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 came from the interesting fact that the human brain loses capacity for creative math after the age of twenty-eight. I didn't think of this until after I'd arbitrarily decided our diviner's age.
safety in numbers
Among all the nations Rashi had visited there was a common phrase that, until recently, had never ceased to amuse her. While being schooled she and her classmates never missed an opportunity to use the phrase to illustrate their choice of learning. Early in her divination career, she'd nearly forgotten the original use of the saying.
As she sat within a boisterous taproom with a bevy of tribal desert travelers, the phrase again reinserted itself in her head: there is safety in numbers. The laughter once attributed to the words was not easily forgotten; it came to her now as the ironic well-meaning advice of friends long beloved and long left behind. Like others before her, she had believed she would only grow in her creative skills, never to be cut off from the thing that kept her happy and useful.
The plastered walls enclosing the smoky main room were clear to her vision, but her eyes did not focus on them as she thought. She had not been cut off from her beloved numbers, rather, she had felt her sharp mind begin to lose their effortless flow. She could still perform mind-boggling calculations and spill out bewitching equations, but the creative impulses that were the true magic of the art were fading. The intuitive leaps of logic began to fade a year prior and were now becoming as distant as her vision. There was no telling where the decline in her creative math would end.
Losing the edge on her hadn't affected Rashi's ability to cook the Basadoni Cabal's books, but it turned what had once been an amusing pastime into a constant reminder of her future. Her skills at divining would not be flawless for long. For the first time in her life, Rashi had found herself uncertain of what was to come and what she wanted to do.
There was no safety without numbers.
The texture of the voices sounding and rebounding around the room caught her attention for a moment. She sighed and looked around her crowded table at the men and women through the hem of her banded head scarf. Like her, they were swathed in the usual flowing and concealing garb ideal for desert travel. A few were even merchants from Shaar, whom she would be traveling with, thanks to their hospitality and her gift of persuasion. It was easy to spot them with their dark skin and pale garb; a detail that came as a disadvantage in her situation.
Despite the sulphur-yellow light permeating the beige room's rough interior, she could not see the closest of the myriad faces clearly, especially not the two young men flanking her. She could tell what the crowd's relative ages were by their voices and gestures as they drank, smoked their pipes, and conversed among themselves. Her conclusions convinced her she had made another miscalculation. One of them was supposed to be a killer, but none moved with the body language she had grown to recognize. Her divinations were losing greater detail by the week.
Sighing, she reached for her colorful glass of Calishite coffee, and was shocked and horrified to find a hand already grasping it. A slight gasp betrayed her shock at her mistake as she quickly withdrew her hand.
"My apologies," she laughed, quickly regaining her wits and sense of humor, "Really, old women and their eyesight! I thought that was my drink! I'll try to keep my hands to myself from now on."
The young man's shoulders moved in what she assumed was a shrug. "No, it is your drink."
Her fine black eyebrows rose in further surprise at the gruff response. Why anyone would knowingly have their hand on her drink was a mystery to Rashi; unless he was looking to flirt. A catlike smile pulled her lips up in an intrigued expression. No matter what the man looked like or what his attitude, Rashi enjoyed the game and she felt she sorely needed whatever amusement she could find.
"This isn't a good way to start a conversation, sir. You should have taken issue with how I disparaged my age. So far you've stolen my drink and lost an opportunity to compliment me. What can I expect next? A creative apology or excuse, I hope."
There was a lengthy pause before the man responded and when he did, the veil of gruffness left his voice. "Beauty is rarely worthy of compliment and deserters unworthy of conversation."
Rashi's smile was frozen on her face as she flushed with horrified comprehension. An unexpected shudder took possession of her spine and rattled her soundly from neck to hips. Here he was: death had intercepted her, had even anticipated her arrival. Her calculations proved correct after all, but she took no comfort in the knowledge.
Woodenly, her mouth formed crude sounds she hardly believed she could deliver under the horrible circumstances. "You aren't the type to waste breath on a deserter; what are you here for?"
She was right, of course, he wasn't the type to waste breath on a mark: in her fear the significance of the fact was lost on her. "Information," he replied bluntly, without feeling. "Would you rather your rented room or outside?"
A stranger to life on the run, Rashi returned immediately to the only real advice she knew. "Can we stay right here?"
"I didn't offer that option," he commented quietly, without a hint of compassion entering his voice. "Even if I was incapable of killing you in the midst of this crowd, they would leave eventually. And if somehow one of these people decided to help you, they would die delaying the inevitable."
If it had been any other killer, Rashi would never have backed down; she would have attacked him on the spot and died with the satisfaction of at least giving him a few claw marks for his trouble. But she knew this man, had witnessed on several intimate occasions his nearly inhuman reflexes and incredible mastery of body. Rashi closed her eyes and bowed her head and refused to cry. It was hard, very hard, to reconcile the situation to her idea of reality: none of her calculations had hinted that Pasha Basadoni would resort to this level of hateful cruelty. He had sent the killer to her initially, knowing she would find him fascinating.
"Outside, then," she murmured. She had no desire to be responsible for any life but her own.
He stood in response to her words, dropping a firm hand on her slender shoulder as he did. "Don't take long."
Rashi nodded, feeling more warmth from the palm of his hand than his demeanor.
When he walked away, she took up the glass of coffee and considered it as carefully as her poor vision allowed. On an impulse, she drained it down to the grounds and then asked in a voice raised to invite attention, "Does anybody here read coffee grounds?"
One of the older men at her table raised his hand and waved her over. She heard, more than saw, his hand pat the table before him, rattling a metal plate before him. "Come up-end your glass here on the plate. If the reading is good, you can buy it. If it is bad, I won't expect anything."
A feeble smirk came onto her face as she swished through the crowd to the gentleman. He had a kind face, with a neatly trimmed beard and intelligent hazel eyes, which she noted before she moved too close to see them. With the short walk around the table came a return of circulation she had not realized had slowed. Disgust at her fear rose within her and ignited her pride and self respect; she was not going to act like a victim. She'd made her choice and she knew the possible consequences.
Holding her head high, the diviner and former Basadoni bookkeeper brought up her glass and swung her arm in an arc. The glass slammed onto the older man's metal dish with a terrific report. The action rang in her mind as an echo of what a killer might perform when plunging a dagger into a victim, only with none of the silence. The comparison did not trouble her as much as she expected.
She did not see the coffee-reader jump slightly at her unorthodox rendering of the coffee grounds or the startled reactions of those closest to them. As bad as her vision was at close range, the bearded man's look of puzzled consternation was also denied her. The violence of the act had knocked every single ground to the plate, leaving none on the glass for reading. He'd never seen anything like it and found himself at a loss as to how to interpret what he found. He pulled at his beard thoughtfully before speaking.
"Well," the man said hesitantly, trying to give the mound of fragrant coffee grounds meaning, "I think fate is offering you a chance to build your own destiny. I advise you to act boldly, but temper your action with wisdom."
Beside him a woman, probably his wife, snorted loudly. "You expect her to pay for that?"
The man shook his head. "I don't know if it is good or bad. You can pay me, if you discover it was good."
Rashi nodded to the man, taking his advice to heart. "That sounds fair to me. I'll find out soon enough."
The diviner walked out into the dusty haze of what could be her last sunset. The sun was melting across the distant sand dunes in undulating bands of rust, burnt umber, and rose. It was hard to tell where the earth gave way to sky; a lovely last vision, she mused. Resolute strides took her from the building to find the Basadoni Cabal's lieutenant.
She didn't have long to look; he was waiting for her in the shadows the building cast. His presence was only apparent once he stepped from the darkness into the rich orange light of the setting sun. If his eyes weren't flat and lifeless, she would have found him quite fetching in the romantic color and angle of the day's last illumination.
His long shadowslithered up her body as he drew near. Rashi watched the morbid sight until she realized that he was purposely coming to her from an angle that put the sun in her eyes. He stopped far enough away that his compact frame did not block the sun from her already disadvantaged sight. Rashi was frightened, but her indignation gave her the courage she needed to step toward the man and take ironic shelter in his shadow.
"You could have escaped to Pook," Entreri began without preamble and in his customary uninflected tone.
How he knew Pook had an interest in her wasn't important enough to concern her. Rashi smirked humorlessly in response; the killer had no obvious understanding of her motives. "I wouldn't want to die under those circumstances. I have more respect for myself than that."
Surprisingly, Entreri assumed a thoughtful expression and nodded. "I knew that of you. Did your lack of independence finally wear on you?"
Rashi's mouth fell open to answer, but closed again in confusion. Had Basadoni not given his lieutenant her letter of explanation where she had clearly and respectfully explained her reasons for leaving? Was the cool, professional assassin showing personal interest? Was this his way of paying back the debt of her mentoring?
"I thought you knew," she admitted, "especially in the context of conversations we had over the years. I have been losing my ability as a problem solver; as a diviner. It would be as if you lost your precious reflexes. What then would you do?"
The cold, flat, surfaces of his eyes flickered as he read her demeanor while she spoke the words. He noted the direction her eyes drifted and decoded the unconscious way she moved. All the cues pointed to a truthful response he could understand, even if he did not empathize.
For an assortment of moments, Entreri stood watching the woman he believed he'd resisted emotionally for the greater part of two years. Any warm feelings he had for her wouldn't be acknowledged whether he had them or not. He certainly wasn't the type to search for them.
His unspoken question had been answered swiftly. There was no way he could address the question without losing his own self respect. Subconsciously, he had wanted to know why she left; for no better reason than a sense of curiosity. Anything else was too dangerous to contemplate. Mission accomplished, he nodded curtly and tucked a loose end of his turban up to conceal his face again. He turned away from her and began to walk away, taking his shadow with him.
The assassin's reaction to her words stunned Rashi profoundly; she was ready to die with dignity and her killer was going to play cat and mouse games? Her frown was harsh on her fine features.
"Where are you going?" She demanded, beginning to storm toward his retreating figure. If Basadoni was going to send this man, of all men, to kill her then it would be done the way she wanted.
"Calimport," he stated, not looking over his shoulder.
The blunt response, so typical of him, stopped her in her tracks. Was he—was he letting her go? "You mean you're not here to--?"
His reply remained indirect, but leading. "You yet draw breath, don't you?"
And yet, Rashi was certain somebody would be sent to fetch or kill her. "Another?"
A cold smile appeared on his face, hidden by the head gear he wore as comfortably as a desert nomad. Her quick wits had secured his respect from the first and would keep it until the last. He stopped and turned back toward her, considering what he could tell her without betraying his allegiance to Basadoni. If he wasn't careful, the situation could fall under the heading of a conflict of interests; a prospect Entreri found utterly abhorrent.
"Yes," he stated, without elaborating.
"Then why did Basadoni send you?"
He didn't. The obvious answer came to the forefront of Entreri's mind but he did not vocalize it. It wouldn't be the wisest course of action, considering his continued efforts to keep himself from admitting to himself that his reasons for being there weren't necessarily professional. The mission Pasha Pook had offered him had not been accepted and he was determined to accept it only if he needed it as a scapegoat. Until he found himself backed into a corner, he told himself he was really there to consider the job.
Picking his words carefully, Entreri leapt ahead of the conversation, leaving her question unanswered. "Your hunter will give you a chance to return to Calimport. If you don't take it, you will die."
His answer wasn't something Rashi couldn't figure out for herself. A scowl creased her forehead between her eyebrows as she considered the man. She was smart enough to know that sex didn't equal affection in the assassin's eyes, but it didn't seem impossible that he might feel he owed her for those first few lessons. What had he ever done for her? Except, she admitted to herself, remain a fascinating mystery with a name that didn't accurately reveal his personality whether graphed in Calimshite or her native numerology.
His name. A name. All she wanted was a fighting chance, and it was within his power to provide it. "You aren't here to help me, but could you at least advise me? Tell me the name of my pursuer, nothing more. Not because you owe me, because no debt was ever acknowledged between us. Tell me to even up the admittedly slim odds."
The look he gave her was pure and absolute ice, given in place of emotion and with the appropriate flat gaze of his iron gray eyes. It was more than the look of a man made into a weapon, but one that hinted at a deep-rooted issue that had little to no chance of ever being broached. It was a look that horrified the failing diviner, but she refused to back down; she was no wishy-washy girl, in need of moral support. She was her own woman and she was satisfied to die that way.
When she did not turn away from his hard gaze, his eyes narrowed and the energy between them intensified. She was determined not to look away; he was several paces from her, giving her poor vision satisfactory access to his stare. It wasn't a contest of wills, for Rashi knew she could not win such a fight with an unfeeling man. From what she knew of him, he was testing her resolve and tenacity.
Just as she felt her eyes to begin to tear up from dryness in their dusty surroundings, Entreri began to speak with quiet venom. "You are a fool if you can't figure this problem out for yourself. If Basadoni did not send me, he would obviously not send another man. Considering the information you possess, he would not send the contract out of the organization. How many female assassins are there within the guild?"
Even in the face of his condescending verbal attack, Rashi did not back down nor did she jump to defend herself. His name-calling meant nothing to her: he was complying. He was giving her the information she needed to increase her odds of survival.
"Only one as far as I know," she responded coolly, "but I don't know her whole name."
As Entreri saw it, there were two options. He could walk away and Rashi would be captured or killed without causing her hunter undue stress; this was by far the cleanest and most uncomplicated option. Or he could raise the level of difficulty by pitting the former concubine's failing divining skill against her hunter's ability to adapt unpredictable methods.
It was an annoying prospect to feel an affinity for the latter option, especially when he considered the trouble that came with it. Association with the second option brought the question of impartiality back into the situation. Was there a conflict of interests? Had she somehow instilled a weakness in him?
Imperceptibly, Entreri's muscles tensed as if in preparation for a kill. No, he was not weak; he could kill or maim her if necessary. There was no conflict of interests; he was perfectly neutral. If the girl's hunter couldn't defeat a former concubine armed only with a flagging skill that would not lend her physical aid, then that hunter deserved to taste defeat.
"Kali Nivasi," he stated definitively. He did not wait to see the girl's reaction to the answer. Turning away again and began putting distance between them; he would learn of the outcome eventually. And if the former favorite managed to elude Nivasi, then there was always old man Basadoni's principle assassin; provided he did not soon transfer loyalty to Pook's guild. One never knew for a certainty with Artemis Entreri.
This time Rashi did not call out to him to stop. No thought of chasing him down came into her head nor did she consider trying to make her thanks known. Lifting a corner of her headscarf, she covered her sensual lips and mouthed the words that would make him regret helping her if he heard them. "Thank you, Artemis."
Graphing and running numbers through her mind, Rashili made her way back to the taproom to pay the coffee ground reader.
My personal thanks to Ariel, Neven, and Silverwolf for their reviews at this site.