Chapter 21

Getting Hired


Jarlaxle watched their targets from the rooftop. Artemis was crouched nearer to the edge than he, also watching.

After night had fallen, they discretely left the inn and made good time across the city to the palace Diya al Din had pointed out. Sadavir Vakadi's property actually stretched much further. They were half a block from the palace, just beyond the gates. The road leading up to Vakadi's front gate was lined with tall, decorative monuments, and there was a thin building of some kind. Jarlaxle suspected it housed equipment.

From the vantage point of this building, they watched the movements of the guards. Four of them lined the road near the gate, and two more were positioned directly in front of the gate. As far as they could see, guards studded the outer walls of the palace grounds every twenty feet. Inside, in the palatial gardens, were many more.

It was an excess of opportunities for mayhem. Jarlaxle had to control himself.

They had successfully stolen onto the roof of the glorified equipment shed, which gave them an excellent view. Even this humble building was decorated with statues, and that gave them ample cover. Apparently a drow and an assassin of Artemis Entreri's caliber could get this close unnoticed.

"Shall we select two and be rid of them?" Entreri murmured.

Jarlaxle grinned. "That would be the prudent course." He crept closer to Artemis' position. "I am tempted to throw a smoke bomb or two over the walls just to create added confusion, but of course, we should probably make this quick."

Entreri nodded. "A diversion wouldn't hurt."

Jarlaxle watched the movements of the guards and waited until the four patrolling the road were furthest away from the gate. "I say we attack the two men guarding the gate. We should make this look like an earnest attempt to gain entry."

"Sounds like a solid plan." Entreri fingered the hilt of his loaner dagger.

Jarlaxle drew two dark spheres from his belt and threw them over the palace wall. They sailed right over the head of a guard and exploded on the pathway in a voluminous cloud of smoke.

"Intruder!" the guard inside the gate yelled.

The two guards on the outside of the gate whirled and drew their weapons.

"I don't see 'em!" someone else yelled from inside.

Jarlaxle couldn't resist. He murmured a command word and made a mirror image of himself. The illusion leapt out of hiding and scaled the wall in an instant with levitation, then jumped over. The guards on the outside didn't even see the image pass.

The guards on the inside saw it, however. "There he is!"

While Jarlaxle created a diversion, Entreri climbed down and worked his way toward one of the gate guards. Although he wanted to use the dagger, he opted for the sword. He didn't want anyone to notice that he had a poisonous weapon after one of the guards died of poisoning.

"Get him!" a third voice screamed from inside, further away.

Jarlaxle held in his laughter. His illusion was leading them on a merry chase, dashing through the grounds without actually attacking. The guards inside, unlike those outside, were loaded down with armor and could barely jog after the spry illusion.

"That's it, we're coming," one man at the gate told the other. He turned his back on Entreri to open the gate.

Entreri immediately sprang forward, running the guard through. All he managed was a single gasp. The other man whirled on Entreri, branishing his sword, but he was no match for the assassin. The guard was dead in three moves.

Entreri flung the blood off his blade and scaled the wall again, rejoining Jarlaxle.

Jarlaxle chuckled. He allowed himself that.

The men at the end of the road ran back to the gate and unnecessarily checked to see whether Entreri's victims were dead. They were very dead. "Men down!" one of them shouted. They divvied up responsibilities, the man speaking ordering two men to stay at the gate and for someone to go get a person called Theros.

Jarlaxle glanced at Artemis. "Time to go?"

Entreri nodded. He kept to the shadows, working his way roof by roof back into the city proper.

And just like that, Vakadi had an opening.

When they were on the same street as their inn, nonchalantly walking back as though nothing had happened, Jarlaxle let out a cackle of laughter.

"Much amused, are we?" Entreri murmured.

Jarlaxle laughed again and sighed. "The man employs amateurs who think shadows are real people and opening the gate is a good idea. I almost pity him." He grinned at Artemis mischievously. "Almost."

Entreri returned that grin.

xXx

The next day, after getting a breakfast elsewhere in the city, Jarlaxle and Artemis not-so-casually scanned the job kiosk in the marketplace. They found what they wanted. Even Jarlaxle could read it. It was a large announcement in many languages, written on parchment. Lord Vakadi was advertising tryouts for guard positions.

Jarlaxle, playing the part of Nafein, restricted himself to a small smile. "Finally, a break."

"I suggest we go make ourselves useful," Entreri said.

Jarlaxle rubbed his hands together. "According to the notice, the Vakadi palace is that direction." He pointed, and sighted the palace. "That silver dome."

He allowed Artemis to lead the way. Inwardly, there was a bounce in his step. Tryouts. How interesting. Whatever the test is, I have no doubt we'll pass.

Tryouts? Entreri thought to himself. Did that mean he got to beat a bunch of half-ass fighters into the ground in order to illustrate his superiority?

This might actually be a good day.

When they reached the road leading up to the front gate of Vakadi's palace, they found the whole path backed up with men just like them. There had to be about a hundred people in line. Jarlaxle spotted a large number of Calishites, but he also saw some Northerners, distinguished by their pale skin. He also noticed at least a dozen women. Most of them were warrior princess types, a blend of curves and muscle wearing slightly questionable armor in order to make use of their charms in battle.

"It seems we should have been up before dawn if we wanted to avoid being in line," Jarlaxle commented.

Entreri had perfected a form of stoicism by which he could make himself numb to boredom on most occasions. He was prepared to use it. "He must pay incredibly well." As long as he didn't end up in the position of having to fight Jarlaxle, it would go fine.

Jarlaxle grinned. "Just what I like to hear."

At that moment someone came limping out of the gate, clutching a bandaged arm. The long line automatically moved to one side to let him pass. He was bigger and broader than Artemis, with short black hair, and he wore thick leather armor.

A man with a baritone voice yelled, "Next!"

The line subtly inched forward.

Entreri wasn't even remotely affected. "Looks like we'll be putting on a show in there."

Jarlaxle nodded and smirked. "I have no doubt we'll perform to our audience's satisfaction."

The injured man taking the walk of shame was stopped several times by people asking questions. Jarlaxle overheard his answers as he made his way towards the end of the line. "Six. He says none are filled yet. Yes. Two guys died, and four got fired. Good luck."

Jarlaxle raised his eyebrows at Artemis. "That increases our chances."

"I like the sound of this," Entreri said. He was prepared to outshine everyone else, but he'd take the increased odds.

The person standing directly in front of Artemis and Jarlaxle stopped the man as well. "What's he look like?" Their fellow applicant had a deep voice and a bushy black beard.

The injured man shook his head. "There's more than one of them. Whatever weapon you use, they'll match it. Someone for everyone."

Then he limped away, rubbing his arm.

Jarlaxle resisted the urge to beam. "At least we'll be evaluated on our own merits," he drawled.

Entreri allowed himself a smile. "Perhaps I shall experience this thing called 'fun.'"

"One can hope," Jarlaxle said.

The line moved up rather quickly. The people manning the gate allowed in six people at a time, and usually within fifteen minutes, six people left again.

"Not as bas as I first assumed," Entreri noted as yet another six exited. He was glad he'd had the foresight to exchange his weapons. Someone would surely recognize them among this crowd.

They were up to the halfway point in relation to the original length of the line. The warrior princess types went in together. Apparently they were a team. They came out in less than two minutes. "No women," one with red hair said indignantly to the rest of the women waiting in line.

"Figures," another said loudly.

The women left in a loose cluster, giving the men in line dirty looks.

Jarlaxle was relieved, although he could sympathize with the discrimination and how much it must sting.

"Charming," Entreri sneered. Perhaps especially after the racism he suffered in Menzoberranzan, he could discrimination irritating, even when not aimed at him.

"Maybe he's afraid his other guards would be distracted instead of the enemy," Jarlaxle said dryly.

Entreri rolled his eyes. "If they're that unprofessional, he shouldn't have hired them to begin with." He had never understood men who thought with the wrong head.

Jarlaxle shrugged. "We don't know the reason he turned female applicants away."

The line shortened up to half again. Jarlaxle and Artemis were only twenty feet away from the gates.

The six men who came out next were surly. "Damn near tore my arm off," one said, rotating his shoulder. They were all bigger and taller than Jarlaxle and Artemis, and all of them had varying degrees of beard.

In spite of the fact that they look impressive, they all failed, Jarlaxle thought. That means it's not about looks. Only talent.

Entreri wondered what he would find, exactly. "I wonder how they're managing to do this. Do you think magic could be involved?"

Jarlaxle frowned at the suggestion. "Maybe they have enough people standing by so that each person has an opponent to fight, and perhaps the matches are timed."

"The time intervals are regular," Entreri agreed. He was suspicious, though. Then again, he was innately supicious.

When the last fifteen people were between them and the gates, they were close enough to hear the sounds of battle. "They can't be too far inside," Jarlaxle said.

"They're not," one of the guards at the gate agreed. "Just inside, by the fountain. When it's your turn, you'll go with the others to Captain Theros. He'll assign a sparring partner from our pool of guards. It's based on which weapon you have, don't worry. You'll have five minutes to impress the Captain or you're out."

Entreri wondered how impressed this Theros would be if he flat-out killed his sparring partner. Certainly that would not be a good start to his attempted "career" here, but he also wasn't going to hold back.

"Do we fight Captain Theros?" Jarlaxle asked after a moment's thought.

"You might," the guard said. "If you impress him."

Jarlaxle couldn't decide if the guard was implying that was a good thing or a bad thing.

Entreri suspected that, in the guard's eyes, it was likely both. "So Theros is the tough shit around here, I take it."

The guard nodded. "He's the captain. Of everyone. Except Lord Vakadi."

Jarlaxle raised his eyebrows.

"Yeah," the guard said, as if Jarlaxle had spoken.

Entreri failed to be duly impressed, but logically, he supposed that it would take someone of decent talent and ability to rise to the captain of guards for a man like Vakadi.

Entreri immediately found himself with the brief fantasy of defeating Theros in front of everyone.

The next six people came out and left without a word. Four of them were injured in some way.

"Next!" a man called from inside the gate.

The guards at the gate let six more people in. That whittled it down to Jarlaxle, Artemis, and five other people.

The guard they'd been talking to counted heads and frowned. "Not sure what we do about this."

"We're partners," Jarlaxle said, indicating Artemis. "I'm not going in without Qasim. Take in the other five and leave us until last."

"Maybe," the guard said. He called out, "Last two guys want to try out on their own. Five people ahead of 'em. Tell the captain."

In a few minutes they got an answer from the other side of the gate. "He says go ahead. The last two can wait until after everyone else."

"Afraid of being embarrassed?" the black-bearded man directly in front of them asked.

"I gather everyone's been embarrassed," Jarlaxle said. "I already said it, and I'll say it again: I'm not trying out without Qasim."

"You can't fight together," the guard said.

"I'm aware of that." Jarlaxle stared him down.

He looked away and shrugged. "Whatever."

Entreri had no worries about Jarlaxle's ability to impress people. And, in spite of his pride, he ignored the taunt. He was either going to make an impression, or Theros was going to wind up mysteriously dead later. Entreri always got the job he went after, and no one was going to stand in his way. Period.

The six people who'd entered left. The last five people were admitted. That left Jarlaxle and Artemis flanked on either side by the gate guards.

Jarlaxle asked the talkative one, "Did you have to try out like this to get hired?"

"Not like this," the guard said.

Jarlaxle raised an eyebrow.

"Captain Theros wasn't in charge of the tryouts."

"Is that why everyone who enters leaves?" Jarlaxle asked.

The guard made a noise halfway between a snort and a sigh. "With Theros, this could take all week. He's not going to compromise his standards."

"So the people who were fired weren't hired by Theros?" Jarlaxle asked.

"You kidding?" The guard gave him a look.

That answered that. Jarlaxle concluded Theros was being given leeway to do things his own way because Vakadi's way had failed.

Entreri was experiencing that strange inner itch he always got before he knew he was going to fight someone talented. Granted, he was assuming the guard he'd face had real talent, but that assumption was based on watching nearly 100 people be rejected. And he suspected it had less to do with the guard's talent and more to do with displaying his own talent.

He rubbed his fingers against his palms a few times, then rested his hands on his weapons' hilts.

Jarlaxle grinned. "The noises of battle have ceased."

"So they have," the guard said. He didn't sound surprised.

They only had to wait a few minutes for the five applicants that had gone in to reappear. The black-bearded one declared, "If I can't make it, you can't make it!" He stormed off ahead of the rest of the others.

Jarlaxle snorted. "Why do I smell a sore loser?"

Entreri just shrugged. He could understand why the man would be angry, but his taunt was ridiculous. "Obviously," he muttered.

Of course, if Entreri didn't get what he was after, 'sore loser' wouldn't even cover his reaction.

"Next! You last two!" the baritone on the other side of the gate called.

The guard they'd been talking to and his partner opened the gate, revealing a broad pathway over a hundred feet long that led up to the main building of the palace. The palace was supported by pillars as big around as ancient trees. It towered overhead. There was a water garden to the left.

The man inside was small, like all the residents of Sheirtalar seemed to be. He wore red and silver. "This way." He pointed.

The direction was unnecessary. A large stone fountain with many sculpted fish around it was visible from where Jarlaxle and Artemis stood. By it, a man in silver armor and a blue cape, and several others dressed in red and silver, bearing different weapons.

Jarlaxle followed the side path through the water garden, passing a pond full of lilies. He kept pace with Artemis.

The gate swung shut behind them.

Entreri scanned his surroundings instantly, taking it all in. Then his gaze focused on the man in silver armor and the blue cape. Must be Theros. He sized up the other guards. Nothing about them jumped out at him.

When they were several feet away, the man in the silver armor and blue cape gestured sharply. The other men all snapped to attention.

He strode forward to meet Jarlaxle and Artemis. "Welcome. I am Theros. If you impress me, you will get to call me Captain. Otherwise, you will leave the same way you came." He was an inch taller than Artemis, and looked markedly different than the people around him. His hair was sandy brown, and his skin was a shade lighter, more golden than olive.

"Nafein," Jarlaxle murmured.

He took in his possible sparring partners with a steady gaze. Their red and silver garb covered their torsos and left their arms bare. Like a tunic, it went down to their knees. They wore greaves, and had armor strapped onto their arms. None of them wore helmets, and they all wore sandals. From left to right, the first man bore a short sword and a round shield, the second man bore a longsword and a dagger, the third man bore a long handled axe, the fourth man bore a spear, the fifth man bore a great sword, and the sixth man bore twin swords.

"Ali Qasim," Entreri said. He knew immediately who he'd be paired with. He had to remind himself that killing the man was not likely to make a good first impression.

Theros nodded. "You will have five minutes to impress me. Each of you will be paired with the opponent who bears the same weapon." He gestured.

The second man and the last man took a step forward.

Theros glanced at them and back to Artemis and Jarlaxle. "No killing and no dismembering. Anything else is allowed." He smiled thinly. "I have healing potions on hand. At the beginning of the day I had ten. To this moment, I have ten. If you make one of my men bleed, you will impress me."

Prepare for blood and guts then, Jarlaxle wanted to say, knowing Artemis' mood. He could feel it coming off the assassin in waves.

Entreri smiled just as thinly. "Very well. We will."

Respect entered Theros' eyes. He nodded. "Sopicolos, your opponent is Qasim."

The man distanced himself from the others and nodded, indicating that Artemis should cross to him.

Theros glanced at the last man. "Meidos, your opponent is Nafein."

Jarlaxle willingly paired himself off with Meidos. The man was no taller than he was, but Meidos was more muscular.

"Begin!" Theros barked.

Entreri drew his blades with nearly blinding speed. He was on top of Sopicolos faster than the guard could comprehend; he barely got his weapons drawn in time to block. Entreri, of course, did not bother to rein himself in. He'd never been the type of swordsman to aim for lopping off limbs or heads; that was really the job of a broadsword, anyway. As for killing, Entreri left the man's life in his own hands. He decended upon him in a flurry of strikes, pressing his attack and leaving the guard to merely block as quickly as he could.

The guard did, sweating. Judging by his expression he knew he wouldn't get an opening in edgewise. His entire strategy was defensive. And he succeeded for the first two minutes, though he was soon breathing hard.

Jarlaxle barely had time to watch. He was engaged in a fierce battle with Meidos. Meidos was as quick as he was in spite of the added bulk. But, he noted that Meidos' style was straightforward, with no flourishes or deviations from bare bones techniques. Jarlaxle dropped a drow technique into the middle of the fight, becoming a whirling dervish of steel.

Meidos stumbled, unable to tell the feints from the attack, and ended up with numerous cuts on his arms.

Jarlaxle charged, pressing hard, and disarmed him. One sword flew one way, and one flew the other. Meidos was left flat on his back in the courtyard in three minutes.

Theros stepped in. "Hold."

"I am," Jarlaxle muttered, Zaknafein style. He slung the blood from his swords and sheathed them, then crossed his arms over his chest.

Entreri was less compassionate. He slashed the sides of Sopicolos' knees, sending him crashing to the ground, blood spewing. Entreri stopped a half-inch shy of the guard's throat, the tip of the cutting sword opening a thin slash there just from wind pressure. Entreri grinned down at the guard, the smile all teeth. He had enough energy welled up to take on the entire lot of them.

He pulled back and gave Theros a bored gaze.

Theros strode forward, not quite breaking into a run. The captain apparently knew Sopicolos would bleed out inside of five minutes. He pulled a healing potion out of his belt pouch, and then another. "Drink," he ordered curtly. He handed the potions over.

Sopicolos choked the potions down, shaking. Remarkably, he had made no noise throughout the entire painful ordeal.

Meidos eyed his fallen swords and glanced at Jarlaxle with obvious hatred.

"Enough," Theros told him.

Meidos got up, scowling, and retrieved his weapons. He sheathed them.

Jarlaxle retreated to Artemis' side with a smirk.

"You have both impressed me," Theros said.

"We're partners," Jarlaxle said. "I wouldn't partner with someone less than Qasim's caliber."

"Nor I with anyone less than his," Entreri added, and truthfully.

Jarlaxle felt a surge of satisfaction at that.

Theros studied Artemis for a moment before speaking. "You were not matched appropriately." Before Jarlaxle could object, the man added, "I want to test you myself, Qasim."

Jarlaxle grinned.

"You didn't show one tenth of your talent," Theros said. The look in his eyes made it almost an accusation.

"You said not to kill him," Entreri said simply. He couldn't help being a smart ass.

Theros laughed. "I did! I have no wish to replace more of my men than necessary." He drew his sword. It was a longsword.

Sopicolos rose unsteadily. Theros silently made the man surrender his dagger. Now the captain was armed as Entreri was. "I am ready," Theros declared. "Everyone else clear the playing field."

Jarlaxle, Meidos, and Sopicolos backed up to join the other guards standing around at a respectful distance.

Entreri smiled. He felt like he might actually enjoy this. He had, after all, spent the entire last ten years fighting drow. Drizzt and Jarlaxle the most, but there had been others along the way. He really wanted a good match against a fellow human now.

"First blood wins," Theros said. His lips twitched upwards. "Try not to render me incapable of using a healing potion."

Interesting request. "Your rules." Entreri raised his weapons, his muscles coiling for the attack.

Theros attacked with high energy, not making the same mistake as his men did by starting out slow. He knew how to use a dagger and a longsword in concert, testing and teasing for any openings. Artemis gave him none. He didn't seem disappointed.

Jarlaxle watched with raised eyebrows. So far, Theros was keeping up with Artemis flawlessly.

Once Entreri had Theros' measure, he abruptly switched tactics, shifting from his primary style to the mixed style he now fought with: one half-drow. He also felt himself coming into alignment with his new blades. The dagger's need to poison sang to him; the cutting power of the sword seemed to reasonate in his arm. As their swords clashed, he felt Theros' blade chip. Sparks flew. He pressed forward, at one with the fluidity of steel that was the dance of death.

Theros' eyes widened. He changed tactics as well, responding to the flow of Artemis' moves instead of staying static.

Jarlaxle was impressed with Theros' instincts. Staying static against Artemis meant being severely injured, if not killed. As he watched, Theros struggled to adapt to the drow-influenced fighting style. Several times Theros grasped the idea of what Artemis was doing, but when this happened, Artemis merely adjusted to close the gap. It was going to be a close fight.

Theros struck on an opening, but half a second too late. Artemis deflected his strike.

Entreri whittled away at Theros, steel ringing against steel. A particularly aggressive downward slash by the assassin cost Theros his sword; Entreri's enchanted blade hacked right through it. The momentum of the motion carried the strike through; Entreri connected with his armor, slicing through it as well. A long gash was opened on Theros' shoulder.

Fortunately, Entreri had never suffered any beserker tendencies. He hopped backwards, weapons still raised, and waited to see if Theros would abide by his own rules.

Theros grimaced when the gash opened up, his steel armor peeling like tin. He sheathed his sword and held up a hand. Then he sheathed his borrowed dagger with a wince and drew out a healing potion. He pulled the cork with his teeth. Evidently the gash on his shoulder limited how much he could comfortably move.

"It was a matter of when," he said. Then he drank. His shoulder was repaired, but of course, not the armor.

Theros let out a sigh and stowed the empty potion bottle. "When you changed styles I knew." He glanced over his shoulder at his men. "How long did I last?"

"Six minutes, sir," the one with the shield and short sword said.

Theros nodded. He looked back at Artemis. "Better than I expected."

Strangely, Entreri decided his first impression was positive. Theros didn't exactly impress him as a swordsman, but he wasn't shabby, either. Also, there was something in the man's command air or general demeanor. Too bad I'm here to make your life hell._ He slung the blood off his sword and sheathed both blades. "Do Nafein and I meet your approval?"

Theros chuckled and took a breath. He was still winded from the fight. "Yes." He glanced at Jarlaxle, and then focused on Artemis. "I consider myself skilled. You are more than skilled. You are a master."

Jarlaxle agreed. He didn't say anything, however.

Entreri merely bowed. No matter how much pride he had, he lacked conceit.

Theros bowed in return, more deeply.

His men looked shocked.

He shot them a look. Not precisely a glare, but it was an admonishment. "Tryouts are over for today. Go rest up for tomorrow."

They saluted and filed off.

Theros shook his head. "They act as if I'm part divine. I'm not proud of kicking their sorry asses."

Jarlaxle snorted. "What now, Captain Theros?"

"You and your partner," Theros drawled, "don't have to call me captain. If Lord Vakadi ever decides he can trust you, I will be calling you captain."

That last remark was directed more towards Artemis than him, but Jarlaxle didn't mind that. Artemis was the more impressive fighter.

Entreri decided he liked this day after all. "Let's discuss our duties, then, Dominus Theros." He didn't bother to use honorifics often, but in a land where social graces mattered so much, it was likely a good idea. In Lapaliiya, Dominus was the quivalent of Mister.

Theros nodded. "There are six positions available. I assume you and Nafein wish to be paired up together."

"Yes," Jarlaxle said. He approached and took his place by Artemis' side.

"All the posts open are night posts," Theros said. "I want you inside the palace walls. Last night four jokers lost their jobs chasing after some woman who tried to break into the palace. She was likely a Calishite assassin. Lord Vakadi's got that kind of trouble."

Jarlaxle was mystified. "A woman?"

Theros nodded. "A thin little thing in black face paint to blend into the night."

Jarlaxle realized suddenly they were talking about him and almost corrected them. The impulse passed.

Entreri had to swallow a snort. "Assassin trouble? Or woman trouble?"

Theros laughed. "Both. By all reports, his fiance ran away from him with another man. But I was referring to assassin trouble. He's trying to keep himself from being killed by one enemy or another." He smiled brightly. "That's why we all get paid so well."

"Fair enough," Entreri said. Strangely, he found that he hoped he could avoid fighting Theros again in the end. The man was just doing a job, after all. It was nothing personal.

"Will we meet Lord Vakadi?" Jarlaxle asked.

"Not likely," Theros said. "Lord Vakadi doesn't see anybody except me and the head servant of the household. He doesn't come out of his rooms for anything; all his business associates have to come here. After being frisked, of course." He shook his head.

Jarlaxle gathered the man thought that was no way to live.

"He expects a great deal of trouble," Entreri noted.

Theros chuckled darkly, but his eyes sparkled. "It's almost as if he expects one of us to kill him." He stretched. Apparently his shoulder was fully healed, because he let out a sigh of satisfaction. "Well, it won't be me." He started walking. The paved stone path winding through the garden led to a large, broad, one story building. "You'll live at the barracks, unless there's someplace in the city you'd rather be."

"I don't think sharing space with other people is a good idea," Jarlaxle said, using his best Zaknafein voice.

"You still need to know the inside of the barracks, because that is where you will be reporting when it's time for you to go on duty," Theros said.

Jarlaxle shrugged and followed.

Entreri was beginning to wonder if Jarlaxle were mimicking someone specific. "Which will be what time, by the way?"

Theros paused and turned to face him. "Sundown is at eight. Reporting to the barracks and signing in - something Vakadi's ordered, not me, he looks at the registers - takes about fifteen minutes. I'd prefer if you showed up at seven thirty every night, but as long as you're here by a quarter to and relieve the guards on time I don't care." Theros resumed walking. "Your shift lasts until three in the morning. Is that a problem?"

"Not for us," Jarlaxle said. He made it a matter-of-fact statement devoid of pride.

If anything, Entreri tended to go to bed no earlier than 4 AM. "Indeed."

Theros nodded. "Very well. At three o'clock you will be relieved by the next shift. You will report to the barracks, accept your pay, and sign out. You will be escorted out - Vakadi's orders again, not mine - and the gates shut behind you. You will not be admitted until around the time of your shift the next day."

"Seems like easy money," Jarlaxle said.

Theros snorted, smiling with amusement. "For you it will be."

Three times paid, all for one job ultimately. Entreri might never had lusted after material things, but he had to be amused, if nothing else. I'll say it's easy money. "No complaints here."

Theros gave them a tour of the barracks. It was one big room inside almost the length of the building. There were only two rooms divided from the main chamber at the end, close to the main entrance. One of them was the room where Theros slept: small, room enough for a bed and a chest. The other larger room was the office where they registered and collected their pay. The office had a safe that was magical; Theros could withdraw pay for others, but when someone else opened the safe, it was empty. Theros' understand was that it was connected with Vakadi's main safe in the palace, and Vakadi filled it with enough resources to pay his guards.

In the main room a third of the beds were filled with sleeping soldiers. The others were apparently on duty, sprinkled throughout the palace grounds at their posts.

Theros escorted them out, walking with them back towards the gate. "I asked for the small room. It's a foolish thing, but I can only sleep in small spaces; left over from when I was at sea. On a ship the bunks are all crammed together."

Normally Jarlaxle would have asked about Theros' experience as a seafarer. But he was pretending to be a taciturn drow warrior, so he couldn't.

"The habits surrounding sleep are hard to break," Entreri said, doing his best to be polite, given Jarlaxle and he had swapped roles. "How long did you live at sea?"

Theros glanced at him. "I grew up on a ship. I first sailed from port at Ormpur on my own for the first time when I was fifteen years old. Steady work until I was twenty-four. Then the navy had me. I resigned from there, and since then, I've been doing more lucrative work."

He pointed. "Your posts are there and there." He indicated the guards closest to the side of the palace, just off of the path to the main entrance.

Entreri nodded. They'd need to work their way inward, but they'd gotten in the door. That was the first step.

Theros stopped just shy of the gate. He bowed. "Until tonight, then. Khoya Qasim. Master Nafein. I bid you good day."

Jarlaxle was surprised by the honorifics attached to their names. He saluted with a dubious expression, the most polite thing Zaknafein had ever done for another male. Khoya Qasim? Khoya was a Calishite honorific used for people in one's workplace that had seniority or superior skill. Artemis had explained once that its literal meaning was 'brother'.

"Good day, Dominus Theros." Entreri bowed and took his leave, assuming Jarlaxle would follow. He was surprised by the honorific, although he didn't show it. He also managed to be complimented.

Jarlaxle sauntered after Entreri, and the gate closed behind them. Once they were well on their way down the road, out of Vakadi's territory, Jarlaxle murmured, "Well, that was interesting."

"Oh?" Entreri drawled.

Jarlaxle grinned. "You do not think so? I was referring to your match against the captain, of course. I should like to see you spar with Dominus Theros. He might be out of practice from being around such inferior people. I witnessed how you reacted to him. Sparring might be beneficial for the both of you."

Entreri raised an eyebrow. "We can't let him get too used to fighting me. I may have to fight him for real at some point."

Jarlaxle stroked his chin. "True." Then he laughed. "So don't use your full power with him. It would be interesting to see whether he notices you're holding back."

"I think he would. He figured it out right away when I fought the guard." Entreri's lips quirked.

"As I say, interesting." Jarlaxle shrugged. "But, you are right. Why take chances? Only..." He paused, smile dropping. "Don't kill him. I think if he knew Vakadi were going to be assassinated for certain, he would abandon the losing side. He is a mercenary."

Entreri nodded. "Yes. He struck me as pratical." And he liked practical people. As long as they weren't in his way, of course.

Jarlaxle nodded and took a deep breath. "Exactly. I have no desire to lessen the number of practical people in the world."

At that, Entreri had to snort. "Certainly the world needs as many of those as possible."

Jarlaxle grinned again. "If the population of all the world was culled down to those who were practical, we might be able to live in a world where bloodshed is not the order of every day."

Blasphemous words for a drow.

Entreri felt the slight quirk return to his lips. "But then you'd be bored. Not by the lack of bloodshed, of course, but by the lack of flair."

Jarlaxle laughed.