Disclaimer: The recognizable characters in this fanfiction were created by R. A. Salvatore in association with the legal entity Wizards of the Coast, who owns relevant copyrights to additional Forgotten Realms material referred to herein. The characters are used without permission but no material profit of any kind is being made from the following work. WotC reserve rights to Forgotten Realms material, but all of the situations unique to this work of fan fiction are property of the writer.
Note: This was spawned by a sentence that claimed Entreri dislikes prostitutes, but spent 'quality time' in harems. It seemed out of character.
leopard among jackals
It wasn't that he had made a mistake; never that. The young assassin's information had not been as reliable as he'd come to expect from the Basadoni Cabal's network. Certainly he had his own network, better than any other lieutenant in the dangerous guild, despite the relatively few years he'd had to cultivate it. Both networks had been tapped for his latest assignment.
This was his third kill not asked by the guild itself; Pasha Basadoni had finally decided to profit by hiring the skilled youth out. It wasn't that he had counted on the numbers one of the Sultan's many nephews had provided to be higher than the guild reports had alluded. Nor was it that he hadn't expected the man to be alone: Sawouz was widely known for the exquisitely hedonistic quality of his harem. He had planned everything as meticulously as ever, down to the very moment the guild's two diviners had said another in a string of recent sandstorms would hit the desert city.
There were more guards, though they hadn't been a problem to avoid nor prop up in death when needed. There was extra magical security the Sultan's nephew hadn't mentioned; nothing Basadoni's wizard hadn't equipped him to defeat. The man did not sleep alone, but harem girls certainly weren't a problem, as far as the young killer understood. They weren't the same as Basadoni's; Sawouz did not house a single female relative in the same space as his many young sexual partners. Sawouz was more liberal a merchant than other men the assassin had killed.
The interesting pseudo-problem for Artemis Entreri was the lack of information concerning the man's martial skill. Or, rather, whatever magic he possessed that loaned him such skill. The older man was cutting the air all around the young man, hitting him with more than just the breeze created with his two fine, and possibly magical, scimitars.
Entereri danced around the rapid right and left thrusts that sought to cage and skewer him like a pig in the open market. His eyes, dead but for the spark the fight fueled him, drank in all the information vision could offer him and informed his obsessively detailed mental map of the room. The room's terrain was treacherous between a few dead soldiers and several girls that slept on the floor. He was mindful of a multitude of animal skins with stuffed heads and gaping maws that could cause his undoing even without housing flesh, bone, muscle or sinew.
He continued to rapidly give ground in order to study his opponent's offensive maneuvers. Oddly enough, the brilliant sword play didn't seem to match the man's lackluster footwork. Sawouz was more than twice the young assassin's age and lacked alacrity, but he made up for both in odd skill. The metal tongues of his blades had already licked the hem of Entreri's shirt into tatters and worried at his baggy breeches. Thin ribbons of blood were running down his lean stomach from a few shallow slices across his ribcage. The red fluid soaked silently into the wide black sash that held his sheathed daggers and a few of accoutrements of his trade.
The young assassin had not scored a single hit, nor had he tried, content to watch Sawouz's growing confidence and glee as he 'kept' the younger man on the backpedal. A few cuts on Entreri's stomach had come in the opening salvo. As requested by the Sultan's nephew, he'd alerted the man to his presence to allow him a sporting chance. Other minor cuts had been granted to feed the older man's bloated confidence.
Even if Sawouz did have magically enhanced swordsmanship, Entreri didn't particularly believe the older man's endurance would match. Sawouz's breathing was already coming as rapid as his lethal blade work.
"Oh, I have exhausted the ranks of yet another pasha, have I? So much so that they send skinny boys to do the work of men?" Sawouz chuckled, changing up the rapid right and left thrusts, with a few sweeps high and low in opposite directions.
Even if it had seemed effective, Entreri wasn't impressed by the moves so much as disgusted that it had taken so long for the older man to change his routine.
In reply, Entreri shrugged, totally unconcerned, ducking a scimitar over his head and twisting back around the one anticipating his dodge. "Are you saying you've killed people like this?"
This gave Sawouz pause. The assassin still hadn't drawn his twin daggers and until that point he assumed it was due to his overpowering offensive. The older man's face caught up in an expression somewhere between incredulity and annoyance. "People? You think you have a right to call yourself such, little worm?"
Entreri had the grace to shrug again, despite the blades that were even then boxing him in. He was confident in the man's weaknesses now. The man's skill was not in training, but an outside source. The young assassin had occasionally heard of weapons that might enhance the wielder's skill. The boy considered such tools more deadly for the wielder than any opponent the blade might meet. One might learn to rely on the sword's skill, simply moving along with it rather than appropriately directing. A person would grow weak and reliant on such a sword rather than trusting only in themselves. The fatal flaw of dependence was the least tolerable to Artemis Entreri. The young assassin sneered in severe disgust at the man, thinking him wretched beyond normal means.
Putting his trust in his body and his keen powers of observation, Entreri suddenly increased the pace of his backwards rush toward the one of the chamber's walls. Sawouz laughed, happy to quicken his advance on what he took as a fleeing adversary. He had complete confidence in his two scimitars, both enchanted to increase the skill of their wielder. With only one such blade, the man might have known a little fear when facing a lethally fast devil like the young man before him, but with two such weapons, Sawouz felt invincible. This was his home; there was nothing to fear with the boy about to run himself into a wall. The would-be assassin was going to be forced to stand, fight, and die.
Running out of room wasn't what Entreri had in mind. Just as he was about to be skewered between Sawouz and the wall, the nimble assassin's left foot went high and planted firmly back against the vertical surface.
Sawouz did not foresee Entreri's ingenuity, relying only on his swords' ability to defeat the wiry young man dancing back before him. He certainly did not expect the boy to use his momentum to run several steps backwards up the wall and vault in a curving arc above his head. As the blades directed him, he brought both up in a sweeping motion to protect his suddenly vulnerable head. Unfortunately for him, the blades could not stop the man from slamming into the lacquered tile wall with the force of his forward motion.
In the midst of his flip, head down as his legs curved effortlessly over his body, Entreri snapped his twin daggers into his hands. Using the energy of his flight, he declined the head strike the scimitars would deny him and waited an extra split second, swinging his legs out and down. The force of the maneuver doubled the weight of his strike when his hands simultaneously delivered precision overhand strikes. Both daggers dove below Sawouz' scapulae and deep into his lungs.
When the assassin landed on both feet, his daggers were still sheathed to the hilt in the older man's flesh. The angle might have been awkward for any other fighter, but flexible and intelligent Artemis Entreri knew how to use such situations to his advantage. He transferred the momentum of his leap to the elastic tension in his arms and flung the man backwards over his head.
The daggers ravaged the man's lungs as they slid and caught on the flat plates of his shoulder blades, therein providing Entreri the hold he needed to complete the throw. Though the man was much larger than the young man and much thicker of frame, the energy of Entreri's strike carried him straight overhead and down at the floor. The man had neither presence of mind, nor control, over his locked arms to take advantage of the wide opening the throw offered him.
Sawouz hit the tiled floor head first, breaking his neck and saving him the experience of his collapsing lungs. Thus, at the prince's suggestion, Sawouz was quite dead in a growing pond of spilling blood, leaving Artemis Entreri with a room full of potential witnesses.
He'd never forgotten the double handful of beautiful women sheltering together on the floor and behind furniture. What he would do with them he had yet to decide, though their lack of involvement in the operation boded well for them. They were undeniably beautiful, but he wouldn't let that cloud his head. He reminded himself harshly that beauty had no real value. The not-so-distant call of teenage hormones was a weakness that came with a base animal need to reproduce. The momentary glimpse of his weakness nearly prompted him to kill each one as a lesson to himself.
Fortunately for the women, Entreri did not kill for pleasure, passion, or when not necessary. In their favor, there were hundreds, if not thousands, of Calimshite men that fit Entreri's description. Also, as far as the city of Calimport knew, Entreri did not yet exist: this was only the third killing the man had been hired out to the public on. There were many assassins, though none as young as he, the murder could be blamed on within the city. The women before him, a few beginning to reach for heavy candlesticks vases as he openly considered them, would not know Entreri. They weren't a problem and if they became such, he could take care of each and every one of them far more easily than he had Sawouz.
"Forget me," he commanded in as cold and contemptuous a voice the women had ever heard, "or you will spend your lives with your back to a wall, rather than a bed."
The young man crouched, wiping his blades on Sawouz' long dressing gown before he headed to one of the room's many narrow windows left open to let in the cool night air. The women were stunned to see him melt into the darkness as completely as if he had been made of it all along. Wisely, the young ladies made for the chamber door rather than risk their lives on screams.
The last ashes of the night took in their son as he dropped from the window, straight down to the grapple line he'd attached to an awning frame before entering Sawouz's opulent home. As exact as the assassin aimed to be, it was yet beyond his skill to hit the line with both feet. He felt the rope bite comfortably into one foot, but the other brushed by ineffectively. Both hands slammed daggers home and quickly flew out to seize the line as he swung underneath it.
Had anyone been able to pierce the darkness, they would have remarked on the spider-like grace the young man exhibited as he allowed his body weight to pull the line down and then use the tension to propel himself back up. This time, Entreri landed on both feet. With sure steps other Calimshite assassins would have been pressed to match, the young man flowed away from the scene, crossing to one of many ramshackle buildings near the veritable palace. The fall was a deadly chasm he gave no thought.
One last leap onto the rope gave him the bounce he needed to land on the rundown structure in the least amount of time. His new footing was less secure; the building he'd scouted was as pathetic as any found in Calimport's vast collection of shanty towns. It was his confidence in the give his feet would sense that made him comfortable on the rooftop. That and the multiple times he'd cased the building since Basadoni had sanctioned the work.
Entreri wasted no time unhooking the grapple; he wound it the line as he ran across the building. Soon enough, he was across the building with the rope and grapple slung around his body and his concealing cloak returned to his lithe frame. Over the opposite side of the building he went, skittering along the rough edges of sun-baked brick and mortar. He hit the street and swam into shadows as inky black as the hair brushing his eyes.
People were about in the last precious moments of night's embrace. Calls to prayer were beginning to be sung about the city. Shop keepers were to setting up in the chilly morning's air, before the sun made such work literally murderous. If any of the early risers noticed the young man as he moved through the streets, they did not look twice. Not even the prayer-singers. Entreri especially noticed them, a deep sneer etching his features when he passed beneath their parapets. Apparently their gods had not told them of the imminent sandstorm.
When he finally arrived back at the Basadoni Cabal's credible façade, he slipped into relative security of a different sort. Entreri ever watched his back, perhaps even more so within the guild house, but he was satisfied to leave the dead body and the shuddering witnesses behind him. Though, he mused darkly as he made his way through the guild house on silent feet, he would never rid himself of each and every murder committed. The thought came with a surge of dark satisfaction and frustrated anger he didn't understand and refused to think about.
Knowing Pasha Basadoni expected him, he did not pause to leave his rope and grapple in his quarters nor change out of his slightly bloodied clothing. He promptly found his way to the older man's office. Those he passed bowed out of his way and whispered amongst themselves. Here was the Basadoni Cabal's most powerful lieutenant and perhaps soon Calimport's most deadly assassin. Within the cabal, Entreri had no rivals: he had eliminated or thoroughly converted all. Thieves that did not understand the necessity of an alliance with death did not survive long.
The doors to the pasha's practical office were opened for Entreri as he arrived. Inside, he found the guild's master reading over accounts by bright magical lights the cabal's mage had enchanted. He didn't know what to think of the man. Pasha Basadoni was still the stately gentlemen Entreri remembered from four years prior. The older man was sly, yet even-handed, a shrewd judge of character, and ruthless when crossed.
The young assassin bowed with honest respect when entering the man's presence. No other creature in Calimport, or all Calimshan, received the same gesture from Artemis Entreri. Basadoni pretended to ignore the act, finding some small amusement in teasing the deadly assassin. He was well aware that no other could engage in such dangerous behavior.
"The sons and daughters of Sawouz begin squabbling over the remains today, do they?" His voice was slightly amused, though he continued to peruse a ledger, which Entreri noted was filled with a dizzying array of numbers.
"Yes," the young man replied quietly, standing attentively by the doorway. He wondered that only in Basadoni's presence did he sometimes feel he lacked years or experience. It was strange; he knew he could break the man's neck within two short strides if he desired. There was nothing but gain to be had if he did. Despite his youth, the guild would follow him in Basadoni's absence; not that he wanted such a troublesome burden. And yet, even though he could kill the man, Entreri felt no power over him.
Basadoni adjusted his glasses as looked up from his ledger at last. Clear eyes measured Entreri's appearance at a glance but betrayed no insight.
"Well, then, Artemis, have you brought in foreign blood or is this yours?" Anyone else would be dead before the second syllable of his given name had passed their lips. Again, one of the privileges Pasha Basadoni enjoyed.
"The prince was remiss in many details," Entreri stated blandly by way of explanation, "when he accounted what defenses should be expected."
"Is it not the hired hand's duty to expect information to be faulty and often misleading?" Basadoni's reply was an unnecessary reminder of the common sense laws of assassination. An assassin is hired to do the work the contractor cannot. If the contractor knew all the details, most killers would be out of lucrative work.
"It is and I did," Entreri remarked. "Information on the mark's bodyguards and their skill was available; the mark's was not. In terms of magic, our mage's foresight was effective; I had no problems there."
Basadoni nodded sagely, smiling wryly at the deadly young man before him. "Witnesses?"
Here Entreri paused. He had no intention of lying, but the question was asked in a leading tone. "Nothing more than his harem."
A soft laugh escaped the pasha with the news. He'd half expected the young man to slaughter the girls. Never had such a cold-hearted man been in his employ. A man never swayed by wealth or carnal pursuits; only a desire for fear and respect moved the young man's blades. His curiosity was piqued, for he knew Entreri disliked dealing with Calimports hordes of prostitutes and knew, too, the young man hardly differentiated between them and the sexual side of even more traditional harems.
"All Calimport knows how exceedingly fine a harem Sawouz had," the older man said, seeking to draw a reaction, "and now I know the truth of it. Women so fine that even my hungriest leopard would not slake his thirst for blood on their tender bellies."
"Not so, Pasha," Entreri disagreed immediately, feeling unaccountably wronged. "There was no reason to kill them. None of them were credible witnesses; the light was dim and my features aren't uncommon."
For a long moment, the pasha stared at the young man. It wasn't the first time he considered what a dangerous tool he had taken into his guild. The man's marked lack of desire for sexual gratification was to be admired, but it was also a bizarre manifestation in a youth. He'd given the lad permission to enter his harem two years ago and had only heard of the assassin visiting once and only for a very brief period.
Unlike like other men of Calimport, Basadoni did not think that men without sexual drive weaklings. In his experience, men without such desires developed into powerfully obsessive types; often difficult to control. These men found perverse pleasure in death and had little recognition of human value. In Artemis Entreri, a young man far too wicked for his youth, there was still a guttering flame of humanity left. He'd seen the anger, the mysterious pain, which pushed the assassin inevitably along the razor edge of perfection. Without that flame, he supposed Artemis Entreri would become the kind of man that fell in love with the deaths he administered; the kind of man Basadoni thought better off dead.
"You remain a leopard among jackals, Artemis," Basadoni finally chuckled, noting a brief flicker of confusion in the assassin's gray eyes. He slipped a small square of paper onto the ledger he was perusing and dipped a pen thoughtfully into a nearby inkwell.
Entreri was confused, but was a master of keeping his emotions in check and under wraps. Most of his emotions he didn't bother to acknowledge, making his control all the easier. That didn't keep him from wondering what prompted Basadoni to stare at him before making his cryptic remark.
Searching for a clue, his gaze flicked to the pasha's pen as it descended on the paper. He was disappointed to see the older man write out a pair of letters and numbers in neat Common script. If he'd understood what they meant, he'd have found another reason to appreciate the guild teaching him to read and write more than the native Calimshite he'd learned in Memnon.
Basadoni paused to let the ink dry before offering the slip to his young assassin. "I want you to take this to one of the ladies in the harem. You will find Rashi's rooms opposite a small fountain in the corridor to back and left of the harem common room."
Entreri took the paper without looking at it. For one of those very few times in his life since he'd become a full lieutenant of the city's most powerful guilds, the young man was at a loss. "And then?"
A wave of his hand dismissed Entreri's question; one that seemed to expect an order of death to follow. "Do as you see fit, but be a gentleman about it; the young lady is a valuable asset to the guild."
Mind suddenly whirling with what he suspected the pasha was hinting at, Entreri nodded almost dumbly. If the girl was valuable, it wasn't death on the pasha's mind. And if it wasn't death... Without asking permission he turned around and pushed open the doors he'd arrived through. Noting the break in habit, Basadoni smiled to himself. He didn't expect a sexual liaison to thaw the lad's cold heart, but he thought the human interaction would do the assassin some good.
"Lieutenant Entreri," Basadoni called before the doors closed.
Entreri turned, his face a stern mask. It was almost as if he'd been asked to slay the sultan, rather than deliver a slip of paper. The tension under the young man's skin was unbelievable.
"You won't need the rope where you're going."
In two almost jerky moves, Entreri pulled the rope, with his cloak, over his body and shoved both into the arms of one of Basadoni's door guards, never breaking the pasha's gaze. As the doors shut, ending the unreadable gaze, Pasha Basadoni suddenly wonderedif he was doing one of his favorite women or his principle assassin wrong. With a sigh, he looked back to the ledgers and reminded himself that he knew both well enough to predict a favorable outcome.