“You reek!” said Jarlaxle, crinkling his nose and adopting an exaggerated expression of disgust.
“I do not.” replied Artemis Entreri, standing (though it scarcely seemed possible) a tiny measure straighter than he already was.
“Perhaps you’ve been mired in your own filth for so long that you can no longer smell yourself.”
“More likely that you douse yourself with so much perfume that you can’t stand breathing in anything not similarly slathered.”
Despite his complaints, the assassin allowed the mercenary to lead him down the busy city street. Jarlaxle was wearing his ridiculous human disguise again, and Entreri scowled at the dark, wavy strands that bounced against his companion’s back.
At least he’s decently clad, Entreri thought to himself, and winced as his mind inevitably painted for him the selfsame scenario, but with Jarlaxle wearing only bandoliers and smallclothes again. The assassin suppressed a shudder and reflexively surveyed their surroundings, but found none of the pairs of eyes glued upon them from his imagined scenario.
Indeed, the citizens of Waterdeep were all busy tending to their own affairs. Merchants issued their final offers of unbelievable deals, couples hurried their children home, and street-lighters rushed from pole to pole. None spared more than a passing glance at the pair of “humans”, even with the distinct scalawag appearance of the one in the lead. However, the handsome man was too finely-dressed and well-groomed for the self-respecting citizens to decry him as a pirate, and his companion was so nondescript that there was hardly any point to sparing the latter any attention.
Nonetheless, Jarlaxle tipped his fabulous hat each time a wandering pair of eyes met his own, and by the time that they’d reached the bathhouse, Entreri had lost count of how many times the feather had bobbed on his companion’s head.
“I strongly wish not to do this,” the assassin grumbled as the mercenary opened the door to the establishment and stepped inside.
“Fear not, my abbil, I shall be with you every heartbeat.” Jarlaxle beamed as he held the door open.
“That’s precisely why I fear.” Entreri stepped past the threshold to find himself in a large antechamber. A large, empty antechamber. “Wait, where is everyone?”
“Everyone?” Jarlaxle quirked an eyebrow.
Entreri’s brow furrowed as he looked around. The establishment was respectable, and he didn’t dislike it, but because of its well-earned reputation, it was never without patrons, even in the early (or very late) hours of each day.
Yet, all the baskets that would normally hold the possessions of the patrons were empty and stood in neatly-stacked piles. All the towels were clean and similarly stacked, with not a single one discarded in the laundry hamper.
The assassin covered his face with one hand. “You’ve bought the place?’
Jarlaxle’s laughter lifted Entreri’s eyes from underneath his fingers. "Of course not, my abbil! I am not that much of a spendthrift, nor am I imprudent enough to attract unwanted attention, given what I’m trying to accomplish in this city.”
“Why is it so empty, then?”
“I rented it for the night!”
“I see. Yes, very frugal of you.”
Barely had the quip left Entreri’s lips did the assassin realize that the seeming spontaneity that led Jarlaxle to drag him out was actually yet another one of the drow’s machinations. Entreri’s arm dropped back to his side, his chin snapping against his chest as his head hung in defeat. “You’d been planning this all along.”
“But of course, my abbil! After all, are you not the one who does not believe in coincidence?”
“With you, there is never coincidence,” Entreri intoned sarcastically.
Jarlaxle dipped into a quarter-bow. “You do flatter me so.”
The assassin snatched the hat from atop Jarlaxle’s lowered head and stalked to one of the doors leading to the next room. The transformed drow’s skin instantly reverted to its usual ebony, the dark locks disappearing and the ridiculous mustache disintegrated from view just in time for him to catch the hat that the human tossed back at him. He set it upon his head again, but his appearance didn’t change.
“Let’s just get this over with,” Entreri said as he entered the steamy main area, instantly regretting his words as he did. Floral scents saturated the thick air, but amidst the countless exotic notes was the distinct scent of lavender.
The assassin reflexively began to backpedal, but his progress was impeded by a pair of delicate yet strong hands set against his back.
“No.” The assassin’s tone was firm, but it wasn’t steel in his eyes when they gazed back at the mercenary. Jarlaxle resisted a chuckle and willed away the recollection of a girl he’d seen attempting to bathe her cat. His eyes had met with the feline’s, and the resemblance between what he’d witnessed then and what he saw now was too striking to not remember.
“Don’t be so stubborn,” the drow chided as he pushed against his companion’s back. Despite Entreri’s best efforts to dig his heels in, the smooth floor was slick with moisture, and the human could find no purchase.
“You will not release me unless I submit to your ridiculous request?” The assassin was trying to back-step now, to no avail. It hardly surprised him that Jarlaxle’s boots locked against the floor while his did not.
“I will not.” The mercenary finally stopped pushing, for they were but a few feet away from the largest basin in the room. Entreri felt the drow’s arms encircle his neck before he saw the ebony digits work at his cloak clasp.
The assassin slapped the delicate fingers away. “I can undress myself.”
Jarlaxle touched his slapped hand to his heart and feigned a hurt look. “You do wound me so!”
Entreri snorted as he shed his cloak. “If a gentle blow so wounded you, perhaps you should rethink all of your ambitions and how frequently they put you – put us – in harm’s way.”
“Ah, but I simply wished to pamper you a little!”
“Jarlaxle does not ‘pamper’ anyone but himself, not without costs too high for my appetite,” Entreri retorted with a mirthless chuckle. He kicked one boot off, then another, both shoes landing sequentially next to his cloak. His shirt followed, then his trousers, the last to land on the pile his weapons belt, both blades falling upon the makeshift cushion with naught but a soft “fumph”.
The mercenary shrugged, turned to retrieve two baskets, then pulled the assassin’s shed attire into one of them. His naked companion was kneeling by the side of the largest basin, a palmful of water held up to his nose. The ruffling of cloth drew Entreri’s attention, and when he glanced behind himself, he was surprised to see Jarlaxle disrobing as well.
“What are you doing?” Entreri scowled.
“Undressing,” Jarlaxle answered without pause.
“I can see that!"
Jarlaxle halted. The corners of his lips turned up impishly. "If you’re going to watch, I could make it more interesting for you.”
Entreri’s head snapped forward, but not before allowing the drow to see a roll of his dark eyes. Entreri then focused his attention on lowering himself into the hot water, resisting the urge to plunge himself in over his head so that he didn’t have to listen to his companion’s musical laughter.
By the time that the assassin had fully immersed himself, the soothing hot water already chased the flamboyant mercenary’s antics from his mind. Entreri hadn’t realized how tense his muscles were until each fiber relaxed, the heat permeating his body and lifting the strain away. He closed his eyes and let his head rest against the edge of the basin, his throat as bared as his any of his victims’ when he’d tugged their head back by the hair to press his dagger in. Yet, right then, Entreri didn’t feel vulnerable so baring himself, and he lifted both arms onto the edge as well, so that his body could float within the calming water. He lingered there for he knew not how many heartbeats.
A sudden abrasion against his forearm snapped the assassin’s eyes open, and he withdrew his arm with a mighty push away from the edge. From the center of the pool, Entreri glared at the mercenary with narrowed eyes, one hand rubbing the abraded forearm. Jarlaxle was kneeling on one knee, a porous object held in his hands. Although he pouted, merriment danced in his ruby eyes.
“What is that?” Entreri demanded, still rubbing his assaulted forearm.
Jarlaxle blinked and tilted his head. “This?” He held up the porous object.
It was Entreri’s turn to blink. “Is that not the name for a vegetable from the far east?”
Jarlaxle nodded. “Aye, this is one and the same.”
Entreri held his forearm closer and squinted. “Why were you rubbing me with a vegetable?”
Jarlaxle chuckled and set the porous object down. He pulled a basket from around behind him, from which protruded other porous items, but these were items that Entreri recognized. Corals, lava stones, and other bathing implements that he’d seen in the Pashas’ palaces.
“I imagine that you’re more familiar with these,” Jarlaxle explained as he lifted a piece of coral, “But I’ve never been fond of them. Too coarse, suitable for a woodworker to rough-finish a beam perhaps? Hardly appropriate for cleansing skin!”
“It was good enough for Pashas and nobles.”
“I am not a Pasha, nor am I a human noble. You are neither as well.” The drow gestured at his companion to return to the edge. “Come. You’ll like it, I promise.”
“When you put it that way, it makes me even more uneasy,” Entreri grumbled as he dubiously waded toward his companion. Upon reaching the mercenary’s toes, the assassin was instantly filled with regret, for the drow, kneeling as he was at the edge, towered over the human from the elevation granted to him by his perch. As Entreri met his companion’s eyes, his circumspection took in more details than he’d intended, and he wasn’t able to stop himself from observing that Jarlaxle’s skin was smoother and silkier than that of any of his former lovers.
And then, there were those ruby eyes. Deeper than blood, warmer than melted wax, more tantalizing than the richest velvet… the assassin felt lightheaded, and wondered if craning his neck back to look only at his companion’s face was restricting the flow of blood through the rest of his body. Or, perhaps it was the blackness of the drow’s skin, juxtaposing strongly against the light suffusing the room, causing his eyes to strain.
“I’m getting out, it’s too hot,” Entreri decided aloud, and pushed himself up onto the landing next to his companion. He started heading for a stack of towels, but a dry hand on his arm stopped him.
“Not yet,” Jarlaxle bade.
“'Yet’?” Entreri echoed.
Jarlaxle nodded, smiling with an innocence that Entreri couldn’t help but wonder if it was false.
“What now?” Entreri asked, worn and exasperated.
“Sit,” Jarlaxle instructed, pointing at the floor.
Entreri raised an eyebrow.
“Or you could stand, although that would make it more difficult for me.”
“That makes me more inclined to stand."
"Oh, do sit, my abbil. The quicker you do, the quicker we can be done with this.”
Entreri lowered himself and crossed his legs. “What are you going to do?”
“Pamper you, of course!”
Entreri snorted. However, he only looked on curiously as Jarlaxle lifted the same arm that he’d been working on before, and began rubbing it with the luffa. Entreri wasn’t surprised to see suds rise with each stroke, and although the friction made him want to retract his arm, the disciplined human held still, repeating Jarlaxle’s promise to be done with it all as a calming mantra.
By the time that the mercenary had finished with the other arm, and was applying the vegetable to his back, Entreri was relaxed again. He didn’t want to admit it, but the drow’s ministrations felt good. Furthermore, his soak in the hot water allowed the scrubbing to lift the dirt, oils and dead skin that he knew had accumulated in his negligence, and the thorough cleansing made him feel almost as though he were being born anew. His tight-fitted leathers had begun to feel more than a little uncomfortable, just on the cusp of threatening to distract his perfect focus, but after this treatment, Entreri suspected that he wouldn’t need to worry about the possibility of such a distraction for some time.
A bucketful of water suddenly emptied over the assassin’s head. It shocked him, but Entreri didn’t grouse. The water was drawn from the basin next to them, and Entreri could guess readily enough why Jarlaxle was pouring bucketfuls of water over him. Even had he not, the return of his companion’s attention to his back fully explained the situation.
“How did you think of using a vegetable as a bathing implement, Jarlaxle?” Entreri murmured, the softness of his voice surprising himself.
“I learned it from another,” the drow cooed, “One of the people who also employed it in delectable dishes. Versatile, is it not?”
Entreri chuckled. “I know how much you enjoy versatile things.”
All that the assassin received in response was a soft push on his back. He understood his companion’s meaning, and scooted to the edge of the pool. It took some time to lower himself in again, for despite the steamy air, he’d cooled, and had to readjust to the perpetual heat.
Finally managing to re-submerge himself, Entreri lifted both arms onto the edge and began to tilt his head back to re-assume his earlier floating repose. He was surprised when the back of his head met with something higher than he’d expected, a soft something that wasn’t the hard floor. The surprised man opened his eyes, only to find the ruby gaze capturing his own. He instantly understood from the way that his companion hovered over him, as well as the smooth incline pillowing his head, that Jarlaxle now knelt with both knees, and sat back upon his heels.
“Jarlaxle…” Entreri began, but a soft “shhh” quieted him. One elegant ebony hand swept over the assassin’s eyes, and Entreri obediently closed his eyelids. His lips parted when he felt ten delicate digits press lightly against his scalp, but their soothing massage stole the surprised utterances from his mouth. Jarlaxle’s fingers worked in unison, deftly stroking, kneading, and – Entreri realized – scrubbing, as he felt foam grow out from underneath his companion’s digits.
The assassin’s eyes fluttered, and he might’ve been embarrassed for it, if not for the last of the strain departing his body. He knew not for how long Jarlaxle worked at his scalp, but a regretful tinge pricked his chest when he felt his companion’s fingers disengage from his short locks, which they’d pushed into disordered spikes. Feeling the foam beginning to spill over his forehead, Entreri moved to swipe it away before it got to his eyes, but a firm hand on his shoulder stopped him. The hand then moved to tug on his bicep, and Entreri compliantly lifted himself out of the pool. The suds had now drifted over his eyes, forcing the assassin to keep them closed, but Jarlaxle’s hand was still on his arm, and he trusted in his own careful footing.
The assassin allowed himself to be led away from the main pool to where he guessed was one of the auxiliary pools. The scent of lavender was stronger here, but he paid it no mind, figuring it to be an effect of the concentration of smells in the edges of the room. Entreri was surprised to hear the splash as, he guessed, Jarlaxle entered the basin. He crouched, then sat, dipping his legs into the pool, and felt the drow take his hands. He allowed himself to be pulled in, for the heat of this pool was similar to that of his body. However, as he slipped in, his feet didn’t immediately touch the bottom, and a momentary panic seized him as his head dipped below the surface. Entreri shoved Jarlaxle away as he beat his arms to bring his face to the air, and when he opened his eyes, again, they were again captured by his companion’s ruby gaze, which was regarding him curiously.
“I did not know that you feared water,” Jarlaxle quipped.
“I was surprised,” Entreri admitted before realizing the words had escaped him, and his face heated, but not from the water.
Jarlaxle simply smiled, and caught a wooden bowl floating nearby. Entreri paddled quietly while Jarlaxle lifted scoop after scoop of water to rinse the last of the suds from his hair.
His task completed, the mercenary leaned back and allowed himself to float away like a leaf on a quiet pond. Entreri regarded the drow curiously.
“What are you doing now?”
“Replenishing my scent.”
“Replenishing your scent,” Entreri repeated quietly to himself. “Replenishing…”
The assassin’s eyes grew wide. He sniffed at the water, but he couldn’t discern whether the concentration of lavender originated from it, or hung in the air. Turning swiftly, Entreri kicked at the water fiercely until he was at the edge, then lifted himself out with a single swift heave. His expression filled with dismay as he sniffed his forearm, shook it off, then sniffed it again.
“You’d planned this all along!” Entreri shouted at the languidly floating figure.
“Perhaps,” the muffled voice responded.
Shaking his head with disbelief, the assassin stalked to the main pool.
“Don’t do it, you’ll regret it,” sing-songed the voice from across the room.
Entreri plunged his entire body into the hot water.
“I told you that you’d regret it. There’s good reason for cooling baths, especially as autumn draws to a close,” Jarlaxle chided as he pulled the warm wet cloth from Entreri’s forehead and replaced it with another one that he’d just wrung the water from. The mercenary straightened his companion’s covers, and not for the first time, for the shivering man kept bunching it up around his smallish form.
“Shut up,” was all the assassin could manage from between his chattering teeth.
“Can we not finish this discussion here?”
The assassin scowled, as a peal of thunder rumbled overhead mid-sentence. His companion was already halfway down the ratline.
“Jarlaxle, I don’t have time for this–"
A flash of lightning drew the drow’s gaze upward, and the human saw himself reflected in those ruby eyes, silhouetted starkly against the stormy sky, and as diminutive as a piece of driftwood bobbing in the endless surf.
No longer interested in finishing his thought, Entreri clambered out of the crow’s nest. The wind had already picked up enough that it took more than an afterthought to maintain his surefootedness down the swaying shroud.
Jarlaxle didn’t look back again as he crossed the stern. As soon as Entreri’s foot touched the deck, so, too did a raindrop, followed by another, and then another. Shaking his head, the exasperated man quick-stepped to the drow’s heels, managing to duck into cover right as the drops coalesced into sheets. Together, the dampened figure, led by his completely dry counterpart, descended into the gaudy ship’s hold, the latter’s steps beating out the rhythm to the carnival tune that he whistled, while the former issued no more noise than the faint swishing of a heavy cloak.
The descent plunged them into darkness, but neither was impeded. Unlike his companion however, the assassin spared a heartbeat to scan the upper hold before turning his back on it to follow the mercenary further down. Entreri resisted the urge to repeat the precaution upon reaching the lowest level, for the drow had turned to face him, holding open the door and invitingly waving him in. If the warm light spilling into the gloomy corridor wasn’t enough to compel an ordinary individual inward, the sweet scent of lavender surely would’ve completed the seduction. However, Artemis Entreri was no ordinary person, and he leveled his gaze upon his companion the whole while as he entered, stopping just barely past the threshold.
Jarlaxle sighed and threw up his hands. “You don’t always have to be so difficult, you know,” he said as he tried to step past Entreri. His silken sleeve brushed against the assassin’s cloak, instantly absorbing the moisture that had failed to permeate the weatherproofed fabric. The mercenary exclaimed in dismay.
“If you continue to frown like that, your face will become more wrinkled than my late mother’s, Lolth eat her soul,” Jarlaxle chided as he bodily pushed his companion into the room. Entreri didn’t resist, his eyes having found the only other humanoid figure in the room. Unlike the two of them however, it wasn’t made of flesh, but it was clad so garishly that he might’ve mistaken it for Jarlaxle himself.
A silent and thus improved version of Jarlaxle, the assassin thought with a smirk.
“There, that’s more like it!” Entreri snapped his eyes back to see a satisfied grin on the ebony features. He immediately repaired his expression back to a scowl, but Jarlaxle had already turned away.
“You have many capable scouts at your disposal,” Entreri began, his mind going to the vague, canvas-covered shapes that he’d scanned in the upper hold. He’d caught a glimpse of a shadow dashing between the ribs of a wooden dragon skeleton. “You don’t need me for this.”
“Oh, but I do, my abbil!” Jarlaxle spun around, proffering a glass filled with a dark liquid. Entreri started to decline, but decided to allow the drow to hand him the glass. He didn’t move it closer to his lips however, didn’t, in fact, move his hand at all, as he watched the mercenary shrug off his cloak.
“Capable they are, but not so capable as you,” Jarlaxle smiled at the predictable snort sounding out from behind him.
“Above all, you are human, and that makes you better for the task than any of them.”
“I’m certain that they would disagree on both counts.”
“They may think what they wish, but they would not be so foolish as to make certain thoughts known.” Jarlaxle’s voice didn’t lose its levity, but Entreri recognized the small shift in his tone, as subtle as the change in the air before the clouds thickened in the clear autumn sky.
“I would not normally accept this level of contract, regardless of the pay.” The assassin quirked an eyebrow as the drow began unbuttoning his tunic.
“I know, which is why I specifically requested this as a personal favor.”
“It isn’t like you to worry about a ragtag band of hardly-adventurers.”
“I suppose I’ve learned to be more paranoid, thanks to my time with you!” Jarlaxle turned and beamed at Entreri. The assassin’s eyes followed the mercenary as he pulled off his tunic and hung it on the nearby chair.
The gray eyes narrowed. “What’s your game, Jarlaxle?”
The drow’s delicate fingers, which were working their way down his shirt, paused as he looked up, ruby eyes shining with innocence. “Why, undressing of course! After you so rudely dampened my fine clothing, I’m surprised that you’d need to ask!”
“Not that!” Entreri set down his glass on the nearby table with a loud “clack”. The liquid within swished violently, but none splashed out.
“What is the point of this? Of all of this?” The human pointed emphatically at the door, then waved his arm in an arc indicating the stretch of the ship above them.
The drow’s eyes followed his hand, and Entreri caught a hint of wistfulness before the brimming confidence filled the dark red gaze again. “All in good time, my abbil. I promise that you’ll know all in good time.”
Entreri recognized the caginess and knew that no matter how hard he pressed, he wouldn’t get anything else from his companion until the wily mercenary was ready to talk.
“Give me the details,” the resigned man said with a sigh.
Jarlaxle had already pulled out a small scroll from a pocket, and handed it to Entreri while Entreri was still speaking. The assassin accepted the scroll with a deadpan stare. His expression betraying nothing as he mutely read its contents. Although he didn’t understand why Jarlaxle had gone to the length of taking that extra precaution in his own lair, Entreri knew well enough not to ask or to doubt.
One reading was enough for him to commit the contents to memory, so when he looked up again, it was in search of the candle whose flame he could borrow. Instead, he was halted by the sight of the drow stepping out of his breeches.
“What now?!” Entreri didn’t bother to keep the exasperation out of his voice. “Did I ruin your pants too with rainwater?”
Jarlaxle laughed. “Hardly! But I do need to change. I’m expecting guests.”
The assassin’s countenance drew tight, his gaze sharpened. “This is happening right now?”
Jarlaxle nodded casually. “Yes.”
“You could’ve given me more warning.”
“You don’t need it.” Again, Entreri understood the unspoken as keenly as he heard that which was uttered.
Silently, the assassin watched as the mercenary scooped up his wide-brimmed hat and plopped it on his head. It didn’t surprise him that the flamboyant drow would don this article first, even if he had to remove it again later to put on other things. Entreri only half-watched as Jarlaxle disappeared behind the purple curtain, his mind already sketching out his plan given his memorized layout of the ship.
What emerged from behind the purple curtains blew apart Entreri’s intricate sketch like a cannonball through a house of straw. He stared, but it was far from his usual leveled stare. Instead, his eyes flitted about the strange figure like a seagull caught in violent winds. His gaze couldn’t quite decide where to land, on the fair-skinned features, or the long and dark wavy hair that led down to one of the most ridiculous costumes that he’d ever seen. The human, or at least, Entreri guessed him to be human by his skin tone and hair color, was wearing nothing but his smallclothes, two crossing bandoleers, and a hat.
Jarlaxle’s hat, the assassin realized.
And Jarlaxle’s smallclothes, Entreri’s mind added as an afterthought even though he wished that it hadn’t.
Although he already had most of the circumstance sorted, the assassin’s jaw still dropped open, his hands going instinctively to his weapons, and the only thing stopping him from drawing those deadly blades was the all-too-familiar smirk on that foreign/familiar visage.
No, not foreign at all, Entreri mused, his eyes absorbing the distinctive features. The “stranger”’s mane was even more distracting than the loss of the striking contrast between snow-white eyebrows against obsidian-black skin. Despite that fact, there was no doubt that Entreri recognized those high cheekbones, that elegantly arched nose, and those well-formed lips. Even the ridiculous curving mustache couldn’t deceive him. Nonetheless the assassin had to force his body to relax, as the sudden onset and departure of adrenaline left him lightheaded.
“Agatha’s Mask?” Entreri asked, his voice as worn as though he’d just swam in the Sea of Swords. “No, wait, don’t tell me, I don’t wish to know.”
Jarlaxle laughed, and the unchanged timbre of his voice refreshed the assassin’s senses. Entreri couldn’t help but smile self-deprecatingly at having been lulled into the false belief that he’d grown immune to being surprised by the unpredictable drow.
He watched, intrigued, as Jarlaxle touched his hat, changing it from purple to black, the white feather dying itself red. The assassin didn’t realize that his discomfort had risen again until the changed drow dipped into his usual elaborate bow, complete with the sweeping of his transformed hat across the floor, the assassin’s discomfiture mirroring his companion’s lithely twisting form.
“Captain Zardoz Zord, at your service!” Jarlaxle proclaimed, and Entreri scowled.
“That name is as ridiculous as that mustache.”
Jarlaxle laughed and hooked a finger in one curved point of his mustache, then twirled it.
Entreri rolled his eyes and tilted his head at the bandoleers. “I see that you’re fully indulging in this pirate nonsense. I trust that you’ve at least tested the hand cannons, or whatever it is that they’re called, the ammunition of which you’ve decided to employ as adornment for your body?”
His sarcasm dispelled the rest of his shock, allowing another realization to dawn on him.
“How do you intend to finish dressing when your bandoleers are already so…. form fitting?”
By the way Jarlaxle laughed, Entreri knew his error.
Still, he couldn’t quite believe it. “You’re… you’re going to meet with your special guests, wearing that,” he chanced. His voice flattened. “Wearing only that.”
“Astute as always, my abbil! After all, I did promised my guests dinner with a view!” Jarlaxle crowed, and Entreri fought the urge to run a hand down his face.
Countless questions formed in the assassin’s mind, though he thought he didn’t wish to know any of the answers. In truth, he had to struggle to contain some inquiries that he most certainly wouldn’t even allow the drow the satisfaction of hearing asked. He studied the foreign yet familiar figure before him, his discomfort returning again. Yet, despite the inexplicable disquiet he felt when he looked upon that strange visage, the perplexed man found it difficult not to stare. He ripped his gaze to the brightly-clad construct standing silently in its vigil, and forced his scrutiny in search of anything about the strange automaton that might compromise their privacy. Despite his best attempts to focus however, the strange unease mounted quicker than before he’d tore his eyes away.
Movement at the peripheral of the assassin’s vision defeated his efforts of focusing on the flashier of the two figures in the room. The mercenary-turned-pirate captain was preening before a full-length mirror, his back turned to the discomfited man.
Just for a breath, Entreri’s subconscious whispered as he took in his companion’s frame. The more he looked, the more his disquiet faded, and his eyes greedily drank in every contour, every shadow, every landmark that he knew, despite the hue that he did not. He might’ve questioned his intensity if his scrutiny hadn’t eased him as it always did when he studied the unknown.
A twitch of muscle on Jarlaxle’s back was all the warning Entreri needed, and when the mercenary turned around, the assassin’s eyes were back on the automaton.
“If you like it so, I can arrange to have one made for you,” Jarlaxle inserted himself between Entreri and the construct. Entreri narrowed his eyes and scowled, and when Jarlaxle turned away with a laugh, the assassin was surprised to find himself suppressing a sigh of relief.
Just for a breath, his subconscious whispered again, as the assassin’s dark eyes alighted on his companion’s profile. Despite his best efforts, the observant man couldn’t imagine away the light skin, and the recollection of the drow accusing him of lacking imagination a lifetime ago barged into his mind. Irritated, Entreri glared at that ridiculous mustache, but sadly, rather than setting the object aflame, the ferocity of his gaze only framed his own vision with red.
The assassin cut his eyes down from his companion’s head to rake the so-called Zardoz’s form. Were those shoulders wider, or was that an illusion cast by the wavy locks? Was his chest broader, or was that the deception wrought by his changed skin? Were the sleek muscles lining his abdomen more protuberant, or was that the framing of the ridiculous belts? Were his hips more pronounced, or was that an effect of the low contour that his tightly-wrapped smallclothes traced over his pelvis, dipping so deep as to nearly join with the sharp curves cutting high over his thighs?
“Artemis…” the drow’s soft melodic tones called the assassin back from his trance, and Entreri realized that it had been more than just a breath. He might’ve felt chagrin, but instead, when he looked into dark brown eyes instead of the expected rich red, all he felt was isolation.
Entreri cleared his throat. “They’ll be here soon,” he said, his own tone soft, the most that he could manage and still keep it detached. He approached the door, but found his hand heavy as an anchor as he lifted it to the knob.
“Where will you keep your magic items?” the assassin asked, his mind refusing to acknowledge his question as an excuse to look back again. His gaze alighted upon hands with skin lighter than his own, and the observation displeased him. His eyes reflexively began tracing those delicate fingers, one by one, ascertaining the graceful lines of each digit, but try as he might, he couldn’t ignore the color that filled those lines.
“I don’t need them, I have you,” the musical voice murmured, and Entreri felt his lightheadedness return.
“I know that’s not true,” he managed gruffly, and forced himself to shove open the door. It banged against the wall, the clamor echoing wretchedly in his chest. “Your incense is giving me a headache.”
“It’s not the incense,” Jarlaxle quietly replied, but only the nimblewright heard him.
“Have you eaten?”
“Not yet,” the assassin replied automatically. Then, realizing that he’d been alone, that he should’ve still been alone, Entreri lifted his head just enough that his heavy-lidded eyes could behold the colorfully-clad drow.
He sighed and let his head drop back onto his arms. Although he’d never admit it out loud, the exhausted man was glad that it wasn’t any other voice, for he wasn’t sure that he’d had it in him to snap his head up in time.
“How’d you get in here?” Entreri asked, his voice muffled by his arms. A spice-tinged floral aroma tickled his nose, and he peeked over his arms to behold a ruby-red gaze appraising his own.
“What?” the assassin sighed wearily.
“Answering uninhibitedly, asking obvious questions, general lowered situational awareness… what’s gotten into you, my abbil?” Jarlaxle tsked.
Entreri groaned and buried his eyes in his arms again, his temple beginning to throb. “Go away.”
The assassin wasn’t surprised to hear the scrape of another chair being pulled up to the table, or the shoving of his arms to the very edge of it until he could just barely still balance his head on top of them. Breathing another deep sigh, he began to gather the scant bit of energy he’d conserved from his brief repose to confront his uninvited guest, when a different smell seized him.
“What–?” the perplexed man looked up, and his vision was immediately obscured by steam. He didn’t think to complain though, for the steam was accompanied by an intoxicating scent, so rich that it energized his limbs far more than his respite did. Entreri pushed himself up to better behold the extravaganza unfolding before his eyes, and as soon as his arms cleared the table, a plate bearing a handsomely roasted leg of boar was pushed to where his head had been a moment before.
“Eat,” his companion ordered, and the assassin didn’t protest. Not bothering to even look at the fork and knife that the drow had set down, Entreri grabbed a protruding piece of bone and tore off a hefty chunk.
The drow watched the crude display with a disapproving frown, but the human just met his gaze and continued to rip off pieces with his teeth.
“At least make sure you’re getting a balanced meal,” Jarlaxle chided as he reached for the savaged and now much less handsome-looking meat. Before he could pull the plate away even a little, the assassin snapped a hand onto it, glaring at the drow. It wasn’t the dangerous man’s usual deadly glare however, for it reflected the dancing glitter in those ruby eyes that Jarlaxle rolled at him.
The mercenary heaved a great exasperated sigh and pushed a plate of green stuff towards the assassin. That took up the last of the space on his side of the small table.
“Ah, my abbil, why do you always choose to live in such ignoble places?” Jarlaxle lamented as he stood, lifting a bread from the basket that he’d also procured. Circling to his companion’s side, he started to poke the side of Entreri’s face with the bread, but stopped, and instead sniffed.
And continued to sniff while circling the assassin like a hummingbird attacking a delectable flower until Entreri could no longer ignore him.
“What is it now?” the irritated man dropped his mostly-gnawed bone onto the plate.
“When was the last time you’d bathed?”
Entreri threw up both hands. “Oh, for the love of every god in every pantheon–”
The drow skipped out of his view. However, Entreri didn’t need to look, didn’t need to hear the sound of wood scraping against wood to know that Jarlaxle had gone for the tub. The assassin pushed his chair back with a growl and spun to his feet.
“Jarlaxle, I don’t need a bath!”
“I would have to disagree, my abbil,” the mercenary replied without looking up, still engrossed in dragging the tub to the center of the room.
Entreri started to argue, then sighed and shook his head. “I don’t have time for one right now.”
Jarlaxle stopped and straightened. He folded his arms.
“You haven’t had time for one in a while.”
Entreri conceded with a small nod.
“Just as you haven’t had time to eat. Just as you haven’t had time to sleep – properly, I mean.”
Discomfort crept over Entreri like spiders under his skin. “Circumstances have been especially pressing,” he tried to explain, but even to his own ears his words sounded like an admission of guilt.
The drow closed to him and began to unlace his shirt. “You’ve been neglecting the wider perspective, my abbil. You might spare some time in foregoing a meal, a bath, a nap, or any other self-tending rituals, but at what cost? For as any poisoner can tell you, the more poison you make, the more gold you make, until you throw back a glass of water that is not.”
Entreri caught both lace ends and held them fast. “Are you Drizzt Do’Urden then, come to lecture me?”
Jarlaxle chuckled but didn’t let go of Entreri’s shirt. “Hardly! Drizzt would not call you ‘abbil’ or try to undress you - or at least, I’d hope he wouldn’t!”
Entreri mock-blanched and covered his mouth. “Wonderful, now you’ve made me ill.”
Jarlaxle laughed again, but this time in triumph, for the assassin’s gesture allowed him to pull the string loose. Capitalizing on his victory, the drow began to peel his companion’s shirt back, but Entreri’s hands were there to deflect his. The mercenary would’ve been happy to push back, but stern gray eyes caught his own, freezing him.
“Jarlaxle, please, I need to tend to things now.” The assassin’s voice was soft but firm.
The drow’s shoulders drooped with his sigh, and his delicate fingers went to the human’s shirt again. They gracefully re-threaded the string through the lacing holes.
“Promise me that you’ll take better care of yourself?”
“If I do, will I be spared the intrusions and the threat of forced bathing?”
“There’s your answer, then.”
Both chuckled helplessly. It didn’t take long for the sounds of mirth to fade, replaced by a awkward silence.
“I need to go,” Entreri finally said, and Jarlaxle nodded quietly.
“I’ll not be in your way then,” the mercenary said, and headed for the door.
“Wait,” the assassin’s call halted him.
Jarlaxle turned around, one eyebrow raised, his eyes expectant and his smile hopeful.
Entreri’s outstretched finger guided the drow’s gaze to the table. “Don’t forget to clean that up.”