Disclaimer: All recognizable characters, most importantly Messiers Jarlaxle and Entreri themselves, are the rightful property of R.A.Salvatore and/or Wizards of the Coast, and I am merely borrowing them for fun and without any thought about making a profit. (Should they ever decide to run from their current owners, I'd be happy to offer them asylum though... ).
A very fluffy, utter nonsense AU story, taking place somewhere on the road in Damara between "Wickless in the Nether" and "Promise of the Witchking". Also my very first attempt at writing in a foreign language, so apologies in advance for butchering the English language occasionally.
I once read a forum post wondering about why Jarlaxle was bald. Which got me thinking: Would people like Jarlaxle and Entreri, who so deeply mistrust everybody around them, really deliver themselves into the hands of a barber and his shaving knife? - Quite a weird thought, I know. The story got even weirder...
The bright blue cape that had been red yesterday and dark green the day before shone and billowed in the sunny afternoon air as the peculiar looking dark elf wearing it gave one last sigh and in a fluid movement turned on his heels to face his human companion.
"My friend? I fear I need to ask you a favour."
Artemis Entreri, sitting comfortably on the ground in the shadows of an old oak tree he was leaning his back against, stopped polishing his dagger (an activity he was likely to turn to whenever he felt irritated - meaning that his trademark weapon had been absolutely spotless ever since he had found himself in Jarlaxle's company) to look up at his drow partner. He barely managed to suppress a sigh of his own, his being one of relief. He had been suspecting Jarlaxle was up to something ever since the drow had insisted they stop for the night with almost four more hours of daylight ahead of them, supposedly due to his mare going lame. Entreri couldn't detect much of an injury on the horse but had complied nevertheless. Arguing with Jarlaxle was a tiresome and usually useless pleasure he wanted to save for special occasions, like when the point being discussed actually mattered to him.
Where they were going and what they were doing hardly mattered to Entreri any more. For some reason he didn't like to think about he had resigned himself to just following his cunning drow partner into whatever life-threatening danger Jarlaxle would come up with next.
Apparently this was one of those moments when the drow was plotting something though Entreri could tell that this time there was something highly unusual to it. It wasn't like Jarlaxle to be hesitant about something he had to say. But with the way the drow had been behaving ever since they had stopped to set up their camp in the little wood they were passing through, busying himself with all kind of little tasks - setting up the fire, taking care of the horses, gathering some supplies and preparing their dinner - only to apparently forget about them and start another one a second later, Entreri found it not too hard to guess that whatever Jarlaxle had in mind was not something he was eager to deal with.
So that was it. Entreri could barely keep a grin from spreading across his lips when he heard the word "favour" but struggled hard to keep up his unreadable, if a little sour face.
Ha. So the drow wanted something from him this time. And apparently he couldn't barter for it or trick it out of the assassin as he usually would - he had to beg for it.
Rarely since he was on the road with Jarlaxle from Menzoberranzan had Artemis Entreri felt equally cheerful.
The reason why this simple sentence cheered Entreri up so much the assassin probably couldn't even have named. There were too many unspoken rules, too many untold stories between the two unlikely companions to allow Entreri to decipher what kind of relationship it was that had been developing between them since the former drow mercenary and the human assassin were traveling Faerun together. Too many questions neither of the pair ever really dared to adress. Like, why was Jarlaxle still on the surface? What kept him from returning to the underdark where his mercenary band was still awaiting him? Moreover, why was he still staying with Entreri who on the best of days was not exactly a people's person? And on the other hand, why was Entreri staying, despite the fact he wished the irritating dark elf to the demonweb pit at least twice an hour? Why, in fact, had Entreri saved Jarlaxle from Crenshinibon's influence in the first place when he could have as easily left the drow to die at the hands of his former lieutenants?
Those were questions that Entreri, in the rare moments when he reluctantly pondered them, still had no answer for, and the one answer he indeed did find wasn't much to his tastes. He didn't want to dellusion himself. Whatever was between him and the drow surely was not friendship. Of course it was exactly what Jarlaxle kept calling the assassin - if only to spise him - but no matter how often he used the word "abbil", it wouldn't make it any more true. Or maybe it was, as the drow word for "friend" likely meant a lot less than the same word in common. In fact Entreri himself, a loner from childhood on, only had a vague idea of the word's true meaning yet he knew that it involved a whole lot of trust, and trust was one thing he never would give to Jarlaxle.
He trusted the drow about as far as he could throw him.
Yet, the mere fact that there was apparently something that he had and the drow wanted was intriguing. Entreri knew that it was usually the other way around. It was Jarlaxle who had an answer for everything, knowledge about things Entreri had not even heard about and yet another magical item to save him in even the most unlikely of situations. It was Jarlaxle who provided his human companion with magically enchanted clothes, Jarlaxle who knew about the history of Entreri's magnificent sword, Jarlaxle who managed to surprise the human assassin again and again even when Entreri had come to think that he had finally begun to figure out some of the secrets his puzzling dark elf companion seemed to be made of.
It was Jarlaxle who had a task and a mercenary band waiting for him. A goal to reach and a place to go to. In all honesty Entreri could not name one reason why somebody as skilled and gifted as the former leader of Bregan d'aerthe would keep the human assassin around. Yet there had to be something that Jarlaxle was getting out of this peculiar relationship even it was nothing more but entertainment, seeing as he seemed to enjoy nothing better than to infuriate his human partner.
Then again, trying to see the reasoning behind Jarlaxle's behaviour was the fastest way to build up a headache Entreri knew, and so he dropped the thought immediately.
Maybe it was only a matter of pride. Entreri didn't particularly like being the weaker part of the pair, and he disliked nothing more than being dependant on others. If there was one thing that he could do for Jarlaxle for a change it would make him feel a lot better about this.
"Sure", he said, careful to keep his tone neutral. "What do you want?"
There was a little sigh of relief coming from the drow as Jarlaxle realized that the human apparently was not planning to be difficult. "It is about my hair."
"What?" Entreri almost dropped the dagger as he shot his partner an incredulous look.
"My hair", repeated the drow and pointed one ebony index finger up to the outrageously plumed, wide-brimmed hat that was covering his bald head.
"Jarlaxle", Entreri said slowly. "You don't have any. Well, not in places I ever want to see or even think about, anyway."
"Well, that is in fact exactly my point", the drow replied with a hint of hysteria in his voice, took off the hat and turned around, offering the back of his head for inspection. "I do." Intrigued, the human sheathed his weapon and got to his feet.
And sure enough, the black skin on Jarlaxle's usually completely bald head was covered with a fine, hardly visible fuzz of tiny white hair that reminded Entreri of the fluffy downs of freshly hatched chickens, and he barely managed to suppress the urge to run a finger over it.
"My congratulations", he said instead, grinning widely now. "It's true, you're growing hair."
"Would it be too much to ask of you to at least try and take my problem serious?" Jarlaxle said with every demeanour of wounded dignity, and Entreri couldn't help himself but laugh out loud at the miserable face the drow made.
It was just too funny. This man, a man as impressive and dangerous as Entreri had ever known, a man who would not even flinch at the sight of attacking orcs, drow or dragons and whose indestructible good mood - in fact a constant irritation to the dour assassin - could be bothered neither by uncomfortable circumstances nor physical pain nor mortal danger, was apparently shattered at the thought of some tiny hair growing on his bald head.
"Artemis." The drow almost whined, and the assassin shook his head and calmed down.
"Well, in all honesty, I do not know what your problem is. Most bald men would sacrifice half of their income to their respective gods and possibly wife and children along with it if only they could grow hair again."
"I don't care what kind of hair-do human males prefer. I liked my hair the way it was..."
"Non-existant, you mean."
"... and I would like to have it back precisely that way, thank you very much."
Entreri chuckled again but raised his hands in surrender. In fact, the hysterical little incident might even answer one of those tiny questions he had been asking himself about his partner ever since they first met. Was his baldness, so highly unusual for a drow, especially a male, coming from physical reasons (some kind of illness perhaps?) or was it the result of yet another magical trick? Entreri always had assumed the latter to be true as the bald head seemed to go so well with the rest of Jarlaxle's fashion display, the colourful cape, the outrageous hat, the magical boots, the short vest the drow mercenary had worn back in Menzoberranzan, every single thing a slap to the face of what was considered suitable for a male in matriarchal drow society. But the human had never known for sure, and whatever name he wanted to give to that peculiar relationship that had been forming between the two companions, one of its rules was that they both respected the other's secrets. And while they also both knew that the other one was as curiously trying to figure out his puzzling partner as they were themselves there was an unspoken agreement between them that none of them would ever ask a direct question.
Probably because asking such a question would already give too much credit to and demand too much from that "friendship" Jarlaxle kept insisting they had.
"Alright. So, pray tell, what has caused that latest little predicament of yours?"
Jarlaxle shrugged. "It seems I have been a tiny bit careless lately. You see, there is a minor magic ritual I need to perform once a day in order to keep my head flawless the way it is supposed to be. Apparently I forgot about it yesterday - something that has not happened to me in a century by the way."
"But yesterday it did. So what now?"
"The ritual only stops my hair from growing but it doesn't remove any already existing. So..."
"So the hair that is currently on my head needs to be removed by conventional means", Jarlaxle muttered angrily. "In a non-magical way."
"If you know of another method I'm happy to try but I doubt there is one."
"Well, I could try plucking you... Or possibly take off your scalp for good."
"Artemis", Jarlaxle said again, and from the fact his partner was using the assassin's given name twice in as many minutes Entreri could tell that the drow had indeed to be desperate.
"Alright", he conceded though a tiny smile kept creeping back onto his face, making the corners of his mouth twitch. "If I remember correctly a barber had set up shop in the last dirty hole we passed that apparently goes for a village in these parts. We can move back there and have your head returned to its former glory in less than a day."
Jarlaxle took a step back, crossed his arms in front of his chest and offered: "My friend - when was the last time you let a barber, a complete stranger at that, touch you with a razor?" His one uncovered red eye met Entreri's grey ones, and the assassin's grin faded.
He understood all too well. In fact, the topic of shaving was one Jarlaxle kept bringing up every now and then, apparently too intrigued by the daily morning ritual his human partner had to perform to let it go. As an elf he himself of course was not bothered with mundane problems such as unwanted facial hair but he rarely missed the opportunity to watch Entreri shave, resulting usually in a very irritated assassin and a highly amused drow mercenary. About once every tenday Jarlaxle would even ask to be allowed the razor and give his partner a shave. Entreri's answer varied in tone and vocabulary but never in its content: Sooner would all nine hells freeze over than Artemis Entreri give himself into the hands of a man holding a knife to his throat.
"Not even if that man was me?"
"Especially not if that man is you."
And it was true for that was the one thing Entreri was sure of: he and the drow were not friends. They were partners, two like-minded outcasts who for the moment found it easier - and more profitable - to work alongside each other than against. They respected each others' skills, and maybe they had even come to like each other in some uneasy way. They both would surely think twice about double-crossing a potential enemy as dangerous as their current partner, yet Entreri didn't doubt for a second that Jarlaxle would drive a dagger into his back the same instant the drow found it more profitable than their current "friendship", nor had he any doubts that the human would be left behind as soon as he couldn't keep up with the cunning, apparently never tiring drow.
Entreri had abandoned all thoughts of trust and friendship more than three decades ago, and despite that silent voice that kept whispering these exact words into his empty soul he had no plans of giving in to that kind of temptation any time soon.
Apparently Jarlaxle - at the bottom of his heart no less paranoid than his partner - had finally come to realize the same problem, and thoughts and emotions very similar to Entreri's were written plainly across his angular drow features. He sighed and gave the human assassin an almost pleading look.
"So", Entreri said hesitantly. "You do not trust a barber to give you a shave. But you want me to do it?"
"Would you be so kind?" asked Jarlaxle, and Entreri just stood and stared at him while he felt a sudden mix of emotions rush through him, anger being the most prominent among them. Anger at Jarlaxle for pushing the problem of trust to a completely new peek, and anger at himself for not having left this infuriating drow back at the crystaline tower when he had the chance, and anger at that tiny bit of joy that sprang from a dark corner of his soul and gave his frozen heart a painful little sting.
"You're so sure I won't use that perfect opportunity to get rid of you?" he finally asked, finding back into the regular tone of their banters in which every word could be either a joke or perfectly true.
"Not at all", Jarlaxle admitted honestly, giving his partner a thoughtful look. "Yet I am quite convinced that I have not given you much reason to wish for my immediate demise lately - and if I have, please let me take the chance to apologize now", he added, causing Entreri to smirk. "Of course, there is the not so small matter of me trying to kill you and gravely wounding you back during our fight in the crystal tower that you might want to get revenge for. But in my defence, I was under the influence of Crenshinibon back then, you were attacking me, I did heal you later, and let's not forget, in the end you got the best of me."
"That's still bothering you, isn't it?"
"Maybe, to a certain degree. But I always was convinced that you were a clever one."
"Too clever to be flattered by anything you say in fact."
"Well, then there is that tenday among the highwaymen that you keep bringing up..."
"It was almost two tendays. What a waste of time."
"There was always dear baker Pitter and his cookies to make up for it. And finally, the one serious problem I may be facing indeed. Dragons."
"You really have given this some thought."
"I rather enjoy living on this mortal plane actually."
"Well, I assure you I will not kill you because you're currently bedding a copper dragon. Mostly because chances are that bedding a copper dragon will get you killed sooner or later anyway."
"Too kind, my friend. So that only leaves us with our friend Hephaestus then, the red dragon we went to to destroy Crenshinibon. And I would like to point out that it was you who insisted on facing said dragon in the first place."
"Well, because you had gotten so enthralled by that damned crystal shard that you almost managed to get the both of us killed by your own lieutenants."
"Something you prevented in your usual clever and skillful way, my friend, and something that I'll be forever grateful for." He took off his hat again and offered the assassin a mocking yet incredibely graceful bow before giving him another thoughtful look and finally spreading his armes out wide as if to embrace the scowling assassin. "But most importantly, Artemis - are we not friends, you and I?"
The assassin glowered at the irritating dark elf. "Well, at least so you keep saying."
"I keep saying it because it is true, my very dear friend. Now would you please do what I have been asking of you?"
Entreri scowled again, then gave a shrug.
"Will it sting?" Jarlaxle asked anxiously for the third time since he had taken off his eye-patch and sat down on the fallen tree that would have to do as a customer's seat in Artemis Entreri's improvised barber shop. So far the assassin barely had managed to finish stirring the soap, and already his patience was growing thin. He briefly pondered using the tattered grey cloak he had slung around Jarlaxles shoulders to gag the drow with.
"My dagger might be what will sting you if you don't keep quiet", he replied instead, placing the bowl he was holding aside and grabbing the shaving brush instead. "When did you turn into such a crybaby?"
"I happen to have very sensitive skin", Jarlaxle replied defensively. "Why do you think I was taking to magical means for keeping up my hair-do in the first place?"
"Because if there was a magical means for pissing you'd likely use that, too?"
"Now don't be silly, there is no magical means for relieving oneself." He slightly turned his dark-skinned head to glance over his shoulder at his partner. "Is there?"
There was a slight throbbing in Artemis Entreri's temples, announcing the building-up of a headache. "Trust me", he answered, "if you don't shut up now it will be the least of your worries."
A sly grin spread on Jarlaxle's face. "You know, for a barber, you seem surprisingly unwilling to engage your customer in that typical cheerful small-talk that will guarantee you some extra coin afterwards."
"Not even your purse can possibly hold enough gold to make me engage in senseless barber chit-chat."
"Aw, my friend, and I was so looking forward to hearing your opinion on the weather and local politics, or maybe even better, on upcoming weddings and current fashion styles."
Entreri didn't bother to honor that remark with a reply but instead dipped his brush into the soap with a little more force than necessary. There was no need for him to say anything anyway since the drow alone effortlessly managed to out-talk even the most eloquent of Faerun's barbers. While he kept preparing his shaving equipment in his usual methodical way he did his best to tune out the drow who happily kept talking, unbothered by the fact that his partner quite obviously was paying him no attention.
"I'm ready", Entreri finally announced. The three syllables caused Jarlaxle to immediately fall silent and to visibly straighten on his improvised seat. Entreri grinned inwardly at these signs of nervosity. - "So. You are sure about this?"
"Absolutely, my friend."
"I will not ask again, this is your last chance to turn back. And who knows. Long hair might be just the look for you. Anything to cover up that ugly black face of yours."
"I am truely grateful for your advice, Artemis, but I am indeed determined."
"Pity. I was actually looking forward to seeing you wear braids... Well then, here we go." He expertedly used the brush to cover a first section of Jarlaxles black head with foamy shaving soap. The hissing sound of air drawn in between clenched teeth made him stop. "What?"
"It stings", said Jarlaxle, turning his head a little to the side to glance at Entreri and allow the assassin to see the corners of the drow's lips twitch mischieviously. Entreri's eyes narrowed.
"Must I remind you that there are several freshly sharpened razors quite in reach of my hand?"
"I am well aware of that, my friend. As a matter of fact, I watched you sharpen them, then put them aside, one next to the other, each placed one inch further to the right, in perfect order of size and with their blades all pointing to the same direction. As you always do."
"So? What about it?" muttered Entreri, feeling a little defensive without actually knowing why. He glanced to his right to see that he really had arranged the knives in order of size.
Jarlaxle chuckled. "You really are a man of principles, my friend."
Entreri decided it was best to simply drop the conversation und started again to apply soap to the drow's head. The dark skin soon was covered in creamy foam.
"This will do", he said.
"Splendid. How do I look?"
Entreri snorted. "Like you're wearing one of those caps that sometimes come with old-fashioned sleeping gowns."
"Charming. Now what happens now?"
"The only reason why I am doing this - the part where I get to use a knife on you."
Jarlaxle chuckled again. "Are you trying to scare me?"
"Would it work?"
"Hardly, my friend."
"Then I may just have to kill you while you're undeterred." He held the knife he had picked from his small selection up for a moment to let it glisten in the afternoon sun, then turned to his partner and with his left hand pressed the drow vehemently down on the log. "Now stop moving or this might cost your blood sooner than even I intend." The blade made a little scratching sound as Entreri expertedly gave it a first run over Jarlaxle's head when it cut through the drow's newly grown hair, and it seemed even Jarlaxle found it wise to not annoy the assassin any further while the man was armed because he actually remained motionless and quiet. As soon however as Entreri first stopped for a moment to wipe off the soap from the razor the drow spoke up again.
"Is it gone?"
Entreri sighed. "Yes, on those two inches of your ugly old head where I already had the opportunity to shave it off it is indeed gone."
"Wonderful, my friend. I owe you."
"You do indeed. Now close your mouth and stop twitching and we just might both survive this."
Jarlaxle gave another chuckle and fell silent again. It lasted for almost two more moves of the razor over his head.
"Do you have any of those perfumed herbal essences barber's apply on their customer's skin when they've given them a shave?"
"Essences to refresh the skin. I remember one from the last time I had my hair removed manually. I think it smelled of pineapple. Do you have that one?"
The assassin tightened his grip around the razor's hilt. "What do you think?"
"Well, I never saw you use one of those essences on yourself but then again..."
"I do not. Have any after-shave."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. I can already feel my skin wither and crumble." The glower Entreri fixed Jarlaxle with should have had the annoying drow crumble to a pile of ashes as a whole but unfortunately for the irritated assassin his customer of course had his back turned to him.
"So", he sighed, resigning to the fact that Jarlaxle insisted on being entertained while his hair was removed, "when you last needed to have your head shaven, who did it?"
"I had a half-orc barber come from the lower parts of town", Jarlaxle said cheerfully, obviously happy to be allowed to keep talking. "Kidnapped, actually, for I couldn't really make an appointment in his shop, now could I, but he was very well paid for his troubles. Of course his every move was being watched by several guards, and I had Master Hune - do you remember him from your days in Menzoberranzan? - stand behind him holding one of his kukris to the man's throat all the while."
"You almost make me feel sorry for the half-orc."
"Well, as I said, he did receive a more than sufficient compensation, and I assured him that Master Hune was very well-trained with his blades and would not slip unintentionally. Though I have to admit that the man somehow seemed to haste through his task and was sweating a lot."
Entreri could imagine the scene quite well: Jarlaxle, sitting comfortably in one of those lush seats he used to have in his office in Menzoberranzan, the backrest moved out wide, his feet propped up on the desk and a smug smile on his face while a hapless half-orc behind him barely dared to actually bring down his razor for fear of the kukri pressed to his throat. He sighed.
"Hune? Would that be Valas Hune, that little scout who always seemed so happy to get out of town?" He snorted. "His legs are so short, did you have him stand on a box so he could reach the barber's throat?"
"You remember him then?"
"I only met him once or twice." Which, as Jarlaxle knew very well, was more than enough for face and name of Master Hune to be forever engraved into the never-forgetting memory of Artemis Entreri - not necessarily a reassuring thought.
"How did you like him?"
"He seemed able to handle himself. And seeing a drow who hates that stinking hole you call your hometown is indeed almost endearing."
"He's also quite interested in the surface if I recall correctly", Jarlaxle said. "A pity you didn't get to know him better. You might have had some stories to share."
Entreri gave a grim laugh. "You mean you regret you didn't use him as a spy on me? Like you didn't have enough of your Bregan d'aerthe soldiers follow my every step anyway."
"Are you trying to tell me it was unnecessary?" Jarlaxle chuckled. "I doubt House Horlbar would agree. - No, I mean that some measure of socializing would generally do you good, my friend."
"Like any drow, no matter how much he hates life in Menzoberranzan, would ever socialize with a rivvil. I am iblith, am I not?"
"To most, if not all my fellow drow, probably", Jarlaxle said with a shrug. "And just as many of them hate the life they're living I wager. They know they're nothing but replaceable tools in the hands of their matron mothers, or their commanding officers, or of Lady Lloth herself. What else then do they have to keep up their spirits if not their fanatic claim of superiority over others because of nothing else but their race?" It was one of those sudden serious insights that sometimes found their way into Jarlaxle's usual babbling that tended to throw Entreri completely off his train of thought. The drow, noticing the assassin's momentary confusion, chuckled. "And by the way, you really shouldn't mind too much their misjudgement, my friend. Don't forget what an immense advantage this gives you in battle. Didn't the late matron mother Jerlys die mostly because she thought a mere human could not be a threat to her? Rai-guy gravely underestimated you as well, and he's dead now, whereas Kimmuriel - who never made that mistake - is still alive." The corners of his mouth twitched in amusement. "So you see, it pays off to think outside the box. In your case it might already be a first step if you sometimes started to rearrange your shaving knives."
Entreri grimaced but said nothing. Instead he picked up a piece of cloth that he used for a towel and started to wipe off the last remaining stains of soap from Jarlaxle's head.
"Are you done?" The drow asked excitedly.
"Almost", replied Entreri, then he grabbed each end of his towel in one hand and started to fulminantly wipe it over Jarlaxle's head as if polishing a marble statue.
"Very funny, my friend. You keep this attitude up, and I might just believe you're about to acquire some sense of humour. Now pray give me that mirror of yours that you so orderly placed next to your orderly placed shaving knives?" He reached into one of his pockets and produced a small mirror of his own, then had Entreri hold his small shaving mirror behind Jarlaxle's back while the drow was admiring his now bald head in the other.
"Marvellous, my friend." He ran a hand over the dark skin, and a huge smile spread over his face. "Excellent work. If you ever plan on opening a barber shop in Menzoberranzan please feel free to use my name as credentials. - Now if you excuse me, I really should perform that magical ritual I told you about lest I forget it again." He got to his feet and started rummaging in his pockets. He quickly put on his eye-patch again, pocketed his mirror and brought forth a large golden comb instead which he casually ran over his head three times before putting it back into his pouch.
"That was the ritual?" Entreri asked.
"That was it", Jarlaxle confirmed, then he looked at Entreri and smiled again. "Alright. Your turn."
"My turn?" For a split-second Entreri was honestly confused, and Jarlaxle's delighted grin widened visibly as he pointed to the log he had been sitting on.
"Your turn. You gave me a shave, now you can't possibly deny me the opportunity to return that favour, can you?" There was that mischievious twinkle in his one visible eye that Entreri had learned to interpret as clear indication that he had been had.
He stared at the drow incredulously. "You've inscenated all this only so you could give me a shave?" - Jarlaxle shrugged.
"Like it matters. Fact is, you have had no time to shave this morning..."
"... because a certain drow I shall not name all of a sudden made haste and wanted to start our journey at dawn, only to find his mare laming around noon..."
"... and so you are still in need of a shave now, and I am in your debt and happen to owe you one." He gave Entreri another pleading look. "Please, Artemis, don't be a spoilsport." He seemed so happy at the prospect of having tricked Entreri into this situation that Entreri almost expected him to start hopping up and down like an excited child. The assassin fixed him with his trademark stare which, as he knew quite well after all those months he had been traveling in his partner's company, would have no effect on the irritating drow whatsoever but still gave him a little time to think.
Artemis Entreri hated to be outsmarted. Being manipulated he hated even more, and he honestly did not know what kept him from leaving Jarlaxle for good seeing as the former leader of Bregan d'aerthe seemed to do nothing else but that. Manipulating everyone into doing (or even into wanting to do) what Jarlaxle had planned had for centuries been the drow's way to survive and to thrive in a world that actually had no place for him, and Entreri assumed that Jarlaxle would not have been able to change his behaviour even if he had tried. The only concession Jarlaxle made to the clear dislike of the man he kept calling friend when it came to being used as a tool was that he let him know. He usually didn't even try to hide his true intentions from Entreri, maybe because there was a good chance the clever human would figure them out anyway.
And of course now too there was a second layer behind Jarlaxle's apparent wish to acquire some skills with a razor, and Entreri realized with a mixture of anger, fear and intrigue that it was about that dreaded thing again. Friendship and trust. Those two words, "your turn", had been an unmistakeable challenge. 'See? I had the courage to offer myself to your blade defenselessly. Now what about you?' was what they truely meant.
The assassin's first reaction was wishing to just run the irritating drow through with Charon's Claw and be done with it. An inner voice, inspired by the man's survival instinct and four decades of danger and bloodshed, kept shouting grave warnings at him, and Entreri could hardly deny their truth. Had Jarlaxle, by tricking Entreri into this situation, not just given prove yet again that he was way too clever and dangerous to ever be trusted? But despite the undeniable reason behind that notion there was another part of Entreri that just scoffed at the thought.
This was Jarlaxle, the man Entreri had been traveling with day after day. Why would the drow all of a sudden turn against his partner? And even if he had a reason - would he really try to kill the assassin while giving him a shave? Laughable.
On the other hand: Would he really inscenate this plan of his only for one reason? To prove something to Entreri, to give him yet another lesson about that thing he called friendship?
Well, yes, possibly. What Entreri didn't understand was why Jarlaxle sometimes decided to behave like he was the assassin's mentor.
In the end all these thoughts didn't matter. There was a challenge to be answered, and Artemis Entreri was not the man to run from that.
On the other hand, he was also not a man to take anything at face-value, and so, before giving an answer, he turned, took a few steps back to the oak where he had left his sword, picked it up and slowly and carefully closed the sword belt over his hip to let Charon's Claw dangle from his left side, his jewelled dagger already being in place on the other. Then he turned and gave Jarlaxle a hardly noticeable smile.
"Alright", he said, sending a message of his own in the process.
'I'm game, and I know you are up to something. Try anything I don't like and you will regret it, abbil.'
"Excellent, excellent", Jarlaxle exclaimed happily as the assassin sat down on the log - the hilts of both his weapons in perfect reach of his sunburned hands even if those were lying seemingly relaxed on his knees. The drow immediately started busying himself with stirring the rest of shaving soap still in the bowl, sending droplets of creamy foam everywhere. Entreri wiped his cheek, sighed, and decided to better keep quiet and get this over with without giving the drow the satisfaction of amusing him by turning angry.
"I take it you only want me to shave your face, not your head?"
"That would indeed be nice, yes."
"Well, I suppose you're right. Not everyone has the head to pull off the bald look like I have, you see."
"Praise your eight-legged demon queen for it, and get on with the work, will you? I don't want to find out what you can do to my face once the sun is down and the light is gone."
"I'm a drow, remember?" Jarlaxle chuckled. "I'll hardly be bothered by the darkness. But I can see that you do not plan on enjoying this in the least so I promise I'll be as quick and efficient als possible. I also suggest that you lean back a little and keep your lips closed as I expect this substance to taste particularly nasty."
This cheerful announcement only managed to raise Entreri's suspicions even further; yet the assassin had no time to elaborate on them as Jarlaxle immediately started to lavishly spread soap on the human's cheeks, his chin, throat and even the sides of his nose. Entreri exhaled vehemently through the nose to at least free his nostrils from the foam, causing the drow to chuckle.
"This is fun", the would-be barber stated happily. "I almost wish I was a human just so I could do this every morning."
Entreri decided it was indeed better not to open his mouth while the drow was still busy with brush and soap and thus restrained himself to a grim snort. Jarlaxle, like an artist giving the final touches to an almost finished painting, carefully added some more splotches of foam here and there before taking a step back and admiring his work.
"Wonderful. I dare say I've outdone myself so far. You will not regret this, my friend, this will be the best shave you've ever had."
Entreri used two fingers of his left hand to wipe off some foam from his lips before he answered. "Just get on with it, will you?"
"Of course, my short-tempered friend. I shall free you of your current predicament within just a few minutes. Now, for the razor..." The drow's eyes started to twinkle when he took in the sight of the four or five shaving knives Entreri called his own. A brown hand suddenly clutched his wrist, holding it in a steal-like grip.
"You as much as give me a scratch..." Entreri growled, grey eyes turned cold and distrustful, and Jarlaxle sighed and shook his head at him.
"Really, my friend, shouldn't you know better than threaten somebody who is about to treat you with a knife? - Well, rest assured, I promise I will do my best to not bruise you. All you need to do is give me a chance. Do you think you can manage?"
"I must have completely lost my mind", the assassin muttered, yet he sat back on the log and let the drow pick one of the razors to start his work.
"You are unbelievable, my ever-mistrusting friend", Jarlaxle chuckled. "Now would you please raise your head a little? Thank you."
With a scratching sound and a peculiar feeling on Entreri's skin the razor Jarlaxle had picked cut through soap and beard on the assassin's left cheek. Without bruising the skin, as the assassin noted with some measure of relief.
"Ah, very well", Jarlaxle exclaimed. "I can see your face again, and that ugly dark fur that tends to grow on it and makes you look like an uncivilised savage is indeed gone."
"Keep that up", Entreri growled. "And try to keep quiet while you're at it."
"Aw, but no. Even if you have no ambition at being a good barber - I have. And so I will keep my customers entertained while I give them their desired treatment."
"This customer wishes to be treated with silence."
"You indeed are no fun. Say, don't we have lovely weather this afternoon?"
"It's almost evening, that cursed damarran fog is creeping up again, and I might actually be able to enjoy whatever weather we have if you finally stopped your babbling."
Of course that predictable reply did nothing but cause the drow to chuckle yet again, and if possible even to encourage him to further keep talking. Entreri decided once more it was better to simply ignore him. So he did his best to tune the drow out again, listening with half an ear to whatever Jarlaxle talked about and occasionally throwing in a sarcastic remark. He actually started to relax after a while, even to almost enjoy this highly unusual display of companionship between the pair of mercenaries. Jarlaxle seemed to notice his partner's change of mood soon enough, given the smug smirk on his face but Entreri, his eyes half-closed as he patiently waited for the drow to finish the task he was so obviously enjoying, was for once almost beyond caring.
"Now, you are absolutely right", the drow answered a remark the assassin had made, standing behind Entreri's back while scratching off another part of soap and hair from his partner's left cheek. "It is a shame so many damarran maids feel like they have to cover their adorable faces with - could you turn your head to the right a little? thank you - with these smelly powders and colours that apparently are used by the ladies at to the king's court these days." Entreri gave a short snort, probably indicating agreement. - "These fresh young faces are beautiful enough without that kind of substances, don't you think, in fact the latters can only take away from their natural beauty."
"Not all of them are beautiful", Entreri muttered. "Most I have seen are anything but. However, those would do better to hide their faces behind a scarf than behind coloured powders." He couldn't see his partner but was sure Jarlaxle was shaking his head when he answered.
"You are impossible, my friend. Now turn your head to the left. When will you ever learn to treat women with the proper courtesy they so rightfully deserve?"
"Maybe I would have learned had I been born a drow", Entreri replied deadpan, "and been tought proper courtesy by use of a whip."
"I doubt it", Jarlaxle chuckled. "Turn right again." Entreri did as he was told and felt the blade of the razor scratch over his cheek again. - "Your thickheaded stubborness would probably resist even a matron mother's whip. Now up." - The blade went over his chin, then along his throat and came to rest just under his adam's apple.
His eyes shot open.
"Now would you please take off your sword belt and let it fall to the ground?" he heard the drow ask, in the same cheerful tone as before but with an added bit of steel in his voice that told the human clearly this was not a joke. The sharp razor pressed against Entreri's throat a little harder, and the assassin felt his muscles tense.
"I knew", he snarled between clenched teeth, every inch of his body ready to jump up and turn against the drow at the first occasion. But the man realized that with somebody like Jarlaxle holding the blade such an occasion would never present itself. "I knew you had to have an ulterior motive for this prank."
"Then you should have acted accordingly", the drow said coldly, and the tip of the blade drew a little blood. "Please, Artemis, there really is no reason we need to make this more difficult than it is already. I would hate to have to hurt you."
Slowly, ever so slowly and still scolding himself for his stupidity he opened his sword belt and a moment later heard Charon's Claw drop to the ground. A booted foot instantly kicked it out of the man's reach but the blade at Entreri's throat never wavered.
"Now your dagger."
"I was a fool to trust you."
"Of course you were", Jarlaxle agreed happily while the jewelled weapon landed on the ground, only to be kicked to the side like the other blade had been before. "Which proves, as my friend Pharaun Mizzrym likes to say, once more that you can indeed take the human out of the sunlight, but never the sunlight out of the human." He chuckled. "Not even out of Artemis Entreri, apparently, as I am happy to find out."
"Who's paying for me?"
"Paying?" Jarlaxle echoed in an amused voice. "Oh, I am afraid you are completely misinterpreting the situation, my friend. You see, this is not about taking you captive. I merely have a matter of importance to discuss with you. One that, I am afraid, might put you in one of your less agreeable moods, and this is merely a precautious attempt at making sure you do not act in any rash way that you - or I - might regret later."
"What?" Entreri felt thoroughly confused - a feeling, he sarcastically told himself, he should have gotten used to already while traveling alongside the annoying drow. Jarlaxle chuckled again.
"I am to discuss the matter of Drizzt Do'Urden with you."
Entreri's eyes narrowed. "He's dead", he said, and even as the words left his mouth he already knew what answer he would receive.
"He is not", Jarlaxle said matter-of-factly, and the blade he was holding bit into Entreri's skin again.
Slowly, careful not to betray too much of his emotions the assassin let out a breath he had not realized he had been holding. Inside him, memories of that dreaded day, the day of their last - their final, he had believed - fight were surfacing in a stream of blood-drenched pictures. Drizzt's inner conflict, so clearly written on his dark-skinned features, as he decided to let the human live against better judgement, his obvious anger at himself and at the whole situation as he lowered the blade he had been holding to the man's throat, as he turned to face Jarlaxle and his lieutenants in search of another aim for his frustration. Entreri's own decision, too quick and powerful to ever form a clear thought, as he gave a yell that had Drizzt turn and face him again, then threw himself at the drow's scimitars - thus finally answering, as he tought, the one lingering question that had been plagueing him for so long.
Artemis Entreri, he told himself, was not a coward. And he knew when it was time to bring a chapter to an end.
And then the strange sensation on his skin, the crackling of psionic energy in the air that surrounded him, forming an invisible barrier and completely absorbing Drizzt's defensive reflexes that otherwise would have ended the assassin's misery. Kimmuriel's intervention came completely unexpected, and when Entreri reached out a hand to grab at his enemy he did it merely in an attempt to steady himself. The buzzing psionic barrier immediately erupted in an explosion of magic energy as soon as it was given a direction, blowing Drizzt from his feet and turning his chest into a bloody mess.
Those were the last images of the scene Entreri remembered: Himself, desperately clutching at the fatal wound in an attempt to keep the blood from flowing with his bare hands until Kimmuriel intervened again, dragging the kicking and cursing human out of the room while Drizzt Do'Urden was bleeding to death on the floor of Crenshinibon's crystaline tower.
Or at least so Entreri had thought.
"You had him healed." he reasoned after a long moment. He felt Jarlaxle relax a little when the dark elf realized that the human apparently kept his calm. The drow even chuckled.
"Rai-guy was not pleased with the task I presented him, believe me."
Entreri snorted. "And you let him leave?"
"In best health, with all his possessions and even, I might add, in a very happy mood."
"Because you assured him I would never come for him again as I believed him dead."
"Precisely, my clever friend."
"Then why tell me now?"
"Oh, it was never my intention to keep you in the dark about the truth forever", Jarlaxle said. "I merely had to make sure that you had reached a state of emotional distance from your - dare I say - unhealthy obsession with Master Do'Urden that would allow you a more rational point of view at what happened that day."
"Meaning you wanted to be sure I would not see this as a reason to kill you."
"Precisely", Jarlaxle repeated, and Entreri could hear him smile. "So - do you see it as one?"
"What if I do?"
"I would be very disappointed in you", the drow said. "I honestly was convinced you had overcome that particular weakness concerning the last son of house Do'Urden. It is so unlike you."
Entreri gave a little shrug. "Sorry to disappoint then. What do you plan on doing about it?"
"This is indeed a valid question. Most likely I will have to ask your word of honour that, once I take this knife from your throat and allow you to pick up your weapons, you will not turn those formidable blades against me for the reason that Master Do'Urden is still alive."
"Myword of honour?" Entreri echoed incredulously. "You cannot be serious."
"Why? Is Artemis Entreri not an honourable man?"
"Well, considering a treacherous drow is asking me that question, I probably am indeed."
"Then give me your promise", Jarlaxle demanded again, and again Entreri could hear the smug grin in his words. He actually hesitated then but in the end there was not much he could do but sigh and play along with the plot his partner apparently had designed.
"Fine. I swear I will not use my weapons against you because Do'Urden is still alive."
"Wonderful, my friend."
No sooner had Jarlaxle said it and at the same time lowered the razor he was still holding that he found himself thrown off his feet and tumbling backwards, an infuriated human assassin at his throat. The razor was knocked out of his grip, and he barely managed to clutch Entreri's wrist before a brown hand could close around his neck as the human wrestled his partner to the ground. Entreri's usually emotionless grey eyes were flashing with fury.
"Like I need a blade to kill you! And I won't kill you because Drizzt lives!"
A knee hit the drow in the chest, knocking the wind out of him.
"I'll kill you because you tricked me, you black-faced..."
The drow quickly had to move his head out of the way to avoid a left-handed blow apparently designed to knock out an ogre.
Jarlaxle blocked another attack with his arm while trying to bring in one of his own.
A fist connected solidly with Jarlaxles chin, and for a moment a million colourful stars were swirling and sparkling in the foggy evening night. When his vision cleared again the drow, lying on his back with the assassin sitting atop of him, suddenly started to chuckle. Entreri promptly halted both the next offense and the next blow he had been aiming at his partner.
"What?" he asked confused. The drow chuckled even louder.
"There's shaving soap on your nose. And in your hair."
Entreri looked down at himself, realizing that during his attack he had indeed knocked over the bowl, effectively blotting himself with the rest of white foam still in it. He lowered the fist he had already raised to strike out against his partner and tried to wipe the soap from his nose but as half of his cheek was still covered with soap as well he only managed to spread it further over his face. As a result, Jarlaxle's silent chuckle turned into full-grown laughter.
"Stop being foolish", Entreri growled. Jarlaxle calmed for a moment and eyed the assassin.
"You look absolutely ridiculous, my friend", he then stated before starting to chuckle again. "Like a kitten that tried to lick the cream from the butter tub and fell in instead." He once more started to laugh, causing the assassin to scowl in frustration.
Entreri released the drow, wiped his hands at the sides of his trousers and got to his feet. Jarlaxle remained lying on his back for another moment, chuckling and silently shaking his head, then jumped to his feet in one swift motion and watched as Entreri re-fastened his sword-belt over his hip.
"Make no mistake. I still think you deserve to die for this", the assassin said coldly.
"But you do not plan on killing me immediately, do you?"
"Splendid." Grinning wide, Jarlaxle made an attempt at putting an arm around his partner's shoulders, causing Entreri to give him a sour look while stepping out of the drow's reach and bowing low to retrieve his trademark dagger from the ground. He made a big show of removing grass and dirt from the jewelled hilt before sheathing it and finally grabbing his towel to clean himself off.
"Do you understand why I did it?" Jarlaxle finally asked, his tone serious, when the silence kept on lingering.
The assassin pondered the question silently. Of course he knew. While he did not like to admit it to himself - and surely never would admit it to Jarlaxle -, he understood quite well the reasoning that had caused the drow mercenary to trick the human assassin into thinking he had killed his arch enemy. By the time Jarlaxle played his dangerous game with both men, the assassin's need to finally prove himself superior over the hated Drizzt Do'Urden had long turned into a self-destructive obsession. During those dreadful days in Calimport, after his return from the underdark, this obsession even was almost the only thing that could evoke some kind of life in Entreri's empty existence. Jarlaxle understood, and by bringing the hated drow ranger back into Entreri's life he both managed to rekindle a seemingly dying spark in the assassin's soul and at the same time helped the man forget about his pointless fixation and focus on other things instead. Why on the other hand the mercenary leader had decided to act the way he did was one of those questions Entreri had decided were better to be left untouched.
But apparently Jarlaxle was far from done playing the role as the assassin's mentor. Again and again Entreri had the sinking feeling that his drow partner deliberately led them into trouble with the single purpose of teaching or proving something to the human, with tonight probably being the latest of those lessons. Despite his current anger at the drow Entreri knew that, as always, there was more to Jarlaxle's ways than what met the eye. The dark elf had willingly offered the assassin an obvious loophole in his demanded promise by wording it the way he had done, a free stab at attacking in earnest if the human so chose.
Maybe it was Jarlaxle's way to apologize for a betrayal that, back then, he had considered the best option.
Entreri never actually answered the question but there was something like a muffled growl coming from him that Jarlaxle decided to take as a yes.
"Then I really cannot see why you found it necessary to break my jaw", the drow complained jokingly, stroking his chin. He caught another dark look from his partner in return.
"I only wish I had. And I warn you, you ever mention the word 'shave' to me again and I will kill you."
"Aw, now that I thought I might have found a new prospect of life for myself. Do you think there is a way to magically have me grow a beard myself so I could train this lovely profession?"
"You soon will have moss grow all over your dead body if you don't learn to shut your mouth."
The drow smiled. "Well, my friend, may I at least ask you one more, quite obvious question?"
"Would it help if I said no?"
Jarlaxle still smiled despite his tone getting some serious edge. "What will Artemis Entreri do, now that he knows his arch nemesis still walks this mortal plane? Will he go to seek him out once more and try to finish what he started?"
The assassin stared hard at him before answering. "Let me ask you a question in return: If I did - on which side would Jarlaxle, who keeps calling himself my friend, stand in this conflict?"
There was a long moment of silence again, then both men almost as one gave a shrug, accompanied by a snort from the human and a chuckle from the drow. Jarlaxle turned to glance at the camp fire which had almost burned down during the little scene.
"I am hungry", he declared. "And I believe it is your turn to cook. And since I feel generous tonight I will even grant you permission to use those calishite foul-smelling, tongue-burning spices in whatever hardly edible brew you plan on serving me. And to laugh at my face as tears stream down my cheeks and my gorge is burned away."
Entreri snorted again. "Like that was punishement enough for this latest charade of yours."
"I am not presumptous enough to assume that", the dark elf answered. "However, I was hoping that if I gave you an immediate possibility at revenge it might keep me alive for at least tonight."
"Do not be too sure", the human said warningly, yet Entreri could tell from the smug look on Jarlaxle's face that his partner was indeed very pleased with himself and the way his plan had turned out. There even was a peculiar something in the way the drow regarded his human partner that Entreri found hard to name. A happy contentment bordering on pride.
Then again, Jarlaxle was not stupid enough to forget that whenever he played one of these games with the dangerous human assassin he was walking a road on the edge of disaster. It was one of those things that kept life interesting and entertaining at the side of Artemis Entreri. He gave his partner another, almost beaming grin.
"I am not, my friend, I am not."