Author's Note: After some helpful commentary, I adjusted the timeline for this fic. The edits in this chapter are minor but will have an impact on later updates, so I recommend rereading.
Menzoberranzan, 1415 DR
Matron Quenthel Baenre scowled as she contemplated the empty room. Jarlaxle had been supposed to meet her here five minutes ago, but he was late. She was aware the mercenary had been pursuing interests in some surface city and spending more and more time away from Menzoberranzan, but until now it had not inconvenienced her.
This meeting wasn't terribly important -more a show of power, reminding him who had it and who did not than anything else- but Jarlaxle's disrespect in this was troubling. Bregan D'aerthe had grown significantly in the past decade, gaining more soldiers from Menzoberranzan's disaffected males. Quenthel watched the door and considered her options.
Bregan D'aerthe was growing to be a threat. Jarlaxle was a threat, but not one that she'd care to attack directly, even if he wasn't as invincible as he painted himself to the lesser matrons. She knew that from long experience. She smirked and considered one vulnerability in particular and a plan started to weave itself in her mind. Yes, that would do nicely.
The door opened. Jarlaxle, bold as ever, walked in with clicking boots.
"You summoned me, Matron?" Was that a hint of annoyance in his voice? Whatever he was doing on the surface must have been important, Quenthel thought with satisfaction.
"I just thought you'd be interested to know that we captured those spies from Ched Nasad. You have House Baenre's gratitude for alerting us," she said.
"You could have sent that with a messenger."
"Yes, but I never get to see enough of you, brother. Ten times in as many years?" She shook her head in mock sadness. "Don't tell me you're still angry about that little incident with the Netherese."
Jarlaxle waited for a moment too long before saying "Of course not." Quenthel held in a triumphant smile; with that pause, he might as well have admitted he didn't know what she meant.
"You do remember, don't you?" she teased. Jarlaxle's smile was gone entirely. He didn't respond. Quenthel went on. "You came back to tell me about how the trade went. I forbid you from interfering any further."
"I had no plans to do so, anyway."
"Of course not. Because the human had betrayed you, right?."
"What gave you that notion?" Jarlaxle asked, narrowing his eyes.
"You were betrayed, but it was not by the human."
Jarlaxle didn't say anything.
"You recall stumbling, as you entered the room?"
Jarlaxle frowned, but stayed silent.
"You fell because Kimmuriel was meddling in your mind. He rewrote your memories."
"I doubt that. Kimmuriel knows better than to do such a thing."
"You doubt that he has ambition? Look into your mind and examine your memories of that night. You know I'm telling the truth."
Jarlaxle stormed away. Quenthel smiled; he didn't believe her, but he didn't need to yet. This was only the first fibers of the web, but they were a start. They would hold the whole thing together.
Meanwhile on the surface, the stars dotted the sky above Calimport. Barrabus the Gray, however, was in no position to enjoy them, even if he had been so inclined. He was too busy deflecting lunges and bleeding to death on a rooftop.
Half a century ago, Barrabus' employers had wanted to control the local trade. Today, the Netherese were attempting to do the same thing. And now, like then, they had encountered resistance from the local guilds who were already in control of the local trade. Things had changed little in fifty years, Barrabus reflected bitterly.
Barrabus grunted as he blocked another swing from the Raker thug. The Raker was nervous and poorly trained, but he was also a head taller than the assassin. It should have still been an easy fight, but a deep puncture wound in Barrabus' side was slowing him down.
He parried another blow and retreated several steps, pretending to slip on a loose shingle. When the Raker leapt forward, Barrabus shoved a dagger through the man's throat and pushed the dying man off the roof. The body landed with a sharp crack on the stones three stories below.
Barrabus settled into a crouch, checking his side. It was still bleeding heavily. He sighed and considered his options.
He could stay here and bleed to death. It would probably take less than an hour. The tiefling would have to travel several weeks from wherever he was in order to resurrect him again. Barrabus smirked; that would inconvenience Alegni considerably. It would almost be worth having to deal with the tiefling afterwards.
The smirk faded. Almost was the key word there. Alegni had left him alone for almost a year now, counting on the threat of the sword (and the knowledge that they could always find him again) to keep him in line almost a thousand miles away. That threat wouldn't have worked nine years ago. Some things, at least, had changed.
But servitude here, as unbearable as it was, was still better than servitude in proximity to Herzgo Alegni. If he did something the Netherese didn't like, they could only beat him, and they rarely did that.
He realized that his thoughts were going in circles. He shook his head, trying to clear it. If he didn't want to deal with Alegni, he couldn't die on this roof. That meant he had to go somewhere else and stitch up the wound on his side.
He stood up too quickly and his head began to spin. He had lost more blood than he had realized. He took a step forward, steadying himself before he fell over and off the roof. In his condition, a fall like that would kill him.
The building he was on a set of apartments. In the Calimport heat, top-floor rooms were only inhabited by the poorest of the poor or were used for storage. In this part of town, storage was more likely. Walking more slowly than he liked to ensure his balance, Barrabus made his way to the edge of the roof. He would have to swing over the edge onto the window ledges below, but that was the only risky part of the plan, and were it not for the injury, it wouldn't be risky at all.
He gripped the ledge and let himself drop, using momentum to carry himself to the to the window-ledge. Fortunately, the window he had chosen was unlatched, and he didn't have to spend precious moments unlocking it.
He had been right about the contents of the room. Crates were stacked against the wall and dried herbs dangled from the rafters. Barrabus collapsed against one stack of boxes, not bothering to close the window behind him.
He had thread and a curved needle in his belt pouch for exactly this purpose. He set those aside for now, picking up an oil lantern that was next to the stack of crates. He lit the lantern as quickly as possible. For the hundredth time, he cursed the loss of his jeweled dagger; this never would have been necessary when he still had it. Another thing to hate Jarlaxle for, he thought with a scowl.
Still leaving the needle where it lay, he took a long drink from a flask containing brandy. He had started to worry recently that he was too dependent on alcohol to dull the edge of servitude, but he knew that it would help when cleaning out the wound. It would do no good to avoid bleeding to death only to die of infection later, after all.
The wound was small but deep. Barrabus cleaned the edges as well as possible using a rag and a splash of the brandy. The knife that made the wound hadn't been jagged, so he didn't need to cut off skin to make the edges clean enough to stitch. Finally, he ran the needle through the flame to sterilize it and started sewing the wound closed with a grimace.
With the stab wound closed, he could rest a bit. He wasn't expected back at the Netherese headquarters until dawn. He leaned against the crates with a sigh and closed his eyes. The injury was a dull throb in his side. He ran his fingers along the edge of the stitches, making sure that he hadn't missed anything.
No. The stitches were neat and tight. He wouldn't bleed to death in someone's attic, at least not tonight. His hand drifted an inch or two lower, to an old scar. Another stab wound to the side, though that one had gotten magically healed.
Barrabus winced, not at the memory but at the pang of nostalgia that came with it. He tried to chase out the memory by calculating how many years he'd spent in servitude and how painful he'd make Jarlaxle's eventual death in recompense, but blood loss made it hard to think.
Jarlaxle paced his office. He knew why Quenthel had said what she had. She's threatened by Bregan D'aerthe's power. She wants to weaken us. What better way to do that than to turn its captains against each other?
But that was the problem. It was a such a transparent ploy, so why use it? Why not choose one of any number of stories that would be more plausible, not to mention more likely to gain a response? Why choose a minor incident from a decade ago? He barely even thought about this one anymore. When Quenthel forbid him to interfere further, he had decided that torture and death at the hands of the Netherese was as good a revenge as any for Entreri's betrayal.
Quenthel shouldn't have even known about it. He hadn't even told Athrogate or Kimmuriel, becoming uncharacteristically testy when Athrogate had brought it up. The only ones who knew about it were Jarlaxle and Entreri himself; to any outside observers, it should have looked like Jarlaxle had gone in, captured Entreri, and turned the assassin over without further incident. What was that surface saying? Two can keep a secret, if one of them is dead.
Regardless of how Quenthel had gotten her information, that didn't explain why she had chosen to use it. Entreri's attack on him was a sore spot, but as far as lies went, it was poorly constructed and poorly chosen.
Unless it were true. If it were true, then Quenthel would have every reason to use that story. After all, if it were true, all the evidence would support it. If it were true, Jarlaxle would have no choice but to retaliate against his co-captain, leading to weakness within the organization. If it were true, he had left Entreri to die with no...
Jarlaxle shook his head. No. It was just a story. A desperate ploy from a desperate matron. He had heard thousands of them in his long life and this one was no different.
It couldn't be. He stopped pacing, tapped his fingers against the surface of his desk, thinking. He needed to go back to Luskan anyway. He could speak to Kimmuriel once he was there.
The sun was only just peeking over the edge of the desert when Barrabus got back to the building the Netherese had staked out as their headquarters. It was a cheap brick building in Dock Ward. They had tried to set up something more appropriate to the thieves' guild they were trying to be, but the underworld of Calimport had learned from its drow infestation. It had recoiled from anything that carried even the whiff of outside influence. The Netherese' last three headquarters had been burned down or blown up before they moved to the far less advantageous location near the docks.
"You're late," said Alasus. He was Barrabus' handler, a sour bureaucrat who resented being sent to deal with criminals in a hot sandy city. He appreciated Barrabus' expertise, though, and tended to treat him as a local agent rather than as a messenger boy or recalcitrant soldier. Fifty years ago Barrabus would have resented such an insult to his pride; these days, he'd learned to take what scraps he could get.
"Someone warned them I was coming." Barrabus lifted his cloak, allowing Alasus to see the tear in his shirt and the bloody stitches under it. "I assumed you didn't want search the alleyways for my corpse. Was I wrong?"
Alasus sniffed. That was as close as he'd get to admitting Barrabus was right.
"You're going to Luskan," he said instead. Barrabus raised an eyebrow.
"Yes, you may have heard of it. Cold, lots of ships?"
"What's in Luskan?"
"Some of our forces that were scouting Neverwinter had a deserter." Alasus pushed a letter across the surface of his desk. "They're worried he'll try to sell his information to the highest bidder. But they've had a hellish time trying to find him and they have scouting to complete. You're to find him and kill him."
Barrabus nodded and picked up the paper; it had a name and short description. He'd done more with less. "Who am I reporting to?" he asked. There was always someone around to remind him that his time was not his own.
"We don't have an agent in Luskan so I've been ordered to see how well you perform without a handler. I expect you back with the deserter's head before spring." Alasus paused and glanced at Barrabus. "Metaphorically, I mean. I don't want a bloody skull on my desk when you get back."
Barrabus realized he had a fluttering feeling in his stomach that he didn't recognize. He didn't think it was freedom, but it may have been a distant relative. Fear, perhaps. "When do I leave?"
"As soon as the next north-bound boat leaves port, preferably."