Jarlaxle descended the stairs slowly, with a great flourish, and nodded his hat to the people below in the common room.
No one looked up, and no one cared.
This did not faze Jarlaxle, who always pretended as though he had an audience on their feet applauding. He was wearing his wide brimmed purple hat, red plumes garishly clashing. On his face he wore a dazzling white smile that lit up his face and an eye patch over his left eye. His small vest didn't really cover anything up. It was about as large as the heavy leather belt festooned with pockets and loops for holding the various potions and wands he always had on him. His boots clanked dramatically, only to echo into silence in his succeeding steps. A shining cape reached his ankles, constantly merging into new colors.
And he wanted everyone to notice.
Behind him, bad-tempered at being stuck behind Jarlaxle, was Artemis, who scowled and waited for Jarlaxle to get down to the common room already. The drow might not mind hunger, but it was one of many things that made Artemis homicidal. Especially when food was available and someone was keeping him from getting it. Artemis was sure that everyone did notice Jarlaxle, every detail; they just didn't want to see him. He gave Jarlaxle a warning shove.
The drow mercenary stumbled down the last two steps and then walked into the room with a dignified strut as if nothing had happened.
"It's a lovely evening, isn't it?" Jarlaxle said to the whole group; mostly unshaven men, and two weary women in modest blue dresses and wool cloaks looking haggard. The drow mercenary gracefully sank into a wooden chair and lounged contentedly. Artemis had only seen him like this after an especially good session with someone behind closed doors.
Bearing this in mind, Entreri tried to take it as a compliment. An annoying, distasteful, implied compliment, he thought, but a compliment. "I'd like some food," he said.
"Of course, abbil, of course," the drow said with an inane smile. They had both bathed and dressed in clean clothing after their extended roll in the hay, and in his mind, everything was perfect. This meant that he was rather distracted, perhaps willfully so, in order that everything remain perfect.
"Now," the assassin said, glaring daggers at the back of a serving maid.
"Now, now," Jarlaxle said. "Be nice to the staff." Somehow or other he enticed one of the women to come over to them. He tipped his hat to her. "Excuse me. My friend and I are very hungry; I don't suppose you know of anything large enough to satisfy the appetites of two men." He smiled apologetically. He also glanced down at the barmaid's cantaloupe sized breasts with mild surprise.
Artemis caught Jarlaxle's glance and darkened. He bit his lip to keep from saying anything in front of the whole room of people.
The barmaid looked puzzled. "You mean, a roast, or something like that?"
"What a splendid idea," Jarlaxle said, his eyes back on her face. He beamed at her.
The assassin grumbled, but it was too low for the woman to hear.
"Roast chicken, if you please," Jarlaxle said. "And roasted potatoes. With mushrooms. And stuffing."
The barmaid said something in a resigned tone of voice and walked away bearing their order. She seemed not to like the looks of either of them.
Entreri was angry. And he knew this; he was a prisoner to his emotions, but damned if anyone else was going to figure out what was going on between him and Jarlaxle because he gave something away.
The drow mercenary looked over at him, no longer broadly grinning, and Artemis could have sworn his eyes grew wiser and older. If Artemis wasn't imagining it, he thought Jarlaxle even looked slightly guilty.
They ended up eating their meal in silence, heads bowed, which from the assassin's point of view was an act of mercy he hadn't known the drow was capable of. He knew that Artemis detested his rambling, and he exercised enough self-control to stop. It made Artemis wonder how many times he'd been victimized by Jarlaxle's endless talking simply because the drow felt like torturing him.
"We have a lot of planning to do, wouldn't you say?" Jarlaxle said at the end of their meal. The roast chicken was nothing but bits of fat and bone now sitting amongst a few smears of stuffing and gravy. Artemis noticed that his friend had been unspeakably hungry; and yet, he hadn't said a word about his nearly two days of skipped meals. Had he done such things before? It wasn't very much of a stretch of the imagination.
The drow wiped his mouth with a napkin and then stood up, adjusting his hat with a satisfied smile.
Artemis didn't know what kind of planning Jarlaxle was talking about.
They left for their room together, if not precisely side by side, then companionably close.
"So what planning are you talking about?" Artemis asked as they walked down the hallway to their room.
The moment Jarlaxle closed the door behind them and tapped the doorframe with one of his wands, he wordlessly closed the gap between them and kissed the assassin on the lips.
He knew he would regret it, but he gave into his anger and shoved Jarlaxle as hard as he possibly could.
The drow stumbled back further into the room.
"You're enjoying yourself," Artemis said. He glared darkly. He was shaking slightly, tense, so tense that his muscles ached. "As my lover, you can stop conversation and get what you want from me." He didn't know what was going to happen, but he felt that if that drow took one step towards where he was standing, he would kill him. "I guess you'll arrange it so that I never have to leave this room." He didn't know what he was talking about.
"Never," Jarlaxle said. His eyes were dull with pain as he looked at Artemis. "That's not what this was about." He didn't know that things would take such a turn for the worse, but he knew that it was his fault for having neglected and mismanaged his friend badly enough for him to confront the drow mercenary. He felt a twinge of stabbing pain in his chest, remembering that this non-negotiable sense of responsibility was exactly what Zaknafein had been talking about. He's been trying to tell me not to burden myself with these feelings, he thought.
But looking at the assassin that had become his friend, he knew that he couldn't have it any other way. He wouldn't allow it. The responsibility rested on him, and it always had. "I am not trying to take anything from you," he said. "Least of all, your freedom. Your freedom is something that I have always admired in you; I would never blacken your heart against me in such a way."
"You want me in bed," Artemis said, aggressively gesturing to it.
Jarlaxle took a step towards him, his hands out raised where Artemis could see him and his manner calming. "I want you by my side as my partner," he said.
The drow mercenary paused. His expression was startled. For a moment, either of them spoke. "What did you say?" Jarlaxle said.
The assassin bowed his head and examined the worn wooden floorboards. He muttered something. It was, "I didn't mean to say that." The very admission went against the grain of Artemis' character, which was why he was so sullen.
"I'm going to make a drow out of you," Jarlaxle said, with his mouth hanging open in a curious, wondering way. An uncertain smile twitched on his lips. He didn't sound as though he were pleased; he almost sounded as if he expected himself to be a bad influence.
The assassin didn't know what to say. So he did what he did in situations like that and said nothing.
"I do," Jarlaxle said. "I mean that. I wish to be your partner." His sense of amusement lingered.
Artemis averted his gaze before the drow tempted him with one of his honesty-inspiring direct looks and made eye contact with him.
"If this is about the woman who served us our meal, I do not understand how to lay your suspicions to rest," Jarlaxle said. "I am not going to ignore every woman we meet altogether; that would look far too suspicious to keep our relationship under wraps."
The assassin knew that. He was frustrated that 'their relationship' only seemed to function in a bubble. The moment reality got involved, it fell to pieces like al dente cake.
It was his own insecurities getting in the way. Rationally, he knew that it was not sane of him to automatically feel so much pain. That was part of the problem.
He was not, in any way, what he considered a 'normal' member of society. He didn't react in 'normal', what he considered stupid or naïve, ways. "Why…" he said. His throat closed up. "Why did we go through this for the past five days?" Artemis closed his eyes. "Why did this happen?"
He heard Jarlaxle come closer to him; he knew that he hadn't heard for any other reason than Jarlaxle had decided on purpose to make his boots ring out against the wooden floor. Another act of consideration.
Jarlaxle studied him. "I don't know," he said. "But I do know that if it happened at all, you have been thinking about it for far longer than the past five days."
The assassin trembled.
"You encouraged me to become closer to you," the drow mercenary said, and he stepped close enough to put his arms around Artemis in a loose embrace. "You let it happen."
"I don't know why," the man said. "I couldn't find more meaning in our traveling. In our escapes. In the way we go through our ritual of getting in over our heads only for a commodity that has to be earned over and over again and we never get any closer to escaping this life."
Ironic, since Jarlaxle knew that in the beginning, this new life they'd made for themselves as mercenaries had been the escape from the life they'd had before. Jarlaxle had been trapped in a society that lived in the dark, in more ways than one. And Artemis had been an assassin, whose soul was almost dead and died a little every time he took another order to murder. "It hasn't worked out the way you wanted it to," Jarlaxle said.
Now Artemis hated him for being able to pierce his defenses and strip him down to what he was really thinking. He'd ignored much of what he thought and felt, sacrificing it for what he'd believed was efficiency. Necessity. Survival. Now, he felt as though the drow were looking at every inch of his body and declaring his shortcomings in matters that Entreri had thought he hadn't really needed.
Jarlaxle had a way of telling Artemis with only his eyes that the small lump of memories, emotions, and pain that had been the only surviving part of him before his profession had been deemed a weakness. Not for still existing, but for Artemis' repeated attempts to excise it like a tumor. Something that the assassin couldn't understand.
He'd thought, in the beginning, that Jarlaxle would understand him and his mindset, even agree with him, and their partnership would be one of silence. Jarlaxle had instead shown himself to be of a completely different philosophy. He'd told Entreri that he thought Entreri was someone to be saved.
Saved from himself.
Artemis was hardly conscious of the drow's arms around him. He felt dead. Then he remembered that Jarlaxle's words implied a question; he wanted Artemis to elaborate. "If anything had worked out the way I wanted it to," Artemis said, "I wouldn't be alive right now."
Jarlaxle drew him into a tighter embrace, stroked a lock of his hair behind his ear with long, thin fingers, and kissed his ear. The drow wasn't sure that that was the correct response, but it was the one he wanted to use. Even a day before, he would have smiled and invited Artemis to talk more in the hopes of cleansing the trouble from his friend that way. But lately he'd noticed that no matter how long the talk, Artemis always remained troubled and distrustful. He hadn't trusted himself to do any more for the assassin. "If you wish, I may provide a temporary distraction," he said. That was his coping mechanism, not Artemis', but he was willing to share in the hopes that the assassin might try it.
"Not a distraction," Artemis said. "If you want to, and I want to, then fine." He looked into Jarlaxle's eyes, his gray eyes dark. "For me, it will never be a distraction." He thought he only felt his emptiness so keenly because for the first time in months, he'd had a day where he was truly happy. Coming down off that feeling was sickening.
"Alright," Jarlaxle said, rubbing his hand gently up and down Artemis' back. "Do you?"
The assassin said, feeling helpless with despair, "No."
Jarlaxle thought it would be a gesture of good faith to help Artemis ready for bed; after all, he saw that the assassin was emotionally and physically drained by their hours together. For once, he felt the same way.
He started unlacing the assassin's leather jerkin, stopping to let Artemis remove it and drop it to the floor. Artemis undid the buttons of his shirt underneath, and shrugged it off, letting Jarlaxle take it.
Artemis walked over to the bed. While they were out, the maid had come and changed their sheets, leaving the bed looking crisp and new. He sat down, pulled off his boots, and slipped underneath the gray covers.
Jarlaxle nodded at him, then removed his hat and earrings. He made the decision to take off his vest, as well, and then stretched, muscles rippling. Then he, too, came over to the bed and took off his boots.
However, in a change of routine, he got in at the same side as Artemis and made the assassin move over. He curled up against the assassin and made himself comfortable.
Neither one of them commented on this.