The sun was already rising when Zaknafein sneaked back into the tavern room they had rented earlier that night. No sound except for slow, regular breathing came from the bed, and the drow would have thought that Artemis was asleep if he didn't know better. Zaknafein slipped out of his clothes and under the blanket. He was cold, but he didn't dare to touch Artemis. Somehow he wasn't sure if the assassin would let him.
"I didn't expect you to come back," Artemis said, his back turned to Zaknafein. He sounded surprisingly awake, as if he hadn't slept at all, but at the same time quiet and almost uncaring.
Zaknafein flinched in surprise. There was no sarcasm in Artemis' voice, and the thought that the assassin really meant his words made him shiver. He didn't know what to say, so he remained silent, waiting for Artemis to explain himself.
"You seemed so elated to see your son," Artemis continued when there was no reply. Suddenly the usual sarcasm was back, but it was obvious to Zaknafein that Artemis was just trying to hide how worried he had been. "I assumed that you would want to stay with him rather than with me."
The drow growled and grabbed Artemis' shoulder, forcefully turning him around to look into his eyes. Artemis tried to glare at him, but it was only a half-hearted attempt. It surprised Zaknafein to see how vulnerable the usually so confident assassin looked. Fighting down his anger Zaknafein took a deep breath and softened his grasp on Artemis' shoulder, letting his hand rest there.
"He said exactly what you told me he'd say." Zaknafein made a pause, his eyes never leaving Artemis'. "It doesn't change anything about us."
Artemis tensed at first, but then he nodded and turned fully towards Zaknafein. The drow was by now quite capable of reading Artemis' often hidden invitations and moved into the offered embrace. Resting his head against the human's chest he sighed.
"It was … strange," he said, not quite sure where to start, not even sure if Artemis wanted to hear about it at all. But the assassin remained silent instead of snapping at him, and Zaknafein knew that was all the encouragement he would get. "I'm glad to see that he hasn't lost his principles, but he confuses me. He talks, he behaves like a human. A normal human," he quickly added before Artemis could object. "All this excitement about the surface and his friends … I just don't understand him."
Artemis snorted, but he tightened his embrace in what could only be described as a possessive gesture.
"I would be surprised if you did. I told you you're nothing like him."
Not wanting to confirm nor deny that, Zaknafein simply said, "He was quite appalled that I won't stay with him on the surface."
Artemis couldn't help but snicker. He almost laughed out loud when Zaknafein gave him a questioning glance.
"I'm just trying to imagine you behaving like Drizzt, living his life," the assassin explained with a smirk. He snickered even more when Zaknafein punched him lightly in the side. The drow decided to go for a more direct approach to shut him up and kissed him, relieved when Artemis didn't push him away. Zaknafein's face grew serious again when their lips parted, and he settled back into Artemis' arms.
"He doesn't approve of me liking you either," he continued and made a face. "As if I needed my son's approval. He almost fell over when I said I liked you; he probably would have died if I had told him all about us."
"That would almost be worth it," Artemis said dryly. Zaknafein wanted to glare at him and ended up grinning. It was such a drow thing to say … and after several hours of Drizzt's confusing babbling Artemis' words sounded like home. Like he had said to Drizzt, as much as he hated his home, he hated this place even more. In the years before his death the words 'drow' and 'Menzoberranzan' had stood for everything he despised; now they seemed oddly reassuring compared to the strange world he had come to. He shouldn't be surprised that he felt more at ease around Artemis than around Drizzt.
"Don't get me wrong," Zaknafein said after a while. "I am glad to see him, I'm glad that he escaped Menzoberranzan and found a place he prefers. It doesn't mean I understand his choices. Just like he wouldn't understand mine."
He ran his fingers through a wayward strand of Artemis' hair that had escaped the hair tie when the assassin had lain down.
"He offered me to stay at his friend's house." Zaknafein smirked when Artemis started to frown, and didn't give him enough time to say anything. "Don't worry. Since I insisted that I had to keep an eye on you for Jarlaxle he extended that invitation to you."
Artemis couldn't have been more surprised if Gromph Baenre had asked him to come over for a cup of tea. The astonished look on his face made Zaknafein laugh.
"Believe me, he almost choked on his own tongue saying that. But apparently he wants me to stay with him so badly that he'd even put up with your presence. Provided that I keep you from 'harming his friends'."
"What about harming him?" Artemis asked nonchalantly, unsurprisingly earning a glare from Zaknafein.
"I'm serious, Artemis. I want to spend time with him … and I want to have you around. It's not like you'll have to see him often, you will just sleep there like you would sleep in an inn."
"How are you going to explain to him that we share a bedroom?" Artemis asked sceptically, but Zaknafein knew that the question alone implied that the assassin was at least considering it.
"Apparently the house has a guest suite with two bedrooms." Zaknafein shrugged. "And although he is a curious brat, I doubt that he will check if we really use both of them. He was quite adamant about it. I would hate to disappoint him even more after I already told him that I will return to Menzoberranzan."
Artemis was quiet for a few minutes, alternately staring at the wall and looking at Zaknafein. Finally he just grumbled, "You owe me for this."
"I'm all yours," Zaknafein whispered huskily, but with a mischievous glimmer in his eyes.
Artemis couldn't refrain from glancing at Zaknafein's bare chest, and he was almost tempted to let the issue rest for the time being and simply kiss the drow. In moments like this one it frightened him how much he desired Zaknafein, how much he wanted to be with him … and he couldn't help but wonder how far he would go to make sure the drow stayed with him. Gathering his self-control he looked back into Zaknafein's eyes, his serious glare quenching the lust he found there.
"What?" Zaknafein sounded impatient and at the same time worried. They sat up almost simultaneously, even as they were fleeing the other's embrace acting as if their thoughts were the same. Artemis found himself incapable of meeting Zaknafein's eyes again. He had to ask, and yet he was afraid to hear the answer.
"You told him that you would return to Menzoberranzan," he said quietly.
Zaknafein just shrugged, as if that was the most obvious thing in the world.
"Nobody can expect me to stay on the surface, not even him."
"I do." Artemis had intended to snap those words, to sound angry, uncompromising. But the voice that came out of his mouth sounded pleading, helpless, completely unlike his own.
"You would stay here on the surface? Why? You're nothing like these weak humans. Nothing can challenge you here, and you told me yourself that the main reason for your rivalry with Drizzt was your desperate need to find a challenge again. How can it be satisfying to be the best when your competition is this!" Zaknafein made a vague gesture towards the window and the damped noise of the humans on the street.
"It isn't," Artemis said calmly. He couldn't be angry at Zaknafein for trying to understand him, for saying exactly what Artemis had felt for the past months, if not years. That his life had become boring, pointless, empty. "But I'd rather rot here than go to a place where all my skill counts for nothing, where I could be the best and still be considered iblith by everyone except you and Jarlaxle. I will not return with you to Menzoberranzan."
There was a frightening finality in his words that struck Zaknafein more deeply than any yelling could have.
"I don't want to leave you," Zaknafein said softly. He caressed Artemis' cheek, and while the determination in the grey eyes didn't waver, the assassin moved slightly against the hand. "I can live with seeing Drizzt only rarely, but not you … I want … need to be with you." His voice failed him for a second. "But I can't live on the surface any more than you can live in Menzoberranzan."
Artemis nodded. They didn't need any more words to know what the other felt and thought, but even their mutual understanding hardly helped them now.
"We could work as mercenaries … There are regions where nobody cares what you are as long as you get the job done. Where even we could find a challenge or two," Artemis suggested, but he knew that it was not what Zaknafein wanted. The drow hated everything about the surface, the sun, the weather, the noise, the population … Giving him something to do would not change that.
Seeing that Artemis realised this himself Zaknafein did not bother to reply, but simply embraced him and held him tight. It reassured him to feel the human nuzzle his chest, and the certainty that they both wanted to stay together was at least a small comfort. Neither of them had even the tiniest romantic streak, and yet they were confident that they would overcome this problem. For Artemis as well as for Zaknafein, fighting surroundings that were against them was as natural as breathing. Personal matters were much more complicated. As long as they got along so well, as long as they were determined to stay together, they would deal with unfavourable circumstances, just like they always had.
"You have no reason to worry yet. I don't plan on leaving any time soon," Zaknafein said after a long silence. "You should be happy about that."
"Remind me of thanking Do'Urden when I see him," Artemis snorted, quite grateful that he didn't have to pursue the issue further, at least not now. It was enough that Zaknafein would keep it in mind instead of assuming that Artemis would follow him everywhere.
The drow chuckled and rubbed his cheek against Artemis', enjoying the feeling of stubble against his smooth skin. If everything else failed, he thought, Jarlaxle probably already had a solution in store for them. Zaknafein wasn't sure if that should reassure or unsettle him.
Kimmuriel was lounging on the cushioned chair in Rai'gy's office, one leg thrown over the armrest, his whole posture speaking of confidence and ease. He looked like a man who knew that few would dare to go against him - and that those who did would regret it soon enough.
He was casually glancing at Rai'gy and Berg'inyon, who were standing nearby, leaning over a strategic map on the mage's desk. The psionicist vaguely followed their conversation, quite capable of listening to their plans and following his own thoughts at the same time. Berg'inyon was just explaining a few tactical battle details to his fellow lieutenant when Kimmuriel, who had been silent the whole time, suddenly spoke up.
"Jarlaxle didn't say anything about Zaknafein's son."
Both Rai'gy and Berg'inyon looked up, frowning slightly at Kimmuriel's quite annoying habit of assuming that others could follow his train of thought as effortlessly as he theirs - he had grown up in a house full of mind readers, after all. Kimmuriel made an irritated gesture with his right hand, frustrated that he always had to explain himself more.
"He explicitly forbade us to harm both Zaknafein Do'Urden and his precious little iblith, and I agree that it would be unwise to defy his orders so openly," he explained, his smooth voice beautiful in its coldness. "Since Zaknafein did seem quite attached to his son, however …"
He didn't have to finish the sentence. Understanding lit both Rai'gy's and Berg'inyon's face, followed by smiles full of cruel anticipation.
"We can hardly be blamed for his incomplete orders," Rai'gy said, the map in front of him forgotten. "What exactly did you have in mind?"
He walked over to Kimmuriel, who still hadn't moved, and ran his fingers through the psionicist's hair. Kimmuriel was truly a rare beauty, even for a drow, and a kindred spirit on top of that. Rai'gy had already started to wonder how he had ever managed to do without the intelligent, ruthless psionicist who made most matron mothers look like naïve little girls.
"I haven't decided yet," Kimmuriel drawled, moving against Rai'gy's hand like a predator feline who had decided to appear tame for the moment. "Maybe it is time for us to remind him what it means to be drow. Is he as pretty as his father?"
The question was directed at Berg'inyon, who smirked broadly. His rivalry with Drizzt Do'Urden went back to their shared Academy time, and the young Baenre had never got over his failure to defeat him back then. He would certainly appreciate an opportunity to get back at him.
"Prettier. I will insist on joining you when you go to see him."
The smile on Kimmuriel's face turned from cold to mocking.
"Yes, I believe Do'Urden was first of your class, wasn't he? Quite a humiliation for a Baenre," he observed almost neutrally. Rai'gy smirked, even more so when Berg'inyon's hands twitched. But the fighter knew better than to draw his swords - words worked better on Kimmuriel anyway.
"No more than for a drow to be rejected because the object of his desire prefers an iblith," he spat back. Kimmuriel's smile vanished, but before he could say anything Rai'gy's hand on his shoulder stopped him.
"Are you done soon? You can continue this bickering after we have decided what to do with this heretic's son … His flaws are, after all, even greater than those of his worthless sire," the priest said.
Deciding that he could deal with the insolent fighter later Kimmuriel nodded and leant back, his eyes unfocused. His gaze was turned inwards, at his quite vivid imagination. He preferred more subtle torments than mere physical pain. Flesh was so easy to hurt, there was no challenge in whipping, cutting, burning someone. Every brute with the right tools could inflict pain, and although Kimmuriel enjoyed coming up with creative methods of torture, wounding the mind appealed much more to him. A strong-willed person could cope with physical pain, but a wound that was torn right into their mind, their soul, their pride would fester so much more beautifully. To Kimmuriel Oblodra, nothing was as gratifying as humiliating an enemy to the core of their being.
"Tell me about this Drizzt Do'Urden," he said after a while, looking up at Berg'inyon.
The fighter, who was not all that keen on a serious conflict with Kimmuriel, was quite eager to tell him all he needed to know …
Jarlaxle's face turned more and more thoughtful as he listened to his scheming lieutenants. One didn't stay leader of a drow organisation by trusting one's subordinates, and Jarlaxle had turned spying on his lieutenants into an art. They would probably panic if they had any idea how much he knew about them.
Currently he was using magical gems, woven into the fabric of the robes he had given to Rai'gy - they didn't provide him with images, and were therefore less easily detected, but he could hear their conversation as clearly as if he were standing in the same room.
He wasn't even remotely shocked, or even surprised, by their plans. On the contrary, he would have been quite disappointed if Kimmuriel hadn't detected the loophole in his orders. After all, there was nothing as amusing as watching the psionicist try to outthink him.
To be frank, Jarlaxle didn't care much about Drizzt Do'Urden. He didn't dislike him, but neither did he feel the same sympathy and esteem for Drizzt that linked him to Zaknafein. He hadn't helped Drizzt to escape Menzoberranzan because he liked him, but because he had felt that he owed it to Zaknafein. And while he couldn't care less if Kimmuriel had his way with Drizzt, he did care quite a bit about what this would mean for Zaknafein, for his friend.
It was actually quite easy. Jarlaxle did not want Zaknafein to get hurt. He wanted Kimmuriel and Rai'gy to scheme and plot, because it kept them busy, but he did not want them to succeed. On the other hand, he couldn't interfere directly either. If he did, he would admit that he had forgotten to include Drizzt into his orders, he would imply that Drizzt - and as a consequence Zaknafein - couldn't take care of himself, and, most importantly, he'd ruin all the fun.
Deactivating the scrying device when the lieutenants' conversation returned to its previous topic, Jarlaxle started to do some plotting himself. How to protect Drizzt and ultimately Zaknafein without humiliating his friend, while, possibly, turning this little problem into profit?
He didn't need to spy on them to know that Artemis hated Menzoberranzan as much as Zaknafein hated the surface, and Jarlaxle couldn't risk that his careful matchmaking ultimately failed because of such a triviality. He needed a way of keeping them together until the very thought of being separated became unacceptable. Preferably, that meant getting Artemis back to Menzoberranzan. Jarlaxle hadn't resurrected Zaknafein to let him run loose on the surface, and Artemis Entreri would be an equally valuable asset to Bregan D'aerthe. But how would Drizzt fit into his plans?
A frown deepened on his forehead, he started pacing in his office, switched his eye-patch several times from one eye to the other, ran his hand over his bald head as if that would assist his thinking, until finally a manic grin broke out on his face.
He chuckled and silently congratulated himself on another stroke of genius. Sitting back down on his chair he turned his attention back to the reports on his desk. The grin didn't leave his face for quite a while, though.
They were all in for a big surprise. His plan would probably make them all want to kill him, for various reasons, but Jarlaxle knew it was ultimately for their own good. Besides, it would definitely be fun.