Ponderings in the Night
By Ariel-D and Surreptitious Chi X
Description: Jarlaxle pulls Entreri into a philosophical debate, only to find himself in an awkward and rare position: the act of apologizing.
Disclaimer: Artemis Entreri and Jarlaxle belong to Wizards of the Coast and R.A. Salvatore. No profit is being made.
Author's Note: I have basically avoided FR since RAS published RotP, which frankly broke my heart. It is with great surprise that I find myself returning here. I have steadfastly avoided everything RAS has written since RotP, and I only have the vaguest idea of the further torture visited upon Entreri's character.
This story is vaguely set after SotS. It's darker than I had intended, probably due to RotP, but hopefully I can muster something less crabby in the future. (smiles)
Jarlaxle sipped his sherry and looked into it thoughtfully. As ever, the play of light on liquid and glass fascinated him. One could not, of course, see such sights in the Underdark. Rays of light would forever be miraculous to him.
To others, he had noticed, his fascination came off as a sign of boredom or distraction. He wondered what Artemis would make of his habits; Artemis Entreri was the one person in the world who could be said to know him. But he wouldn't ask, nor could he. Artemis would inevitably make some flippant reply or avoid the question altogether.
His partner sat across from him at the table. They were in a sleepy tavern, late at night, in the heart of a peaceful village somewhere between Calimport and Neverwinter. Not knowing precisely where they were or how they got there was part of the fun. Being able to wander in such vastness of nature entertained him. Not being beholden to anyone, nor forced to keep any appointments, was a luxury Jarlaxle had not yet gotten his fill of.
At any rate, there were evergreen trees and trees that shed their leaves, rolling hills and farmland and distant mountains. And, of course, villages, though few and far between. Jarlaxle understood they had actually crossed several small countries to come to this one, but they were deep in the heart of little-explored and little-cared about lands.
They were the only two travelers to come through in several months. Case in point, they were the only two people left in the tavern. Even the bartender had tossed down his keys and grumbled a good night half an hour ago.
The man was brave or trusting or didn't care that much about anything. Jarlaxle was split between the two former, and Artemis had sided with the latter. Artemis would.
Jarlaxle glanced up at his jaded companion and smiled. "This is peaceful, isn't it?"
"Quite," Entreri said dryly. "All the people are gone." He was nursing an ale of Halfling origin. He'd discovered over time that Halfings made the best ale, and not being much of a drinker in the first place, he was intolerant of foul-tasting alcohol.
Jarlaxle grinned. "A state you wish would continue for all the hours of the day?"
Entreri smirked. "But of course. Not all of us seek social experiences as Jarlaxle does."
"Not many people do," Jarlaxle murmured, sipping his sherry with a frown. He couldn't help it; his thoughts slid to home. Former home, he reminded himself. Now my home is here. The great outdoors. The vastness of all space. "Particularly if they are drow." He glanced at Artemis. "Drow are not social creatures; they merely mimic. Does that surprise you?"
Entreri pondered this a moment. "No. That is depending on how one defines 'social.' If by 'social' you mean self-serving networking, then I would say it is surprising, for certainly drow weave complex webs. But if by 'social' you mean seeking enjoyment from the presence of others - " Something he surely could not comprehend. " - then no. There can be no joy in holding company with those who secretly plot to overthrow you and kill you." And certainly that was not merely a characteristic of the drow.
Of course, none of that addressed the inherent idiocy and lowness of most sentient creatures.
Jarlaxle tilted his head, examining Artemis for a moment. He weighed both definitions. "In a way, I would say most drow are neither self-servingly social, nor joyously social. That is to say, the ideal of the drow is to be perceiving the world as a series of opportunities or traps and moving others around them in order to navigate through the opportunities or traps safely. Like a real life version of your game chess. Move this person here, move that person there, and the way is clear. Or, conversely, someone else's way is blocked." He ran a finger around the rim of his sherry glass. His rings glinted in the light of the lamp overhead.
He wondered what Artemis' reaction would be to his crowning statement. "Though, in fact, most drow have little taste for these games. Those in charge - the females, generally - foist this game upon everyone below them as a means of entertainment. It's only a select few that can run with the big spiders and shape the game others play." The corner of his mouth lifted. "That is where the real enjoyment is, albeit the self-serving kind."
His half-smile faded. "Admittedly, on rare occasions, I found myself in a position of enjoyment. But altogether . . . I think I was more the pawn than the chess player."
"You? The great Jarlaxle?" Entreri's voice was tinged with feigned surprise. "Surely not." The words were serious even if the tone wasn't. "Have you not built your own house of males? Entered the game on equal footing?" He paused. "Logically I would assume such a thing took time - more time than I have been alive. But the Jarlaxle I know is very rarely the pawn, I think."
Jarlaxle snorted, but he appreciated Artemis' respect. Still, he waved it away. "No, it is true. I was not fishing for compliments. I was, by and large, the most powerful pawn in Menzoberranzan. I hired myself out as such, but that is not the same as power. In being by turns arrogant and self-effacing, I could keep my footing in an ever-changing world of chaos, but I could never dictate the rules. Not even the terms. The terms were pre-selected from a list of indignities females would allow to be placed upon themselves if the price was right."
He shook his head gently. "At one point, even until very recently, I would say I agreed with you: I had achieved equality." He took a sip of sherry. "But there is a huge difference between equality and the illusion of equality. An insurmountable difference. A chasm." He finished his glass of sherry off. "As soon as I stepped out of line, I would be in no better position than any of the males in Menzoberranzan, for I was no different than any other male in Menzoberranzan. It is better to be away permanently. To walk in a world where men are allowed to wield real power. Genuine articles rather than toys."
"Certainly the surface culture is the exact opposite of Menzoberranzan," Entreri said, "if you can get past the racism, which you seem to be handling well for the most part." A fact, not a compliment. "But are your terms not conflated? You speak of equality as power, but if true equality existed, then everyone would have the same amount is power. Such is impossible for creatures such as ourselves. Inequality is not just a human condition; it is a world condition. And what you are truly after is power, no?
Jarlaxle furrowed his brow and ran a finger across his lower lip. Artemis regularly raised new language barriers for him to work through. "By equality, I suppose I mean being able to distill one's talents into an appropriate amount of power. The drow definition of equality is perhaps different, if the human idea of equality is for everyone to have the same amount of power. I should think that would cause more chaos than Lloth's birthday party."
He sighed and got up, crossing the room to avail himself of more sherry. He was keeping tabs in his head about how much he owed; he never liked to cheat unnecessarily. Once another glass of sherry melodically poured into his cup, he placed the glass stopper back in the decanter and sauntered over to their table, plopping down and propping his feet up.
Entreri took a sip of his ale. "I think what most humans mean by achieving 'equality' is actually achieving dominance. They wish to have the upper hand instead. It would, of course, translate that way, for always there is a bottom and a top, a majority and a minority. That's the rule of the jungle - or desert." He rolled Jarlaxle's words around in his head. "An appropriate amount of power is certainly a subjective thing. The criteria for that exist inside of you, Jarlaxle, and not actually in the hands of the drow females. Whatever you believe, then, becomes your truth. If you believe you will be more powerful here, then you will be because you will make it so." Again, fact and not compliment.
He tried hard not to think about the fact he never used to have conversations like these prior to Jarlaxle's presence - or interference - in his life.
Jarlaxle smiled appreciatively. "Subjective truth. Just so." He took a sip of his new glass of sherry. "One's beliefs become one's bedrock."
He considered what that meant for himself and chuckled. "Regrettably, it seems my bedrock involves not being equal to a drow female. As long as I choose a place to live where there are no drow females, I can function unimpeded."
Entreri merely nodded. "Then you have come to the correct place, it would seem." And that, he supposed, was a simple as that, although he wondered why Jarlaxle was comfortable admitting such things to him. Logically, however, he had no one to tell, and as for his own personal opinion . . . Well, certainly he could understand why anyone would wish to be free of drow females. They were excessively cruel and insane, both predictable in their ire and unpredictable in how they expressed their ire. He would die before returning to such a place as Menzoberranzan.
"I know that I have," Jarlaxle said matter-of-factly, raising his glass in an impulsive toast. "I know that because you are here." Then he took a sip of his sherry and smiled. "It was a clue to me that in Menzoberranzan, you seemed to sicken immediately. I judged you and I to be alike, and if the environment was toxic to you, then it must be so to me."
A strange half-smile bent up the corner of Entreri's lips. "But was that a matter of power? Or was that a matter of freedom?"
And it was not lost on him that the author of his loss of freedom was Jarlaxle. Granted, Jarlaxle had helped open a door for his escape - but not before making Entreri learn the lesson he wanted him to learn. And that, certainly, was a power dynamic to keep one's eye on.
"Power is freedom, is it not?" Jarlaxle asked. He wasn't asking a trick question; he was confused about the possible difference in Artemis' mind. Of course, if Artemis started teasing him, he'd tease right back.
"Freedom is bought with power," Entreri replied, then took another small sip of ale. "But one can be greatly powerful without being free. Surely the Matron Mothers are a good example of this. As much power as they wield to torture, twist, or kill those around them, they are but mere puppets for Lloth. To be free, they would have to eschew Lloth." If such a thing were even possible.
Jarlaxle raised his eyebrows. Artemis' words sent new ideas tumbling down the slope of his mind, jumbling together and creating the most fascinating possibilities. "What delightful blasphemy." He sipped his sherry. "Yes . . . I suppose to eschew Lloth would be to actually be freeing for them, wouldn't it? They have all the power they need. They merely tithe it to Lloth. Unnecessarily, if one is interested in being free. Which they aren't, I suppose."
He reluctantly dragged himself back on topic. "I had enough power, then, to buy my freedom. At the cost of leaving my precious mercenary band behind. But it was worth it. What is life without freedom?"
The problem with being a genius was moments like these: Jarlaxle was naggingly aware he owed Artemis an apology. As wonderfully strange as the custom was, he didn't always like apologies.
Did you leave behind your mercenary band? Entreri smirked. I seriously doubt it. They're just being farmed out to Kimmuriel at the moment. "Pointless. But it's all in what freedom means to a person." That being a whole separate topic, really. However, Entreri wasn't surprised to hear Jarlaxle claim to be after freedom. Jarlaxle already had everything else: fame, riches, power, soldiers, hedonistic pleasures, and a position of leadership. What else was there to have? Certainly only something abstract, and that thing could not be something like friendship or love. Drow knew nothing of either. Neither did Entreri. Freedom, then, made the most sense.
Jarlaxle fidgeted. "Freedom, whatever it means to you in your personal pantheon of necessary things, is vital to your being. I played with it carelessly, a child in my understanding of you. Of all human people, I suppose." He looked away and stroked the brim of his hat. The most uncomfortable part of apologies was pointing out a wrong. Perhaps, after all, one's companions hadn't noticed. What good would calling attention to a mistake do?
But surely, he reasoned, Artemis had noticed this one.
Entreri stared at Jarlaxle expressionlessly. An apology? From Jarlaxle? "Did I not learn what you would have me learn? That I am not singular or special? That an entire culture of beings just like me exists below the surface? That am I pursuing the wrong thing in life?" He raised on eyebrow. "But it is not the lesson that is the problem, or even really how you chose to go about giving the lesson, although certainly your means counts against you given it was toxic. No, the true problem is that you believed it was your business to teach me anything at all. You are not my father, Jarlaxle, nor do I ever want such a thing as a father." Given what he knew of fathers. "You'd best not forget that in the future. A good intention or a bad one makes no difference when the price is loss of free will."
See? This is what I get for apologizing. Jarlaxle grimaced. "Is it customary to scold the apologizer? Or is this some torture you've invented to make this custom harder?"
What he really wanted was to ask questions about fathers, but he knew that would only cause Artemis to stop talking to him.
"I merely pointed out you apologized for the wrong thing," Entreri said dryly. "Whether you understood me or not is a separate issue from whether you had the right to do anything at all. But I am here, and you are here. Given my admittedly deep capacity for loathing, you should consider yourself as close to forgiven as I will ever come." To even say that much was egregiously gracious in his eyes. "But we are here to be equal partners now, in theory. Is that not so, Jarlaxle?"
Jarlaxle grinned widely. "Equal partners. I suspect you shall have to outline your boundaries repeatedly, for it seems I am apt to wander back and forth across the borders of what is acceptable behavior. As for this business of fathers and lessons, I am afraid you are mistaken. But that is alright; I will apologize for having seemed to behave in a way repugnant to you. I cannot have been trying to be your father, because I don't know what a father is. I never had one; only a wean mother, sisters, brothers, and matron mother. And of course, later, lovers, in the loosest sense of the word."
He folded his hands and rested his elbows on the table. "My intended apology was for having such a ham-fisted idea of how to build a friendship."
Entreri was irritated with the correction, given he could have just as easily have compared Jarlaxle's behavior to that of a god. The added graciousness of apologizing anyway struck him as a move of superiority, which was also irritating. But he had the sensation that pressing the point would not result in any victory, if anyone could be said to win a victory against Jarlaxle. As for Jarlaxle's initial statement, Entreri was wary at best, and Jarlaxle's final statement felt like someone ringing a dented bell in his skull. "Certainly mercenaries such as ourselves have no friends," he drawled, "much less any idea of what one is. I think I can say, however, that it is true that friendship does not include being lessoned."
Given his life, Entreri couldn't easily trust an offer of friendship. Only time could tell if such a myth held any reality in it.
"No . . . " Jarlaxle looked down at the table. A sense of awkwardness made it difficult to focus. He glanced up at Artemis. "That is . . . " Regret and irritation made his chest tight. "I took you to Menzoberranzan because I noticed that it was easier to communicate when two people had the same foundation of understanding. Rather than attempt to explain my background and fail, I chose to . . . immerse you. Without thinking through the consequences. I wanted to show you - It was a gamble, but not the type I thought." Why did he always wish to befriend the most difficult, the most surly, the most infuriating beings he could find?
Watching Jarlaxle try to stumble his way through an explanation or an apology was a truly bizarre and awkward sight. Entreri couldn't understand why Jarlaxle was debasing himself this way. He stared down into his ale as he took a sip. "It is in the past and therefore no longer concerns me. That is, since I believe we have an understanding that it will not also be in my future, it no longer concerns me. The past should stay in the past, where it is meant to be." A complex claim to make, he supposed, given his long-held obsession with defeating Drizzt. But that was not about past events he refused to bury. That was about defeating an ideal. That the ideal had become manifest in a single person was just the luck of the draw.
Entreri felt he always faced forward.
Jarlaxle nodded and took a sip of sherry. "Of course." He should count himself lucky Artemis was of that opinion. What had he sought to do by opening this subject up, anyway? They had been conversing as usual until he had trespassed upon this old grievance. Perhaps this is a boundary: Do not talk of the past.
He glanced out the dirty window of the tavern at the empty street, darkness thick without his infravision activated. "It is a peaceful night, isn't it?"
Entreri noted the return to the original small talk and internally relaxed. "But of course. There are no people in it." His lips quirked at the corners.
Jarlaxle chuckled. "You would wish the world empty of people in an instant, wouldn't you? I should be careful never to let you amass that much power. If I did, I would disappear." He snapped his fingers in demonstration and sipped his sherry.
"If I did that to you, then I would have no one to spar against," Entreri replied, deadpan. "There is a difference between peace and boredom."
He supposed he should take all the progress he could get.