Less Than Perfect
Description: At age 14, Entreri is a lieutenant in the Basadoni Guild, and his personal mantra is 'less than perfect gets you killed.' Pasha Basadoni has taken an interest in his newest officer, though, and challenges Entreri's perception. The moment has a strange effect on the boy.
Disclaimer: Belongs to RAS and Wizards of the Coast, not me. No profit is being made.
Author's Note: This story is built directly upon RAS' 1994 story "The Third Level" in the Realms of Infamy. For those of you who haven't read it, this story establishes a somewhat different history than is presented in RotP, and it also focuses at the end on how Entreri is promoted soon after joining the Basadoni Guild. Entreri thinks to himself often in the story that "Less than perfect gets you killed."
This fic is also inspired by the interesting relationship between Entreri and Basadoni that is hinted at in SB.
Thank you to all who review.
Much like any other night in the Basadoni Cabal, thieves and assassins crept in the shadows, leaving and entering the guild hall. Some people slept; others ate and partied. On the top floors, beautiful women chatted among the trappings of opulence. However, young lieutenant Artemis Entreri was in his room alone, surrounded in silence.
Sitting at the small desk under the window, Entreri obsessively recreated the Common letters of the alphabet. It disturbed him that the letters were wobbly. He wanted them to be neat and perfect. He didn't care if he pleased his tutor, although he didn't take the tutor's sparse praise lightly; he cared much more about his own skills and abilities.
A knock came at his door. Entreri carefully set his quill in its holder and stood, crossing the room. He slid aside the small window in the door to check the person's identity, saw Pasha Basadoni himself, and schooled himself to evidence no shock. Pashas did not come to visit their lieutenants; their lieutenants were summoned to them.
"Artemis," Basadoni said.
Entreri closed the window and unlocked the door, opening it and then standing aside. Certainly it could be a trick; this could be someone else using magic to appear to be Basadoni. He was on guard.
However, as Basadoni swept into the room and glanced around it, Entreri analyzed his mannerisms and demeanor. The man seemed to be the real article. Still, Entreri would keep his distance until he was sure.
"What brings you to my humble room?" Entreri asked. It was the polite thing to say; it was also a test.
Basadoni turned to him with a smile. "I have come to assess you in your element."
Entreri shut the door and stood by it. Or, more specifically, he stood by his weapons' belt, which hung on the wall. He'd only been learning swordsmanship for a few months, but he trusted he could defend himself. "In my element?"
The small, older man stepped over to Entreri's desk and gazed at his homework. He was a thin man with short, well-kept grey hair; it was the wisdom and weight of his gaze that made him appear powerful. As usual, his clothing was nicely tailored but not ostentatious; tonight he wore a white tunic over loose beige pants. "How go your studies?"
After Entreri had been named lieutenant, Basadoni had arranged a tutor for him. It was not enough for Entreri to be schooled in swordsmanship, horseback riding, and general weapons proficiency. Basadoni wanted him to be able to read and write both Common and Alzhedo, the language of Calimshan and its neighbors. In addition, he wished for Artemis to master arithmetic.
"The tutor says I have a gift for languages," Entreri said. He picked up vocabulary and syntax easily, so expanding his ability to speak Common was easy. Alzhedo was the language he'd grown up speaking, so that was no issue. He also figured out how to spell words and read words based on logical deduction from what he already knew. "As you can see, I'm working on mastering forming the letters."
Basadoni nodded. "You seem to be a quick study in every area I introduce you to."
Entreri didn't comment. To be perfect was his life's goal. No, more than that: to be perfect was the only way to survive, and he very much intended to survive.
"Your tutor says you soak up each lesson," Basadoni continued.
"Education should not be wasted," Entreri replied.
Basadoni smiled. "Youth do not often say that."
Education was not something Entreri would say no to. Only rich children were granted such a thing. "Education is a form of power," he said. If Entreri had the ability to read, he could educate himself on anything he wished. If he had the ability to write, a silent and powerful means of communication was open to him. "I would be a fool to pass up such opportunities."
"Wise words for one so young," Basadoni drawled. He glanced back at Entreri's homework. "Did you know that handwriting reveals personality?"
Entreri silently crossed the room to stand at Basadoni's side. "Does it?" He saw nothing in the blockish letters he had painstakingly made.
"In the beginning, handwriting reveals nothing but a person's motor skills," Basadoni said. "The tutor strives to help the child to make the letters correctly. Over time, however, quirks show up in everyone's writing. Slanted or not slanted. Loops or no loops. Fancy or plain."
Right now, Entreri's letters looked like they had been tortured into the correct shape in order to match the ones in the scroll he copied from. Certainly there was no adornment. "What does my writing say to you, then?"
Basadoni smiled at him again. "Right now it says little more than you have excellent fine motor skills. But I do see the touch of a perfectionist, I think."
"Anything less than perfect is a waste," Entreri said, having adapted his personal mantra for any situation.
Basadoni snorted. "I'm not surprised to hear you say that. Apparently you torture our newest recruit with it."
Entreri shrugged. Although he had only been in the guild six months himself, as a lieutenant, he already had his own recruit to train—a boy two years younger than himself. "He only finds it to be torture because he is sloppy. He will learn to be perfect, or he will die. There's not room for anything more."
At this reply, Basadoni watched him for a long moment. "And who defines 'perfect?'"
Entreri didn't have an answer.
Entreri hovered in the shadows of the palace, watching his target stroll down the hallway away from his harem. In Calishite culture, only the patriarch of the house was allowed inside the harem, with all other men ordered clear. Wives, concubines, sisters, and daughters lived in the harem, as well as sons until they were twelve. At twelve, the boys were separated and trained in the duties of a man.
According to Entreri's information, this man, Mansoor, always entered his harem around ten o'clock and left at midnight. This made Entreri's task of tracking the man easier now that he was inside the palace.
From outside came the ringing of Calimport's Great Clock, the striking clock that towered in the city's main square. It had been built during Entreri's time living in the streets, and now its opening chimes seemed laced with sinister purpose. Midnight was often the time Entreri found himself on darker missions. Certainly many of his assignments were thefts, but a small number of them were assassinations.
Such was this one.
Entreri slipped silently from the shadows of one statue to the next one; the hall was filled with them, each one about eight feet from the other. The ceiling was high and arched overhead; murals covered the walls between the statues. The excess of wealth here was outside Entreri's scope of understanding. That it existed he could see with his own eyes, but registering its existence was not the same as truly comprehending it. Living in the guild house was the first time in his entire fourteen years that he'd been presented with a soft bed and easy access to full meals.
Being surrounded by such wealth now faintly irritated Entreri as he tracked his target. Calimshan in general — or at least Memnon and Calimport in his experience — was a study in opposites. Everyone was either deathly poor or obscenely rich, with only a small number of merchant families caught in between. If one did not desire to live out one's life destitute, entering into a guild was one of the few options because the rich were born rich and married their own kind.
No one shared power or wealth willingly.
Entreri followed his target to his bedroom. He wasn't quite sure why Mansoor didn't have his woman of the night brought to him in his room like Basadoni did, but it was merely a minor detail. His job was to kill the man. That was all.
He was well aware that a part of him did not like this job. He occasionally found himself wishing he were back in the streets, alone and independent. He'd never asked to be a killer, only a survivor.
But all life subsisted through the death of other creatures, even among herbivores. To a certain extent, life was death.
Entreri slipped from the shadows into the man's room, hiding behind a plush chair in the corner. Mansoor didn't bother to close his door; he didn't notice the figure lurking in the darkness. He was too absorbed with rifling around in his wardrobe.
Or so Entreri thought. Then the man turned toward him suddenly, brandishing a scimitar. "Out, Child. I know you're there."
Entreri internally cursed. He knew he'd been utterly silent; he knew he'd moved quickly. In fact, Mansoor's back had been toward him the entire time. All he'd really needed was to get closer to his target, and he could have run him through from behind, which had been his plan.
Still, he didn't see that he had a choice except to do as the man said. He was caught, so he had to fight. He stood, stepping out from behind the chair and drawing his sword and dagger. Neither weapon was anything special, although they were made out of good steel. If Mansoor's scimitar were enchanted, it could pose a problem. If Mansoor were highly skilled it would certainly pose a problem. Entreri was good enough now to take this mission, but he wasn't good enough to defeat a master swordsman. He hadn't trained or practiced long enough yet.
"So they sent a child for me." Mansoor sighed. "Did they think I would spare you because you were young? I have no such compunctions. Or perhaps your employer intends me to kill you. Have you run afoul of him, Child?"
Entreri didn't answer. He doubted this was a test of any kind on Basadoni's part; he assumed he'd simply been less than perfect.
Now all that remained was the question of whether he could extract himself from the situation alive.
Of course, if he failed to kill Mansoor, he might die anyway when he returned to Basadoni. Or, at the last, be brutally punished. Basadoni was not sadistic, but he had no room for failures, either. There were a thousand desperate child thieves in the streets to take Entreri's place. A thousand thousand. And always there was someone fighting his way through the ranks to reach lieutenant, too.
Mansoor brought his blade to bear and inched toward Entreri. "Are you not going to boast to me, Child? Tell me you're a man? Tell me how skilled you are and how I'm a fool?"
Whether you're a fool is yet to be seen. Entreri held his weapons in a defensive posture, sizing up the man's stance, his posture, his facial expression, his aura. Everything and anything that would give him a clue about Mansoor's mindset, strategy, or confidence. If Entreri simply rushed him, he would likely end up dead. He had to measure the man. He had to measure the fight. "I'm unconcerned with your opinion," he said flatly.
Mansoor's eyes narrowed.
Entreri did not let himself contemplate death.
The man sprung, and Entreri blocked, steel ringing against steel. Mansoor disengaged, slashing his sword again, and Entreri parried, the shock of the impact traveling through his finely muscled arm. They separated again, each backing off a step, circling, watching, sizing up. Mansoor came in high; Entreri blocked and struck out with his dagger, coming in low. Mansoor pushed off Entreri's blade and hopped back, avoiding the strike.
Basadoni himself was teaching Entreri swordsmanship, although he had him spar with half the young men and women in the guild. Anyone who could wield a sword had been pitted against Entreri in order to make him practice not only the form itself but also dealing with different opponents. All those experiences came to Entreri now. He met Mansoor blade to blade, looking for openings, seizing opportunities to attack.
The fight became a dance.
The dance was death.
Entreri's blade found Mansoor's spleen. Mansoor's blade found Entreri's side. Entreri jerked his blade free, and Mansoor toppled to the floor. Entreri stood over him, watching the man bleed out, holding his own side as he did.
It took Mansoor a long time to die.
Once he was certain Mansoor was dead, he sheathed his weapons. His hand was covered in blood from where he'd held it over his wound. His best chance of escape was to climb out the window, though, so he wiped off his hand and stole away.
The trip back to his new home was painful.
The entirety of Entreri's pay for the assassination went toward buying healing potions and new clothing.
Entreri didn't utter a word of complaint because the fault had been his own. He was lucky he was still alive. Next time he would have to be better.
Next time he would have to be perfect.
When Basadoni called for him the following night, Entreri wasn't surprised. He was already back in the training hall, working on his swordsmanship. When Basadoni's aide came for him, though, he put up his wooden sword at once. He reported to the man's office and waited silently before his desk.
"How was your mission?" Basadoni asked, not looking up from the scroll he read.
"Mansoor died." But Entreri knew Basadoni was already aware of that.
"That is a statement of fact, not an assessment." Basadoni set down the scroll and looked up.
"It was average." Entreri had finished his job and come back alive, so that was the only assessment he could give.
Basadoni stood and walked around the desk. "Average? From you, this is the same as saying it went terribly."
"Next time I will be perfect," Entreri replied automatically.
Basadoni stopped before him and raised an eyebrow. "Did I ask you to be perfect?"
"You ask me to do my job without fuss and with efficiency. You ask me to do my job to the best of my ability."
"And this means perfection?"
Entreri stared at Basadoni. They were roughly the same height – older child and older man. "I must be." It was the only answer he could give. He had to be perfect. Anything else would get him killed. The desert didn't forgive, the streets didn't forgive, and the thieves' guilds certainly didn't forgive.
"I understand you intend to be great," Basadoni said. "I suspect you intend to be greater than I. But you cannot be perfect. Humans are only mortal beings, after all. Fallible in every way."
That was not an answer Entreri could accept.
Basadoni sighed, resting his hands on his shoulders and squeezing them. "You are more complex in nature than I first believed. Certainly I understand your goals: power, perfection, independence, respect. These desires drive you. Truly, you are a warrior at heart. But you must balance your drives with realism. There is much to be gained from striving to grow, to achieve, to surpass yourself. There is little to be gained from self-flagellation or self-denial. Hedonism is the pursuit of human carnal desires or pleasure, but masochism can include self-denial, self-abuse, and self-punishment. Either in excess rots the mind and the soul."
Gazing at the older man, Entreri wondered what his life would have been like had someone such as Basadoni been his father instead. "Surely wisdom is to push oneself hard and to a not accept mediocrity."
"Surely wisdom is to know when to rest and when to be at peace with one's current level of achievement even when striving to always grow better," Basadoni replied.
Entreri found he didn't really care what Basadoni said or more generally what they discussed. What mattered to him in this moment was that Basadoni was singling him out. Basadoni talked to him about more than business. Basadoni thought he was special. Basadoni showed personal interest in Artemis' education and growth.
Basadoni even rested his hands on Artemis' shoulders.
It is dangerous, this feeling, Entreri thought. If I pursue such a feeling, it will make me weak. But he didn't pull away. He found he couldn't.
"Do you accept my words?" Basadoni asked quietly.
The pleasure of Basadoni's attention brought with it no small amount of pain. Entreri had to work to keep his face expressionless. A man who is otherwise no one to me treats me better than my own father did. The inherent wrongness of the world enraged him. There was no justice to be had anywhere, for it did not exist. Entreri knew that was wrong, but it wasn't anything that could be made right. "I will rest tonight," he said evenly.
Basadoni chuckled. "Good boy." He squeezed Entreri's shoulders and let go. "In that case, you may join me for dinner."
That was not an offer that could be refused, nor did Entreri have any desire to refuse it. Eating at Basadoni's right side was a clear sign of his power, his importance, his status as favorite.
And, Entreri admitted to himself, most of all it was a sign that he was special in Basadoni's eyes. And that, he realized, was something he coveted.
"As you wish," Entreri said simply.
Basadoni smiled and headed out of his office, Entreri trailing him and Basadoni's bodyguards trailing Entreri.
Entreri wondered what their mutual interest in each other would portend for the future, but he had no guesses to make. He couldn't imagine a world in which two men of equal power were friends who respected one another. The concept seemed ludicrous.
But something was there between them. Something unspoken. And even if Entreri should be forced to kill Basadoni, he would not forget this unspoken feeling. Like power, perfection, independence, and respect, the things Entreri genuinely valued were abstract. Some were nameless. All of them burned inside his soul.
He would never rest until he had them. Not because there was power in the possession, although certainly that was an incentive, but rather because it was all life had to offer. And he would squeeze from life what he could. Since it could not be happiness, safety, or joy, it would be power and respect.
Those things, plus wealth, were the lynchpins of the world, after all. And in the equation of predator versus prey and the survival of the fittest, Entreri meant to be the predator. To be the fittest. To live.
He was a survivor.