Chapter Two: This Day and Forever Afterward

Artemis relaxed against the silken pillows arranged in the corner of Dwahvel's room and considered his friend, who appeared deep in contemplation. It had taken a month for him to feel like talking about anything that had happened, but over the past tenday, Artemis had told her bits and pieces of the story: Idalia's flute, Jarlaxle, King Gareth, Grandmaster Kane, and even Calihye. Still, he had not yet been able to tell her of his mother, step-father, or uncle, or the horrible truth about the temple of Selune and the man who had really sired him.

As he had expected, Dwahvel had listened to his tale without judgment. She had remained quiet when needed, and she'd asked questions when needed, sending Artemis down different paths of thought and analysis.

"What did she say again?" Dwahvel asked at last, coming out her thoughts.

Entreri sighed. Talking of Calihye was difficult, and he didn't wish to spend much more time on the subject. "She was babbling. She kept apologizing over and over." He growled at the memory. "Then she said something along the lines of 'You were leaving, you can't leave, I can't let you.' And she said she was sorry again." He snorted. "Then she told me I could never hurt her. She mocked me."

Dwahvel chewed her lip. "Perhaps not intentionally. It sounds as though she was mentally unbalanced, driven mad with grief over the loss of her first lover and the imminent loss of you."

Artemis gave her a sharp look.

Dwahvel held up her hand. "Please hear me out. I'm not excusing her behavior by any means. But I do believe that somewhere in her fractured mind, she loved you. Her love was true, but she could not express it in a healthy way." She shook her head. "I'm sorry. It is unfair that you were subjected to such a warped case of love."

Artemis crossed his arms over his chest. "It's the way of the world. And it hardly matters anymore."

Dwahvel started to speak again, but stopped short, apparently deciding not to push him any further on this topic. It was that quality of her personality that made Artemis appreciate her. Not only was she the lone genuine, loyal friend he'd ever had, she didn't press him when he didn't want to talk. She gave him space, allowed him to process his troubles at his own speed. She left him alone when he wanted, and she provided him company when he wanted. She gave him the simple freedom to be himself and stood by his side in the process.

"As for the flute," Dwahvel was saying, "I think if you had found it and chosen to use it on your own—used it in less stressful times and under less duress—it would have proven to be more a blessing than a curse. It is not a bad thing to enjoy life or to care for others." She smiled. "I don't find it a curse to be your friend."

Artemis Entreri would have answered that admission with a barb or a threat or some other caustic remark. This Artemis, however, simply nodded. "The exception to the rule," he said.

"Then enjoy the exceptions you find," she replied. "The flute is not here to take advantage of you when you do."

Artemis stared at a spot to the left of her shoulder and considered her advice. It was one more strand to the tapestry he was weaving—the tapestry of his new life and what he wanted to make of it. Artemis had built himself up out of the ashes of destruction many times—as a child new to the streets, as a man escaped from Menzoberranzan, and as a man trapped between the guilds, the drow, and Crenshinibon. He would do it now again. No matter what pain or devastation The Powers That Be might throw his way, he would always fight his way back, one minute at a time if necessary.

From the shade of a shanty hut, Artemis stood on a hill above the Protector's House and studied the reconstruction of the temple. He'd already checked on Gositek once before, about two tendays earlier, and found the man hard at work overseeing both the rebuilding efforts and the lesser priests collecting prayer requests. This initial inspection had left Gositek alive for another day, but Artemis didn't trust priests as far as he could have thrown a mountain into the ocean. So he was back again, keeping a suspicious eye on the proceedings.

After watching lesser priests writing down the peasants' requests—without payment, the ex-assassin noted—Artemis walked to the paupers' graveyard and considered the progress there. He had not come to gaze over Shanali's grave, for in his mind she really was laid to rest, but rather to see if Gositek were going to be allowed to survive the night. What he found told him that Gositek was trying to be good for now: a stone slab had been erected at the side of the graveyard, and a short list of names had been carved into it. A priest was kneeling before the stone, deep in prayer.

Artemis nodded once to himself and turned to walk away, only to find a young boy of about nine years standing behind him. He was holding a handful of rocks, and there were tears standing in his eyes. At Artemis's frown, the child spoke.

"My mama-hal is buried here," the child said, as if he thought he were being demanded to explain himself. He pointed to the stone slab with his free hand. "They buried her here and then put her name up there. Now I bring rocks to put on her grave."

Artemis nodded and tried to walk past, not wanting to be drawn into a conversation with the upset boy.

The child, however, seemed to have other ideas. "Selune said you were the one."

Artemis stopped in his tracks and stared back at the boy. "Your pardon?"

"My papa-hal prays to Selune hisself," the child said. "He don't ask the priests to do it. Papa-hal said a nice-dressed man would come and punish the evil priests. Selune told him so. You were the one—I saw it."

Artemis frowned. "Selune should have taken care of those priests long before now if she were so concerned."

The child shrugged. "Maybe she just wanted you to do it."

"It matters not either way," Artemis snapped. "I took care of it, and if the priests are smart at all, there will not be any further problems."

The boy nodded once, like a page accepting a proclamation. "I know."

Artemis frowned and spun on his heel, walking away.

"Thank you!" the boy called behind him.

That night, Artemis sat at his desk with a particularly strong cup of Calishite coffee. The potent, hazelnut-infused aroma filled the air, and he relaxed under the soft glow of the candelabra and oil lamps. As soon as he was seated his pit bull, which he'd named Slayer, padded across the room and proceeded to fall asleep on his foot. Strange puppy, that one, but a good watchdog. He was loath to admit it, but she did make a good companion—she was always happy to see him, hated the same people he hated, and she scared fools and drunkards into urinating on themselves.

Artemis took a sip of his coffee and considered the task at hand. He needed to jot down a few notes on a man he spied on periodically, and writing the notes brought a smile to his face. Every venture he made into that man's palace kept Artemis's wits sharp, not to mention that someday all his gathered information would bring about the man's doom. Artemis's new life seemed destined to involve the downfall of hypocritical priests—this time a priest of Tyr. One could have a worse fate.

Therefore, it was a great irritation that for the second time in two months, a blue screen appeared in the center of his office, and a smiling drow stepped through.

"Good evening, Artemis," Jarlaxle said, tipping his purple hat.

Slayer stood up and growled, and Artemis instantly liked her all the more. He leaned back in his leather chair and propped his feet on the desk, crossing his ankles in the process. There was no need to stand: the room was equipped like a magical armory, and Artemis had his own weapons and gauntlet. "I had hoped to not see you for at least a decade."

Jarlaxle chuckled. "I had to see how you were liking your puppy."

Artemis glanced down at the growling dog. "Better, now that she obviously hates you." He sighed. "What do you really want?"

Jarlaxle paused, and that caught Artemis's attention. He never hesitated.

"Kimmuriel claims I spend too much time explaining myself to people who he feels don't deserve it," the drow said, his confidence apparently returning. "So I am quite sure he would be shocked to know I am going to relate the story I am about to tell you. But I have a point to make with it."

Artemis narrowed his eyes. It was true that Jarlaxle was not a normal drow, and his strange speech suggested he was going to fly in the face of yet another drow convention. This could not be good.

"Once upon a time there was a drow baby," Jarlaxle began, "who was unfortunate enough to be born as the third male of the household. His mother, of course, tried to shove a dagger through his heart the instant he was born, since Lolth demands such sacrifices. However, this particular matron mother had a powerful enemy who used psionics to shield the baby from the stab. The matron, horrified by this apparent rejection of her offering, stabbed the baby over and over, but to no avail."

Artemis stared at the drow, his jaw nearly dropping over the shock of Jarlaxle's admission. Even though it wasn't information that Artemis could ever use against him, the story was still a very deep revelation of self. What was the drow up to? Was he trying to manipulate him again? Or was this somehow the drow's faint compassionate streak at work? Perhaps a bit of both?

"The baby's brother then picked him up," Jarlaxle continued, "and the baby unwittingly discharged all the violent energy into his brother, killing him horribly."

Artemis understood the analogy at once. "But your brother is still dead, and it is still your fault. Accidental or not, you destroyed him. And you are hardly sorry for having done it."

Again came the faint pause, as though Jarlaxle had felt a moment's twang of guilt over his manipulations. "Artemis, all I—"

But Artemis did not let him finish. "You sought to open my heart because my life was empty and my soul limited. But I did not ask for your help, and my agony was your entertainment. Yet most of all, your life is just as limited as mine. Your existence is consumed with acquisition, and your emptiness drives you to use the drama of others' lives to assuage your boredom." He smirked. "It's a sad state of heart, Jarlaxle, but I have no flute with which to alter you."

Jarlaxle, for one of the few times in his life, was momentarily speechless. "I wanted to ease the frown off your face forever," he said at last. "The very frown that darkens your face now."

"Then leave," Artemis said, "that I might smile."

Jarlaxle looked disappointed, but he tipped his hat and turned toward the awaiting portal.

"You'll be back, will you not?" Artemis asked with a sigh.

Jarlaxle glanced back, a smile once again working its way onto his face. "The dog won't live forever, so I shall have to bring you a new puppy one day. And maybe in the meantime, one shade-infused human can come to accept that it was not my intention for things to work out the way they did—that I did not intend to harm him."

Artemis frowned. "And what will you want from me on that day?"

"Information, perhaps," Jarlaxle replied. "You are apparently a rising power in that area. Or perhaps it is simply that I have forever felt kinship for you, my friend. It is rare to find one such as you."

Artemis stared at him a moment, seeing the tiny spark of light in the drow's black soul. There was only one way to deal with the Jarlaxle's mutual overtures of future business deals and future friendship, and if the drow took the bait, it might actually prove worthwhile. If not, the ex-assassin would simply cast him out of his life again.

"Then return if you dare," Artemis said, smirking over his plan. "But I will not allow you to have assaulted my closed heart without returning the favor."

Jarlaxle blinked at the reply, then laughed. "Well, you always did prefer a challenge!" He bowed extravagantly and left.

Artemis shook his head. He could ponder the odd duality of the drow's heart later. For now, the night was young, and Artemis had more plans to make. Plans for a new life.

A/N: Well, I hope that helped at least one disgruntled Artemis fan feel a tiny bit better. Frankly, it acted as a bit of a catharsis for me. It really is more of a skeleton of a novel than a short story, so I might actually return to it someday. For now, though, I consider it complete.

Thank you to Darkhelmet, Alzadea, and Chichi X for beta reading wholes or parts, and thank you to everyone who read and reviewed. I'm off to work on "The Power of Prophecy" again.

Now, I have a quote from SotS that I'd like to leave you with which I hope you'll find helpful, especially if you enjoyed Artemis and Jarlaxle as the Dynamic Duo/growing friends:

"For Jarlaxle . . . the alliance with Entreri is certainly a convenient thing. But there is something else, something more, between them. I know this from the way Jarlaxle spoke of the man, and from the simple fact that the mercenary leader went so far out of his way to arrange the last fight between me and Entreri. It was for the sake of Entreri's state of mind, no less, and certainly as no favor to me, and as no mere entertainment for Jarlaxle. He cares for Entreri as a friend might . . . I believe their friendship will grow. Certainly there will be conflicts and perhaps very dangerous ones for both parties . . . But the longer the alliance holds, the stronger it will become, the more entrenched in friendship."—Drizzt Do'Urden, SotS