in one hand, ran an intercept course with him, dragging some blonde tart by the wrist. “It’s about damn time!” Tyvian swished Chance at a few noblemen who looked enterprising enough to get in his way.
“I got distracted.”
“Ah, the stupidity of youth!”
Tyvian ran directly for Lord Orsienne, who dove behind a potted plant for cover. The plan was to go up the stairs at the back of the ballroom and move along the second floor to the other side of the mansion, where Marik would be waiting for them outside the window. That was, of course, provided Marik hadn’t found a blonde tart of his own.
On the way up the stairs, Tyvian put his free arm around Jaliette’s waist. “To remember me by, darling.” He swept her into a quick kiss. Jaliette’s knee went for the right spot, but Tyvian had been expecting it and twisted away. “Good bye.”
Jaliette’s expression was half smile, half scowl. “You ruined my wedding, you boor.”
Tyvian shrugged. “You ruined mine.”
A ball of fire hit the banister next to Tyvian. Artus rushed past him, pushing the blonde up the stairs. “Time to go!”
The guards arrayed themselves in a firing line and readied the firepikes for a volley. “Not in my house!” Lord Orsienne wailed.
Tyvian caught up with Artus. “Lose the wench, I don’t want a hostage!”
“She’s not a hostage, she’s coming with me!”
Tyvian looked at the girl—she was pale, shivering, weeping. “Don’t be an idiot! Give her a goodnight kiss and say goodbye!”
Chance flashed through the air to deflect a pair of thunder orbs back towards the guards. They exploded with a bass rumble, shattering windows and sending men flying.
At the top of the stairs, Tyvian turned one last time and caught the eye of Lady Velitiere. She was angry, but it was the good kind of anger—hot, passionate. “The old girl’s still got some fire. Good for her.”
He darted through the door and slammed it behind him. “Artus, do you know any spells to prop this door?”
Artus glared at him over the girl’s head. “I’m a shepherd. The only spells I know ward off fever and scare wolves.”
“I thought I told you to lose the girl!”
“I’m not! I love her.”
Tyvian rolled his eyes. This was just great. “Go find something to prop this door, all right?”
Artus paused, but only briefly before darting into a side room. Once he had gone, Tyvian smiled at the girl as sweetly as he could muster at the moment.
“What’s your name, darling?”
She choked back a sob. “Ysabette.”
“He’ll come back for you one day, Ysabette.” She smiled then, and it was a beautiful thing. Tyvian didn’t savor it. He planted a hand on her back, opened the door, and shoved her into the arms of the advancing guards behind.
Artus came back, dragging a chaise. “Where’s Ysabette?”
Tyvian manufactured a sigh. “Run off. Sorry.”
The blade of a firepike poked through the door, narrowly missing Tyvian’s shoulder and igniting part of the doorframe. The discussion was over, the chaise pushed into place, and they ran down the hall.
Tyvian threw Chance through the bay window at the end and followed it out. He landed roughly in the dirt.
“’Twas a fine sort of party, I see.” Marik looked like as much a beast as a man in the saddle. He drew a mammoth broadsword and tossed Tyvian the reins of one of the two mounts beside him.
Tyvian smiled. “Ah, Marik. I could have sworn you would have run off with a woman.”
Marik laugh was deep enough to shake the ground. “Bah, the wench wouldn’t have me!”
Artus dusted himself off. “Let’s go.”
They were in the saddle in a moment, and galloping through the streets of Akral even as Orsienne’s men shouted after them. Tyvian felt the weight of the Eye against his flesh, and didn’t look behind him for a long, long time.
* * * * * * * *
“This may be the most attractive thing I’ve seen all night.” Tyvian breathed deep. The innkeeper had scented the bathwater with cinnamon, just as he asked. It sat there, steaming in its great wooden basin, calling to his aching muscles.
“By the name of holy Ozdai and his holy Hearth, what a ride that was!” Marik’s sank his great, bear-like form into one side of the great tub, the steam beading on his thick beard in great shimmering globules.
Tyvian slipped into the opposite side and let out a long, slow breath. In the end, it had been a close thing. Orsienne’s guards had pursued them into the streets, and it was only by Pit-spawned chance that they had lost them.
“I don’t know how you two can relax like that.” Artus sat by their gear, sharpening a the short, broad blade of his pokk. “They could still find us, you know.”
Marik shrugged. “Take it while you can get it, kiddo. Time’ll be tense soon enough.”
“Besides, I seem to remember you relaxing at a rather inopportune moment earlier. You owe us one.” Tyvian opened one eye to look at Artus.
Artus stuck the pokk into the floor. “You would have done the same thing if you were me. She was beautiful.”
“Beautiful women are everywhere—you’ll meet another one. Better to leave her now, Artus, than to have her leave you later. I’ve done you a favor, I daresay.” Tyvian inhaled deeply. “Marik, doesn’t this smell simply wonderful?”
Marik smiled to show the gaps in his teeth. “Tickles the nose, I’ll grant you.”
Artus worried the dagger. “You don’t believe in love, do you?”
Marik climbed out of the tub. “Ah, the simple man’s cue to leave. Good night, you lot—we leave in three hours.”
Tyvian nodded to Marik as he stomped out, and watched Artus carve a nothing shape in the floor. “Is something bothering you, Artus?”
“I’m having some trouble understanding why the hell you did what you did tonight. If you loved Jaliette, why did you ruin her wedding night? If you didn’t, why did you even bother to try?”
Tyvian ran a hand through his hair. “Are you mad at me for making you leave that pretty blonde thing crying in the hallway? Come now, you know as well as I that we couldn’t take her along. You would have gotten bored with her in a week, and then where’d we be? Mailing some scatterbrained girl home in a less-than-marriageable condition, I imagine, if not caught and hanged by the neck.”
Artus pulled up the pokk. “It isn’t about Ysabette…well, maybe it is, a little. It’s mostly about you, Tyvian. What did Jaliette do to you to make you want to risk your neck like that? You don’t need any giant diamond, Tyvian—you’re richer than any three of those people at the party tonight. Was it revenge? For what?”
Tyvian turned the question over in his mind for a moment, blowing bubbles in the bath. When he came to an answer, he reached to retrieve the Eye from a pouch. It sparkled in the lamplight, like a hundred stars set in glass, and painted patterns on the bathhouse walls. “This represents a price. A price all of us, sooner or later, have to pay, one way or another—the price of life. You and I, Artus, we keep what’s ours and lose what’s taken from us. Our lives, our fortunes, our fates are our own—they’re held in our pockets and our packs, in our heads and in our hands. Not many are the men and women who can live like us, and even the very strong can succumb to the lure of a safe, boring, stable life. They sell out, just like Jaliette sold out. Tonight, on behalf on the world, I exacted her payment and showed her, in no uncertain terms, the life she was missing.”
“The gambler’s adage,” Artus nodded, “’He who has played, will be played.”
“Yes, well, I don’t think she’ll be playing again. She’s retired from the game to become a space on the board. Oh well.”
“Tyvian, would you sell out?”
Tyvian’s smile was faint. “I might have, if she had asked me.”
Artus’ mouth fell open. “Really?”
“No, not really. Go to sleep—we’re leaving soon.”
Artus stood to leave. “I might sell out one day, Tyvian. Marik will too. What happens if you’re the last one playing?”
He left without an answer. Tyvian took his time in the bath, turning over the jewel in his hand even as he turned over he thoughts. Finally, when he couldn’t stand the silence any longer, he answered the question.
“Then, Artus, I win.” He dropped the Eye into the bathtub and left. To his knowledge, it was still there when the three of them rode out under the murky grayness of the dawn mist.