Chapter 2


The midnight meeting took place in one of the many small recreational rooms of the Basadoni Guild. This one was regularly claimed by Lieutenant Yadav. He was polite and casual, seeming not to find Artemis a threat. Yajnesh was being obsequiously friendly, taking it upon himself to teach Artemis all the card games and dice games while standing behind Artemis' shoulder.

Entreri found Yajnesh's hovering to be somewhat irritating, but he focused on learning the games. It was every bit the golden opportunity he had predicted, and although he wasn't particularly comfortable with the brothers, he hid it well. It wasn't like anything untold was happening.

Once they settled into playing a dice game, the object of which was to roll even numbers, Yajnesh struck up a conversation. "I see you are shaving now. Congratulations."

Entreri thought that was perhaps the weirdest compliment ever. "It's hardly a rite of passage," he said dryly, for certainly he didn't feel so. Granted, some of the other boys in the guild were obsessed with growing facial hair, so much so that they grew full beards as soon as they were able.

"Hardly a rite of passage?" Yajnesh said incredulously. "Of course it is." He glanced at his brother. "Yadav stole our father's straight razor and nearly slit his own neck when he was twelve years old."

"Yaj, shut it," his brother said.

Yajnesh just laughed. "He was so eager to become a man he sought to shave when there was not yet anything to shave. Every boy looks forward to his first beard."

Entreri merely shrugged. Although he didn't accept Yajnesh's sweeping claim as truth, he wondered what it meant that he did not like the hair now growing on various parts of his body. Was it truly connected to the times he'd seen things he should not have seen?

Yajnesh took his turn and rolled twelve, three fours. He grinned. "Follow that, Davi."

"Don't call me Davi in front of other people," Yadav said. He rolled a twelve as well, six on one die, five on the second, and one on the third. Rolling a twelve was the highest scoring number one could roll in this game.

Yadav passed the dice to Entreri. "You should have seen my brother. He was prouder to have a full beard around his horn than he was to have a beard on his face. He wanted women to recognize his adulthood and stop laughing at him."

"There is no shame in being proud of one's manhood," Yajnesh protested lightly.

That was more information that Entreri wanted to know, although again he wondered why his reaction was opposite. He decided he best repress his unwanted feelings, regardless of whether they were normal or not. "It is a mere fact of life," he said, affecting neutrality. He accepted the dice and rolled; his score came out as an eight. He decided the brothers were likely cheating, so he resolved to study their hand and wrist movements in order to learn the tricks.

Strangely, he also found himself analyzing the brothers themselves - the way they interacted. Since he had no siblings, he wasn't sure what dynamics were considered normal.

Yajnesh rolled a three, one on all three dice, and cursed. "Besides, it was never me women laughed at. It was you." He passed the dice to his brother.

"I forgot," Yadav said mildly. He rolled an eight.

"I find it fascinating that women grow beards there as well," Yajnesh mused. "It would seem not to make sense. Only a man should have a beard."

Entreri's brain tried but failed to conjure the image Yajnesh had just given him. He was summarily disturbed, but he took the dice and rolled. He got a ten. "I would say it is not a beard if it is not on one's face," he said, reverting to logic.

Yajnesh laughed. "It is a bush, then. A sagebrush of hair. Have you never seen a woman's flower?"

Entreri wasn't sure which sickened him more - the question itself or the wording. "No," he answered in a clearly bored tone. He didn't care what others thought of his sex life or lack thereof, so he didn't bother to lie. Not that it was any of Yajnesh's business, but Entreri had observed that male bonding rituals often revolved around three basic things: sparring, sex talk, and "shop" talk. He didn't want any kind of friendship with the brothers, but he'd figured out how to go through the motions so that he could network.

Yajnesh smirked. "I have pictures. I should show them to you."

Entreri couldn't imagine anything he wanted to see less. "Why should there be pictures of such things?" He knew the brothers would laugh at his question, but he had gone into intel- gathering mode. There was clearly a culture around sex, and in order to protect himself, he needed to understand it.

"Pornography has been made illegal by the Church of Tyr, true, but we operate beneath their notice. Why should artists not do the same?" Yajnesh asked. "You cannot keep people from portraying what they wish to portray."

"He bought some books on the black market," Yadav drawled. "My brother has an interest in art."

Yajnesh said, "I am not the only one. Such etchings are in high demand."

This conversation was making less sense instead of more, but Entreri didn't indicate it. Since it was his turn, he rolled the dice again, although he only rolled a five. There are books filled with pictures of women's private parts? Clearly some people's lust could not be contained.

Yajnesh looked amused at Entreri's silence. He rose from the table. "I will bring one of my books."

"Humor him," Yadav said. "He'll go away quicker."

Yajnesh made a rude gesture at his brother and walked out the door.

Entreri did not like the turn the evening was taking, but he was still gathering information, so he said nothing. He also suspected Yadav's advice was true to a certain extent. In fact, it was the bantering between the brothers that drew his genuine interest. Brothers banter, goad each other, and tease each other, he noted. Or these do, anyway. He sensed the dynamic between them.

Yadav laughed and shook his head, relaxing back in his chair. "I'll spoil the surprise for you. His favorite book is one bound with canvas. Inside, there are painstakingly real drawings. It is a young woman no more than twenty taking off her clothes piece by piece. In each picture she takes off another article of clothing, until she is laid bare." He admitted, "The artist is not bad, but what use is a picture next to a flesh and blood woman?"

Entreri supposed he understood Yadav's logic. Then again, as he considered someone like Theebles, he suspected that pictures were as close as some men could get to sex with a woman unless they paid a prostitute.

Or raped someone.

"Perhaps he does not get as many flesh and blood women as he wishes," Entreri said dryly, testing the waters to see if he could join in the banter.

Yadav snorted and chuckled. "Or perhaps, like many sucked into the world of looking rather than touching, he prefers to idealize his women and make love to his own hand. I have nothing in common with him in that respect." He sat up and cleared away the dice game, replacing the dice with his worn deck of cards. "Pasha Basadoni allows all his lieutenants to use a harem within his harem. He sets aside a number of women for us. I visit regularly. There is one woman, Vamil, whom I am especially fond of. She has dark skin and piercing eyes, all the curves a woman should possess, and a confident manner. I like my women confident."

Given Entreri's understanding of what a harem was - the wives, concubines, children, mother, and sisters of a man - he was surprised to hear that Basadoni would allow such a thing. He took note of it, however. If Basadoni thought the women were safe to be with in such a way, then they likely were. "I see," he said, for he really had no reply to such a revelation. He filed away the information that Yadav liked confident women, however. He suspected that said something about his character.

Yadav looked surprised. "Has our pasha not offered you the same privilege? Or perhaps he has not got around to it yet. He is a tactful man."

"Indeed he is," Entreri said. "Given I am now shaving, I suspect the offer will come soon." He smirked, still finding the comments about beards and shaving to be odd, if not ridiculous.

Yadav nodded. "There is every kind of woman a man might wish. I am given to understand the pasha chooses concubines, in some cases, especially for his lieutenants. Certainly he knew enough about me to suggest Vamil. I have never been more satisfied."

Yajnesh burst into the room, grinning. "This is my favorite book." He plopped down in his seat and laid the canvas bound book open in front of Entreri. "This collection is of a young woman undressing for the artist. Piece by piece, her clothing falls away, until her body is revealed."

Yadav gave Entreri a wry look.

Entreri snorted, amused. "As your brother predicted." Strangely, he found that spending an evening with Yadav was making him more tolerable. However, spending an evening with Yajnesh was making him less tolerable. Despite that, he glanced down at the book. In the picture, a lovely Calishite woman with long black hair and brown eyes stood in a room of pillows; she wore a blue belly-dancing costume.

The picture was simple enough. Entreri turned the pages, and sure enough, with each picture, the woman stripped. In the second to last picture, the woman was naked, and in the final picture, she was lying on the pillows, one hand draped over her breasts and the other with its finger crooked in a "come hither" gesture.

Entreri was decidedly unmoved.

Yajnesh grinned at the picture, then slid his gaze to Entreri. His face fell. "Tough audience," he complained to Yadav.

Yadav shrugged. "Maybe you bore him like you bore me."

Yajnesh scowled at him. "Don't tempt me to throw the book at your head."

"Don't tempt me to tear out the pages and set them on fire," Yadav said. "You show that book to everyone."

"In spite of being a virgin you must have particular tastes," Yajnesh said to Entreri, ignoring his brother's threat.

Entreri was knocked off guard by this implied question. He hadn't given the issue any thought. He shrugged. "Likely I would prefer confident women, like your brother." He couldn't imagine being comfortable with a nervous or uncertain woman.

"Ah, this one is too shy for you." Yajnesh lit up. "I'll be right back."

"Sit down and play cards," Yadav said.

Yajnesh sat. "Very well. I shall show Entreri my collection some other time."

"Good," Yadav said. "You're wasting the evening."

Yajnesh made a rude gesture.

Too shy for me? Entreri thought, wondering what in the Nine Hells Yajnesh could mean.

In the end, despite the uncomfortable moments, Entreri was glad he came. Yadav's intervention raised Entreri's opinion of him, forcing him to recalculate how he approached the man. Also, he'd gleaned useful information about gambling.

All in all, it wasn't a wasted evening.

xXx

Several days later, Yajnesh approached Entreri again, this time over lunch. He sat next to Entreri as if Entreri had been saving the seat for him and grinned. "How would you like to look through my collection and find what you like? My brother will be there as well. He said he wishes to spend an evening like the last one we shared. I think you two get along."

Indeed, Entreri and Yadav had been working together more efficiently for the last few days. Basadoni had been pleased enough to comment on it. "Very well," Entreri said. He had no interest in the books, but he wouldn't mind honing his game skills further. Also, he hoped to gather more insight into the brothers. The better he understood Yadav, the better he could maneuver him where he wanted him in a difficult situation.

"My brother wishes to meet in my room at midnight," Yajnesh said. "Is this acceptable to you?"

Entreri suspected that the change in location had to do with Yajnesh's book collection, but given that people met in each other's rooms all the time, he wasn't concerned about it. "I suppose." If he didn't like it, he would simply leave.

Yajnesh's grin widened. "Excellent."

xXx

When Entreri approached Yajnesh's quarters that evening, Yajnesh was outside the door waiting for him. "Welcome to my humble abode." He gestured and opened the door. "My brother will be here soon. He is delayed."

Entreri narrowed his eyes, not liking this turn of events, but he entered anyway, taking stock of the room. Yajnesh's room was on the second floor of the Basadoni Guild, away from the apprentices and servants, but not as lofty as the quarters afforded the lieutenants. It was boxy, with a high ceiling, and everything was neatly organized on bookshelves around the room. Rugs on the floor made it more comfortable. In addition to the bed, which was of a good size and covered in clean blankets, there was a writing desk and a small window overlooking the courtyard.

Entreri felt that rooms said much about a person. How fancy they were, what they contained, how organized they were, and how clean they were all seemed to him to be important factors. Yajnesh's room was about as fancy as he had expected, but it was better organized and cleaner than he'd predicted. He filed that away for future analysis.

Yajnesh followed and shut the door. "I thought we would start over here. I have my collection of artwork organized by mood." He crossed the room and pulled out a red leather bound book. "Here. I apologize that there are not more places to sit, but you can sit on the bed, on the floor, or at the writing desk." He opened the book to the first image, which was a twenty-something woman in wrappings as though she were going to the market, giving the viewer an assertively seductive look. "What does this image do for you?"

By mood? Entreri thought, scandalized. He sat at the writing desk. "I'm not here to have my sexual interests analyzed," he said flatly. "And the picture looks like someone's mother." Which only made the seductive look that much more disturbing.

Yajnesh shut the book and slipped it back onto the shelf. "So no mothers." He appraised his bookshelf.

Entreri mentally rolled his eyes. The man was clearly obsessed. He decided that the reason Yajnesh didn't have a higher standing in the guild was because he put too much time and energy into sex. Entreri filed that lesson away. Clearly one needed to control all one's appetites in order to keep a competitive edge.

Yajnesh picked a book bound in blue canvas. "Here is a collection of pictures of young women your age. They seem young for me, but perhaps you will enjoy them." He crossed over and handed Artemis the book. "I don't mean to analyze you. Only help. After all, the surest way to go into something is to have a firm idea of what one wants. Surely you will not go into Pasha Basadoni's harem and let the women choose what to do with you."

Entreri was not pleased to find a nugget of logic in that reasoning. Still, he shot it down. "If I want to determine what I want, I should be interacting with live women and not pictures." He didn't see what connection a woman's appearance had with how good the sex was or how safe she was to be in bed with.

Yajnesh stared at him. "You have no idea how to even go about deciding what pleases you."

Entreri found himself irritated. "By all means, let's hear your system for picking out what you like," he drawled, eyes half-hooded.

Yajnesh grinned and sat on his bed. "The most basic fact you need to know as a man is that some physical attributes will turn you on and others will turn you off. For instance, my brother likes women with dark skin. Dark skin turns him on. Arouses him. Unless you are ready for sex by being aroused, it is impossible to have sex. That is why knowing what catches your eye is important." He set the book aside. "I like women with small breasts and slender frames. My brother enjoys curves. He will not be interested in a woman with narrow hips. I am not interested in his hourglass-shaped cows."

Entreri listened to this speech with some skepticism. Granted, he could tell when people were physically attractive or not, but he hadn't noticed any themes. "Why do you care?" he asked suddenly. There was absolutely no reason for Yajnesh to be concerned about whether Entreri could pick out the right woman to have sex with.

Yajnesh raised his eyebrows. Then he smiled. "You don't have any brothers, and you don't have any close friends. How else are you going to learn about these things? I took it upon myself to befriend you because you are a man now, and as a man, you ought to behave like one. Do you wish to remain a child?"

Entreri's pride was stung by that, but he remained as stoic as ever. For several moments, though, he imagined disemboweling Yajnesh for the insult. "There is nothing child-like about my behavior," he said coldly, "a fact that your flapping tongue may yet learn tonight."

Yajnesh laughed. "I would not mind that. Not at all."

Entreri had no clue what he meant by that. "We shall see," he muttered darkly. He imagined chopping Yajnesh's tongue out of his mouth.

"I am not afraid of men," Yajnesh said. "If I were, why would I have chosen to ally myself with the likes of Dancer?"

Entreri found himself even more lost. A moment later, his mind made an unpleasant connection. "You are saying that you bed men as well." It was and wasn't a question.

"You were the one who said that my tongue would learn your manhood," Yajnesh retorted.

Entreri's eyes narrowed dangerously. "I meant I would cut it out with my dagger." And certainly he was wearing his weapons; he only took them off to bathe or sleep.

"Is it that hard?" Yajnesh teased. "If your dagger is hard enough to penetrate me, I might let you. As I said to Dancer, you are handsome."

Entreri experienced a moment of bodily confusion in which Yajnesh's comment crashed through him. The sensations that exploded in his chest and stomach were a jumble so complex he couldn't untangle them. He stood abruptly. "I am not to be propositioned." It was time to leave. He would have to make sure not to expose his back as he did. "This will not happen again." It was threat as much as it was a statement of fact.

"You propositioned me," Yajnesh protested. Then he pouted. "Go, then."

Entreri didn't even try to find the logic in that claim. He kept his gaze on Yajnesh as he made his way to the door, then slipped into the hall.

To his surprise, the only thing he could think about was discussing the incident with Basadoni in the morning.