Chapter 21

Relative Morality

Jarlaxle visited Gromph at the Archmage's tower. On the way over, he noticed that no one was on the street. Even the market streets were empty. No vendors selling wares and no one buying. Walking through an empty version of his city gave Jarlaxle an uncustomary chill.

As before, they ended up in Gromph's own personal dimension. Even in a Lloth-free city, the Archmage was too paranoid to talk to him anywhere else. They sat down together in a matched pair of comfortable chairs, a low table situated between them.

"What pleasant business brings you and I together?" Gromph asked.

"Well, I've been thinking a great deal about your offer."

"Have you?"

Jarlaxle cleared his throat. "Indeed."

A zombie came by and served the Archmage a dark beverage. Gromph gestured. "Go on. You were just about to tell me whether or not you agree to this venture."

Jarlaxle raised an index finger. "I am not going to give you an answer without context. I know that you wish for a simple 'yes' or 'no', but I am not willing to commit myself without laying out the exact circumstances under which this cooperation will occur." He smirked. "Let us be honest: If you did not need me, I would not be here. Are we going to do things my way, or are we going to do things your way, foster miscommunication, and then have to deal with the consequences?"

Gromph grinned. "Any way is fine, as long as the answer is, 'yes'."

"Then you shall hereby be informed of my conditions," Jarlaxle said. Inwardly, he winced. Though he'd come with half an idea of what the conditions would be, his list was far from predetermined.

Gromph snorted. "Why am I not surprised?" He gestured. "Do continue, lest we be here all day."

Jarlaxle steepled his fingers. "First of all, I will not allow you to put my mercenaries in jeopardy."

Gromph's expression darkened.

"For one thing, they are not simply 'my' mercenaries anymore," Jarlaxle said. "You have asked the joint Captain of Bregan D'aerthe whether or not he wishes to be involved – a partner of equal strength to myself – and he has stated that he wishes not to be involved. Making this issue a point of contention between myself and the psionicist is only going to tear my troops apart."

The Archmage rolled his eyes. "Can't you settle this in some kind of clear, decisive manner? You have been leader of Bregan D'aerthe for more years than that rabid dog psionicist has been alive. You have control over the troops, not him."

Jarlaxle shook his head. "Their decision is clear. My soldiers are unwilling to fight for you."

"But I need them." Gromph pinned him with a stare. "You know how vital it is to strike precisely. The sacrificial dagger must be sharp to do its work."

Jarlaxle felt his gorge rise at the metaphor. He leaned forward and narrowed his eyes. "One must also have a steady hand."

"Even the most feeble hand can accomplish the task when the blade is sharp enough." Gromph leaned back with a smirk. "Do not concern yourself with my abilities."

It's not your abilities I'm worried about. Jarlaxle frowned. "I must. What you're trying to destroy was once my army, you know."

"Come, come. This is a happy occasion," Gromph chided. "The males of the world are about to be free."

"Under your rulership," Jarlaxle said. "What makes you think that looks any different to them than the Matrons?"

Gromph gestured carelessly. A zombie walked across the room in response, vacantly playing lapdog.

Jarlaxle winced at the sight of the zombie waiter. "If you blow this one up, I swear to Lloth, Gromph –"

Gromph drained the last of the dark beverage in his glass and glanced over his shoulder at the zombie. "More."

The zombie nodded in semblance of a living being who could actually understand what Gromph was saying. Jarlaxle wondered sometimes if the zombies actually could understand the people speaking around them, and were too helpless or too addled to do anything about it.

Jarlaxle tore his gaze from the zombie and turned it on his brother. "What are you having?"

"Ulamba root coffee." He gave Jarlaxle an expectant look. "Would you care to imbibe of my offerings?"

"Oh, do you have any mulled terta juice?" Jarlaxle asked. He laced his fingers together and smiled ingratiatingly. "You know I love the stuff."

Gromph scowled.

Jarlaxle knew he had evaded the real question: Whether or not he was going to join Gromph's rebellion. He didn't have a strategy yet, only a vague idea of where to steer the conversation to get the results he desired. So he stalled.

Well, he did like mulled terta juice, but it was more important to buy time.

The terta was a sweet, fruity tasting mushroom that grew in certain places around the cavern that housed Menzoberranzan. The juice was one of Menzoberranzan's more popular exports to surrounding cities. Pressed raw the juice was poisonous, but if one boiled the fungus, the result was a sticky sweet nectar. Drow around Menzoberranzan prepared mulled terta juice by boiling down the mushrooms and then diluting the nectar with water, adding spices in the process.

Jalaxle punctured the silence. "Terta?" He gave his brother a hopeful look.

Gromph narrowed his eyes. After a moment's scrutiny, he assessed Jarlaxle's honest desire for juice and capitulated. He rubbed his chin. "Any terta juice…I believe so." He snapped his fingers and gave orders to his zombie.

The creature came back with Gromph's bitter brew and Jarlaxle's juice.

Jarlaxle took the juice from the zombie's tray and took in a drink in good faith that the Archmage hadn't simply warmed up raw juice and poisoned him. The gesture was a bold taunt that he was well aware how much his brother needed him. In other circumstances, he wouldn't have risked it. Gromph could be testy.

And his death would not have inconvenienced Gromph any, either. He could just see himself becoming another undead servant around Gromph's tower, offering people drinks and being set on fire at a moment's notice when Gromph became irritated by one of the guests. The mercenary suppressed a shudder.

Gromph raised an eyebrow. "Satisfied?"

"It's delicious." Jarlaxle raised his glass to the Archmage. "Thank you."

"Hmm." The sound denoted the Archmage's depressed acceptance that he had to deal with his little brother for a while longer.

They settled into their shared presence around the same table in the same sitting room with silence, each sipping his drink with a lack of eye contact.

Finally, Gromph said, "Have you made a decision yet?"

Jarlaxle raised his eyebrows, polite but coldly unmoved. "I am not the one that needs to make a decision, Gromph. I have told you what is necessary to gain my support, and you have waffled on the issue."

"If I can't have the support of your troops, what is the point?" Gromph snarled. He clenched his glass almost tight enough to break it.

Jarlaxle held his hands out palm up. "You have my support. Isn't that what you need me for?" He narrowed his eyes. "I am the master. They are the amateurs. I assure you that my assistance is equal to if not greater than the bulk of my mercenaries and spies. What you have to do is realize that the secret weapon you need to overthrow Lloth's city is right in front of you."

Gromph blinked, taken off guard.

Jarlaxle sat back and smiled with no small amount of self-satisfaction. It took a bold move indeed to stop the Archmage in his tracks. "Now, do you want me, or don't you?"

Gromph's jaw worked for a bit before he spoke. "I suppose…I do."

Jarlaxle gestured. "Thank you. Now we may continue."

"Is there anything else I can do for you?" Gromph asked dryly. "Before we get down to the business of actually conquering the city?"

Jarlaxle tapped his lower lip. "Well, as a matter of fact…"

The Archmage snorted. "Go on."

"I want to be a part of the planning process," Jarlaxle said.

Gromph furrowed his brow. "What do you mean?"

"The strategy," Jarlaxle said impatiently. "You must have a strategy. I want to be there when you make plans and when you decide, 'This is what I am going to do'." He narrowed his eyes. "I am not your puppet. I am an equal partner in this, or else."

"For an equal share of the profits, I suppose."

Jarlaxle inclined his head, grinning. "I'll give you a discount. After all, we are brothers."

The look that crossed Gromph's face made him laugh. Gromph plainly stewed in the area between finding his younger brother's audacity so repugnant that he desired to slaughter the mercenary on the spot, and the kind of grudging respect that kept the Archmage's associates alive.

Jarlaxle sipped his mulled tertajuice. "Ah. You know, I miss this. I really do."

Gromph gave him a half-lidded look. "Terta juice?"

Jarlaxle laughed. "No, this, brother. The togetherness." He gestured.

"Do you," Gromph said dryly.

"Absolutely." Jarlaxle gave him a look of earnest enthusiasm. "It's like the old days. You, me, Triel, a happy little trio."


"The three oldest Baenres," Jarlaxle said.

"Not counting –" Gromph stopped.

Jarlaxle snapped his fingers. "You're right. There were other people around us at one point, weren't there? In fact, there used to be a veritable crowd."

"It is still," Gromph said, "too crowded." He looked at Jarlaxle pointedly.

Jarlaxle drummed his fingers on his chair and looked away. "You're right. What are we going to do?"

Gromph raised his eyebrows. He looked at Jarlaxle with curiosity. Then, a smile dawned on his face. "We'll just have to make some room, won't we?"

Jarlaxle smiled in return. Gromph had taken the bait, just as he expected. "After all, only the truly skilled should survive. That is how Triel made it this far, is it not, dear brother?"

Gromph frowned. "What are you suggesting?"

Jarlaxle widened his eyes and shrugged. "Only that if Triel survives, we will have to run to the Nine Hells to escape her wrath."

"Then make certain of her demise," Gromph said.

Jarlaxle shook his head. He finally saw the plan that would benefit his siblings the most. He'd tried to think of some way to spare Triel, some way to take her with him, convince her to leave Lloth's clutches forever and try her luck in life on less poisoned ground. But he knew that wouldn't happen. Triel was her mother's daughter, bred through and through with the desire for the fruit only Lloth could provide her.

What Triel needed was a chance.

"How can I?" Jarlaxle asked. "How can I ever be sure? She is like a cockroach, brother. And if Lloth ever does return her favor, it will be Triel that she goes to first."

Gromph's frown deepened into a look of bitter hatred. "I could kill her a hundred times –"

"But that would never be as satisfying as her serving you," Jarlaxle said.

The Archmage stared at him in confusion. "Serve me? Triel? She would rather die."

"That's the point. Isn't it?"

Gromph hesitated, and then turned away, crossing one leg over the other. "No. It's too much trouble. I would rather simply kill her than foster a traitor in my house. Pragmatism outweighs any short-lived pleasure, I'm afraid. No matter how amusing it would be." He sighed.

"Perhaps you do not have the taste for revenge that I thought you did," Jarlaxle said in a tone of musing disappointment. "I thought it was a good plan. I was ready to help you on the condition that you…"

Gromph stared at him. "What?"

Jarlaxle shrugged and looked away. "That you spare Triel in order to give her a properly fitting punishment."

"Why do you care?" Gromph asked.

Jarlaxle gave his brother a carefully emotionless gaze. "I have always hated Triel the most."

Gromph snorted. "You would rather I fail. You take it as a personal insult that you didn't think of this little venture yourself. You've lost touch and you blame me."

Jarlaxle shrugged. "Whatever you say. If you don't want my help…"
Gromph glared at him. "That's the price, is it? Triel's life?"

"Take it or leave it."

"You drive a hard bargain," Gromph snarled.

Jarlaxle smirked. "You knew that."

"You would sell Triel into slavery? To me?" The Archmage put up a front of disbelief.

"Are you trying to tell me that you actually hate our sister less than I do?" Jarlaxle asked. "How can that be? After Mother died, she had all the power, when in fact it should have been your turn. The power vacuum was there. She stole the throne from you."

Emotions warred on Gromph's face.

"Are you telling me that your powers of wizardry cannot keep her? That without Lloth's favor – No, even with Lloth's favor – you cannot overpower her?" Jarlaxle demanded.

"I can!"

Jarlaxle crossed his arms. "Then why won't you? Either you do not hate her, dear brother, or she has instilled you with fear."

"It is neither," Gromph declared.

"Think it over," Jarlaxle said softly. "Decide." He nodded and stood up. "Then call me again when you're ready." He turned away.

"I am ready now," Gromph said.

Jarlaxle looked at the Archmage over his shoulder. "Oh?"

Gromph ground out the words. "I'll meet your price."

Jarlaxle smiled to cover his quaking insides. If his sister were here, he had no doubt he would be accused of selling her out, of perpetrating the greatest cruelty of all. But he knew. He knew how Triel's mind worked. She would abuse the hospitality of anyone he introduced her to. That was a hardwired drow trait. He could not simply set her loose upon the Surface and expect something good to come of it. Nor could he in all likelihood convince her to leave in the first place.

Triel did not, in fact, really want his help. She wanted a chance to keep her empire. He was merely giving it to her. If she was as strong as he thought, she would endure Gromph's abuse and rise to the top, possibly taking the Archmage's power for herself. So he was not truly betraying her. On the other hand, he could not monitor his brother. Gromph could change his mind at any time and kill her. Jarlaxle knew this was the only reason Gromph agreed to his condition: it was unenforceable.

Still, he had given Triel a chance.

Jarlaxle made his way to Bregan D'aerthe, noting again the emptiness of the city. He picked out the steep path to the headquarters in the Clawrift. The need for surefootedness distracted him from some of his more troubling worries.

He let himself into the Captain's office with a nod to the soldiers guarding the door.

Kimmuriel glanced up, saw that it was Jarlaxle, and dropped the scroll he was reading on the desk. He stood up. "Well?"

Jarlaxle stood in the middle of the room. "I made an agreement with Gromph."

"What kind of agreement?" Kimmuriel demanded.

Jarlaxle gave the psionicist a look. "The kind of agreement where I save all of our asses."

Kimmuriel crossed his arms. "Such as?"

"I do the job."

"I thought you agreed that we should stay clear of any –"

Jarlaxle's expression hardened. "We are."

"Then why would you make us accountable for the Archmage's success?" The psionicist actually raised his voice at the mercenary, something he had never done before.

Jarlaxle clenched his hands. "Listen to me, Kimmuriel: I said 'I'. I do the job. You and the rest of the mercenaries pull out."

Kimmuriel stared at him. "What are you saying?"

Jarlaxle cut his hand across the air. "I'm saying, bring our agents home after I complete the job Gromph wanted to send us to do, and withdraw for good."

"Withdraw?" Kimmuriel said incredulously.

"You still have tracking devices on every one of our agents," Jarlaxle said.

Kimmuriel nodded.

"You know as well as I that it is easy to transport our males from one place to another as long as they wear those devices," Jarlaxle said. "Teleport them back here, and then move to a safe location."

Kimmuriel snorted. "A 'safe' location?"

"I am going to spell this out for you." Jarlaxle rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I didn't think I would have to. You're a smart male." He spread his hands. "This is what I am saying: Move out of Menzoberranzan. Things are about to get ugly."

"Out of Menzoberranzan? Where?" Kimmuriel's stoic mask couldn't quite cover his fear. He ran a hand through his long, silvery hair. "Where do you expect us to go?"

Jarlaxle shrugged. "Anywhere. Anywhere is better than here."

Kimmuriel squared his shoulders. "You can't simply order us out into the wilderness, 'Captain'."

"Then why don't you stay?" Jarlaxle asked.

"Why do you say we should leave?"

"It's a fair warning," Jarlaxle said.

"What are you going to do?" Kimmuriel demanded.

Jarlaxle shrugged. "What I ought to do."

Kimmuriel narrowed his eyes. "Our name is still connected with yours. If you screw up, we'll catch the blame."

Jarlaxle turned away. "Then leave. That is what I said you should do, and for good reason. Kimmuriel, this place is going to fall straight into the Demonweb Pits. Soon, you won't have any reason to live here. This isn't your city any longer."

"But –"

Jarlaxle turned on his heel, facing the psionicist with a scowl. "I suggest you move within the day. Failing that, the day after. Three days is all you're likely to get, and that's if Lloth is feeling generous."

"Why not stay?" Kimmuriel crossed his arms and arched an eyebrow. "If you are going to allow a revolution to happen, then perhaps we shall all be 'freed'."

Jarlaxle smiled at his lieutenant and asked silkily, "If everyone is free, then who is our clientele going to be?"

Kimmuriel took a step back. "We are going to lose the business?"

"If we stay," Jarlaxle said. "So don't stay." He shook his head and walked away.

His partner spontaneously combusted under hidden pressure, cried all over him, spent the night being tortured by an evil goddess, and went back to his home city first thing in the morning to settle some kind of familial dispute.

Artemis Entreri did the sensible thing. He ate breakfast and tried not to worry about it.

He hadn't been sitting down for very long when the doorbell rang. The doorbell was no ordinary doorbell. Of course, it was magic. A series of chimes plucked out a revoltingly joyful tune about five seconds long. He didn't know when Jarlaxle had time to install it, and he wanted to rip it out of the wall. Though he knew that probably wasn't even possible.

Artemis answered the door.

A woman stood on the doorstep. Even though she was wrapped in a fur cloak, with a scarf over her nose and mouth, the auburn curls that spilled out from underneath her cowl were unmistakable. She clasped her hands, clad in black, fur-trimmed gloves, over her bosom.

"Good morning," he said pointedly. As in, it was before you showed up.

"Good morning." Mila dipped her head. "May I come in? My name is Mila Yaruthil, I'm a –"

"I know," Artemis said.

" – friend of Jarlaxle's…" She trailed off. "You do?"

He raised an eyebrow. "Who do you think you're speaking to?"

She stared at him. "Well, I don't know."

Satisfied, Artemis nodded and backed up, allowing her room to come in. "Entreri."

She tilted her head, recognition sparking. "Jarlaxle's partner."

"That's right."

"Then you know Artemis."

"Intimately." He gestured.

She walked past him into the house. He shut the door. When he turned, he saw her standing in the middle of the dining room, looking around with aimless anxiety.

He cleared his throat.

She turned on her heel and faced him with wide eyes. "Is…Does Jarlaxle happen to be home?"

Artemis shook his head. "As a matter of fact, he is not."

She mulled that over. "Maybe that's just as well." She sighed. "Maybe I really wanted to talk to Artemis."

Artemis crossed his arms. "Leave a message."

She shook her head at him and unwound her scarf, pulling it away from her nose and mouth. Artemis had to admit she was well-formed. The co-conspirators in Jarlaxle's flings always were. "I shouldn't speak to her, you mean. Well, maybe you're right. Maybe I've come for nothing. Maybe I should have stayed home."

"You're the one that says so," Artemis pointed out. "I've just been standing here waiting for your message."

Mila looked at him uncertainly.

He stared back. "You sound like you're trying to talk yourself out of something."

She ran a hand through her hair, turned away for a moment, and then seemed to think better of it. "Where do you stand in all this?"

"'All this'? You mean the business between Artemis and Jarlaxle?"

"Yes," Mila said. "Where do you stand?"


She wrung her fingers. "Well, I mean…Do you think they ought to be friends, or do you think they just ought to admit there is mutual attraction on both sides?"

The assassin snorted. "For having never met Artemis, your claim is pretty bold."

"You haven't noticed it, then?" Mila gestured. "You've been around the both of them for a while, haven't you?"

"What does Jarlaxle say?" he asked dryly. This should be good.

"He says you're all the best of friends," Mila said. "You, her, and Jarlaxle. You do practically everything together. You work together, fighting monsters – like these giants."

Artemis rolled his eyes. "If he says so, then it's probably true. Though he does tend to over-sentimentalize things a bit." Not to mention overcomplicate and oversimplify – sometimes at the same time.

"Then how would you tell it?" Mila crossed her arms over her chest.

He glanced at the ceiling. A force of habit when he thought the gods were messing with him. "I'd say that Artemis, Entreri, and Jarlaxle are friends. Entreri has more of a working relationship with the drow. Artemis…for Artemis, things are personal."

That was all true. At the stage when he and Jarlaxle met, he would not allow anyone to call him 'Artemis'. And at that stage, they had been simply business associates. He'd never been able to pin down the dynamic more than that, since their power in relation to each other always seemed to be changing. By the time he noticed a pattern, the relationship was already different. He was 'Artemis'. He was suddenly 'special'. A 'partner'. Artemis wondered when that changed. He prided himself on his memory, but he couldn't recall when he had stopped shutting Jarlaxle down and started letting the mercenary into his personal life.

"Then you do see it," Mila said, lighting up. "You do see the way he looks at her and the way she must be responding."

Artemis tried to smile and frown at the same time. He looked away. "I don't see anything…sexual, about their relationship."

"I'm not suggesting there is." She spread her hands in a remarkably Jarlaxle-like gesture. "I'm just saying there ought to be."

Artemis snorted. "And how would you know?"

She gave him a pitying look. "It's obvious that he is deeply in love with her."

"Obvious, eh?" He folded his arms. "And how have I missed this 'obvious' love?"

"To another woman, it is." She gave him a steely gaze. "The way he talks about her is the way I wish he would talk about me."

He stared. "It is?"

She tossed her head and looked away, tucking a strand of hair behind one gently pointed ear. "Every time we're together, he'll talk about her. I'm aware. I'm aware the only reason he sees me is because he wishes so desperately he could talk to her that he finds someone else to talk to. He is terrified of ruining things between himself and her. It's really sad."

Artemis snorted. "Jarlaxle, declaring those sorts of feelings? That would ruin everything. That would be strange, disgusting, and unwelcome. To say the least."

Mila's eyes widened. "Oh, but you can't say that she wouldn't love him in return for loving her!" She crossed her arms. "Women are so selfish. They adore that kind of thing."

"Artemis isn't –" He stopped himself. "Isn't…an ordinary woman. She does not have feelings for Jarlaxle in that way."

"How do you know?"

Artemis looked at her flatly. "Trust me."

"Have you asked her?" Mila asked.

Artemis didn't know what to say to the ridiculous question. "Why can't you take my word for it?"

"If you have asked her opinion and you know it, then I will," Mila said.

"How can I ask her when –" When she doesn't exist, damn it! She's me! Artemis' jaw clenched.

"Then how do you know?" She scowled at him.

"I know!"

She sniffed. "Just like a man. You're willing to bet everything on your perception of things without being aware of how a woman, Artemis, really feels."

He growled. "If necessary, I will get her down here right now –"

" – and force her to say how much she doesn't value Jarlaxle's time?" Mila asked airily. "Really, Entreri, that would hardly impress me. You'd just coerce her to say what you want her to say because you're afraid of her having feelings for a drow."

Artemis crossed his arms to avoid doing something foolish. Like drawing sword and dagger and dissecting the woman on the spot. "I defend Jarlaxle from racist bigotry exactly like what you are accusing me of. I've seen him sleep with dozens of human women, and that's fine by me! I'm not interested!"

"Then why are you shouting?" Mila asked softly.

He froze. After a moment of working his jaw and finding no adequate words, he ground out, "I don't know. Why don't you tell me? You seem to have all the answers."

"You are afraid of her being tossed aside," Mila said. "It's natural."

Artemis realized that she was right. Every time Jarlaxle suddenly ignored every word he said in favor of pouring his attention out on some barmaid they'd never seen before, he did feel tossed aside. The entire time he'd been partners with Jarlaxle, he'd been suppressing feelings of anger and betrayal. He'd said to himself, Can sex be that important? How can sex possibly be that important? He'd wondered if there would ever come a day when Jarlaxle gave him undivided attention.

The assassin came back to the present and immediately noticed the dead silence. He took a deep breath. "Go on."

"You see Jarlaxle sleeping with a different woman each night and wonder if someday that is going to be Artemis. And if it is, you are willing to defend her by attacking your partner. Your best friend. Because you're gallant."

Artemis' mouth twisted. Gallant? Gallantry is not in my nature. It's selfishness, more like. I just don't want Jarlaxle putting his hands all over me. He realized then and there the trap of this conversation. He'd begun to think of himself as a sexual possibility, a person who could, in fact, be propositioned and therefore the necessity of turning people down. Whether the flirting came from Jarlaxle, or someone else. But he was not a sexual creature. He didn't have sexual desires. And he didn't, absolutely did not, elicit sexual feelings from other people.

"It's okay." Mila looked at him with sympathy he neither wanted nor deserved. "It will be different. Jarlaxle cares about Artemis. He cares about her deeply. He could never do anything to hurt her."

Artemis was taken aback by the utter sincerity of her claim. She nauseated him at the same time as he suddenly saw her skewed point of view. What if he were a woman? Would that change his relationship with Jarlaxle? Would there be sexual possibilities? "How do you know?"

"I can tell," Mila said softly.

He raked a hand through his hair. "No. I mean, how can you tell…So he has feelings for her. Can't those be feelings of friendship, instead of lust? I have never seen him approach her in an inappropriate way."

Mila let out a laugh. "I can tell that, too, Entreri. It hasn't been the first time that he fantasized about her at the same time he was making love to me."

The words shocked him numb. "No."

Mila raised her eyebrows. "What's so surprising about it? Fantasies are common. I've seen this kind of thing before. He wants what he can't have, so he substitutes. He can't help pretending, at least for a little while, that I really am Artemis." She shook her head. "I haven't minded it. I just wanted him to be happy."

"You're lying." At the same time, he flashed back to what he observed from his hiding place in her wardrobe.

"You have nothing to worry about," Mila said. "She is safe with him. She will always be safe with him."

Artemis' voice barely rose above a whisper. "Why?"

"Even though it meant denying himself what he really wanted, he would run to me instead of facing the fact of his attraction to her," Mila said. "Does that sound like the self-control of a molester or a playboy?"

Artemis pressed his lips into a thin line and shook his head. He wanted to believe her promise of safety. He did not want to believe the reason for Jarlaxle's visits to her, and did. He wanted to deny how much sense her version made in light of what he'd seen that night, and couldn't.

Jarlaxle is attracted to me. Really, attracted to me. He almost threw up in his mouth. His stomach tightened into a knot. I couldn't have done a worse thing by comforting him. I put my hands all over him. And he was fighting the urge to…to…

He crossed his arms. "I get the message. I'll make sure Artemis hears it."

"You're just going to warn her," Mila said softly.

"So what?" Artemis couldn't keep his voice under control. "Isn't that my right?"

"No," Mila said. "You have to let her make decisions for herself. It's her right."

He grabbed her, crossing the two steps to her in the blink of an eye. He brought her face within inches of his, so she could make no mistake. "My name…is Artemis Entreri. Jarlaxle is my partner. And you've just told me he plans to bed me. So I think I will make my own decisions, thank you." He shoved her towards the door.

She ran. Wise choice. In another moment, he would have thought better of sparing her life. He slowly walked up to the gaping front door and closed it.

And he just stood there. On the surface, all he could feel was boiling rage. Underneath, stirring in the murky depths of his soul, he was aware of the sodden weight of despair. He felt like crawling upstairs, falling unconscious, and never waking up again.

Time passed. He was unaware of how quickly or slowly, but he felt minutes trickling by. All of a sudden, color flared back into the world. He shook his head, inhaling deeply, and looked around.

A dining room, a kitchen, a bleak gray stone house…a place he associated with his partnership with Jarlaxle.

He sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Now that his anger had passed and his despair lightened, sense reasserted itself. Jarlaxle would of course never do anything about his ill-advised urges to bed his assassin friend. Precisely why he had never heard anything about it was because Jarlaxle had the sense to know the feelings were inappropriate. The drow had no doubt correctly assumed that if Artemis heard about it, any detail, he would lose his temper and go on a murderous rampage.

Well. At least he had the self-control – though that was a new concept in this area – not to immediately go out and murder everyone who might have heard or sensed what was going on.

Why? Why was he disinclined to put Jarlaxle's head on a spike? He knew he wanted to. And yet, weighing his options, he found far better reasons to spare Jarlaxle's life and even forgive his partner. Artemis considered his frame of mind and realized last night's revelations had a lot to do with why he felt so forgiving today.

For one thing, he had almost violated Jarlaxle's rights. In a friendship, it seemed it was all too easy to commit some foolish crime against one another. Perhaps their clumsiness was merely a sign of their inexperience, but the reason for their need for caution was less important than to realize the delicacy of their new friendship and to defend it.

Part of defending their relationship meant forgiving Jarlaxle for…being attracted to him.

Artemis Entreri sighed and laced his fingers behind his head. The ultimate irony of gender relations stared him in the face. If Jarlaxle had been a woman, he would have been flattered at the news that Jarlaxle found him attractive. Now, the same news about the same person nearly caused him to put his fist through a wall and kill everything in sight. The irony of that was poignant because neither scenario ended in he and Jarlaxle having a relationship. It didn't matter whether Jarlaxle was male or female. Neither gender appealed to him. He was completely neutral. After the fumbled attempts in his young adulthood, sex was a game that he did not play.

Actually, when he thought about it, the one at the disadvantage in this situation was Jarlaxle. He couldn't think of a time when the mercenary had ever seemed sexually frustrated, for any reason. But this was one wall Jarlaxle couldn't climb.

Artemis smiled in spite of himself. An itch he can't scratch must be driving him crazy.

He suddenly realized that last night was the most intense test of Jarlaxle's loyalty. The mercenary had been impaired, inebriated physically and vulnerable emotionally, and for once, Artemis had opened himself up as a sympathetic shoulder to lean on. Even then, Jarlaxle had been a gentleman.

It was I who almost took advantage of him.

What that said about their relative morality made him uncomfortable.