"A conspiracy?" the drow's fingers flashed, using the silent hand code of the dark elves, its movements so intricate and varied that nearly every connotation of every word in the drow language could be represented. Jarlaxle replied with a slight shake of his head. He sighed and seemed sincerely perplexed-a sight not often seen-and motioned for his cohort to follow him to a more secure area.
They crossed the wide, winding avenues of Menzoberranzan, flat, clear areas between the towering stalagmite mounds that served as homes to the various drow families. Those mounds, and a fair number of long stalactites leering down from the huge cavern's ceiling, were hollowed out and sculpted with sweeping balconies and walkways. The clusters within each family compound were often joined by high bridges, most shaped to resemble spiderwebs. And on all the houses, especially those of the older and more established families, the most wondrous designs were highlighted by glowing faerie fire, purple and blue, sometimes outlined in red and, not so often, in green. Menzoberranzan was the most spectacular of cities, breathtaking, surreal, and an ignorant visitor (who would not be ignorant, or likely even alive, for long!) would never guess that the artisans of such beauty were among the most malicious of Toril's races.
Jarlaxle moved without a whisper down the darker, tighter avenues surrounding the lesser houses. His focus was ahead and to the sides, his keen eye (and his eye patch was over his right eye at the time) discerning the slightest of movements in the most distant shadows.
The mercenary leader's surprise was complete when he glanced back at his companion and found, not M'tarl, the lieutenant of Bregan D'aerthe he had set out with, but another, very powerful, drow.
Jarlaxle was rarely without a quick response, but the specter of Gromph Baenre, Matron Baenre's elderboy, the archmage of Menzoberranzan, standing so unexpectedly beside him, surely stole his wit.
"I trust that M'tarl will be returned to me when you are finished," Jarlaxle said, quickly regaining his seldom-lost composure.
Without a word, the archmage waved his arm, and a shimmering green globe appeared in the air, several feet from the floor. A thin silver cord hung down from it, its visible end barely brushing the stone floor.
Jarlaxle shrugged and took up the cord, and as soon as he touched it, he was drawn upward into the globe, into the extradimensional space beyond the shimmering portal.
The casting was impressive, Jarlaxle decided, for he found within not the usual empty space created by such an evocation, but a lushly furnished sitting room, complete with a zombielike servant that offered him a drink of fine wine before he ever sat down. Jarlaxle took a moment to allow his vision to shift into the normal spectrum of light, for the place was bathed in a soft blue glow. This was not unusual for wizards, even drow wizards accustomed to the lightless ways of the Underdark, for one could not read scrolls or spellbooks without light!
"He will be returned if he can survive where I put him long enough for us to complete our conversation," Gromph replied. The wizard seemed not too concerned, as he, too, came into the extradimensional pocket. The mighty Baenre closed his eyes and whispered a word, and his piwafwi cloak and other unremarkable attire transformed. Now he looked the part of his prestigious station. His flowing robe showed many pockets and was emblazoned with sigils and runes of power. As with the house structures, faerie fire highlighted these runes, though the archmage could darken the runes with a thought, and then his robe would be more concealing than the finest of piwafwis. Two brooches, one a black-legged, red-bodied spider, the other a shining green emerald, adorned the magnificent robe, though Jarlaxle could hardly see them, for the old wizard's long white hair hung down the side of his head and in front of his shoulders and chest.
With his interest in things magical, Jarlaxle had seen the brooches on the city's previous archmage, though Gromph had held the position longer than most of Menzoberranzan's drow had been alive. The spider brooch allowed the archmage to cast the lingering heat enchantment into Narbondel, the pillar clock of Menzoberranzan. The heat would rise to the tip of the clock over a twelve-hour period, then diminish back toward the base in a like amount of time, until the stone was again cool, a very obvious and effective clock for heat-sensing drow eyes.
The other brooch gave Gromph perpetual youth. By Jarlaxle's estimation, this one had seen the birth and death of seven centuries, yet so young did he appear that it seemed he might be ready to begin his training at the drow Academy!
Not so, Jarlaxle silently recanted in studying the wizard. There was an aura of power and dignity about Gromph, reflected clearly in his eyes, which showed the wisdom of long and often bitter experience. This one was cunning and devious, able to scrutinize any situation immediately, and in truth, Jarlaxle felt more uncomfortable and more vulnerable standing before Gromph than before Matron Baenre herself.
"A conspiracy?" Gromph asked again, this time aloud. "Have the other houses finally become fed up with my mother and banded together against House Baenre?"
"I have already given a full accounting to Matron-"
"I heard every word," Gromph interrupted, snarling impatiently. "Now I wish to know the truth."
"An interesting concept," Jarlaxle said, smiling wryly at the realization that Gromph was truly nervous. "Truth."
"A rare thing," Gromph agreed, regaining his composure and resting back in his chair, his slender fingers tapping together before him. "But a thing that sometimes keeps meddling fools alive."
Jarlaxle's smile vanished. He studied Gromph intently, surprised at so bold a threat. Gromph was powerful-by all measures of Menzoberranzan, the old wretch was as powerful as any male could become. But Jarlaxle did not operate by any of Menzoberranzan's measures, and for the wizard to take such a risk as to threaten Jarlaxle...
Jarlaxle was even more surprised when he realized that Gromph, mighty Gromph Baenre, was beyond nervous. He was truly scared.
"I will not even bother to remind you of the value of this 'meddling fool, '" Jarlaxle said.
"Do spare me."
Jarlaxle laughed in his face.
Gromph brought his hands to his hips, his outer robes opening in front with the movement and revealing a pair of wands set under his belt, one on each hip.
"No conspiracy," Jarlaxle said suddenly, firmly.
"The truth," Gromph remarked in dangerous, low tones.
"The truth," Jarlaxle replied as straightforwardly as he had ever spoken. "I have as much invested in House Baenre as do you, Archmage. If the lesser houses were banding against Baenre, or if Baenre's daughters plotted her demise, Bregan D'aerthe would stand beside her, at least to the point of giving her fair notice of the coming coup."
Gromph's expression became very serious. What Jarlaxle noted most was that the elderboy of House Baenre had taken no apparent notice of his obvious (and intentional) slip in referring to Matron Baenre as merely "Baenre." Errors such as that often cost drow, particularly male drow, their lives.
"What is it then?" Gromph asked, and the very tone of the question, almost an outright plea, caught Jarlaxle off his guard. Never before had he seen the archmage, or heard of the archmage, in so desperate a state.
"You sense it!" Gromph snapped. "There is something wrong about the very air we breathe!"
For centuries untold, Jarlaxle silently added, a notion he knew he would be wise to keep to himself. To Gromph he offered only, "The chapel was damaged."
The archmage nodded, his expression turning sour. The great domed chapel of House Baenre was the holiest place in the entire city, the ultimate shrine to Lloth. In perhaps the most terrible slap in the face the Spider Queen had ever experienced, the renegade Do'Urden and his friends had, upon their escape, dropped a stalactite from the cavern's roof that punctured the treasured dome like a gigantic spear."The Spider Queen is angered," Gromph remarked."I would be," Jarlaxle agreed.Gromph snapped an angry glare over the smug mercenary. Not for any insult he had given Lloth, Jarlaxle understood, but simply because of his flippant attitude.When that glare had no more effect than to bring a smile to Jarlaxle's lips, Gromph sprang from his chair and paced like a caged displacer beast. The zombie host, unthinking and purely programmed, rushed over, drinks in hand.Gromph growled and held his palm upraised, a ball of flame suddenly appearing atop it. With his other hand Gromph placed something small and red-it looked like a scale-into the flame and began an ominous chant.Jarlaxle watched patiently as Gromph played out his frustration, the mercenary preferring that the wizard aim that retort at the zombie and not at him.A lick of flame shot out from Gromph's hand. Lazily, determinedly, like a snake that had already immobilized its prey with poison, the flame wound about the zombie, which, of course, neither moved nor complained. In mere seconds, the zombie was engulfed by this serpent of fire. When Gromph casually sat again, the burning thing followed its predetermined course back to stand impassively. It made it back to its station, but soon crumbled, one of its legs consumed."The smell..." Jarlaxle began, putting a hand over his nose."Is of power!" Gromph finished, his red eyes narrowing, the nostrils of his thin nose flaring. The wizard took a deep breath and basked in the stench."It is not Lloth who fosters the wrongness of the air," Jarlaxle said suddenly, wanting to steal the obviously frustrated wizard's bluster and be done with Gromph and out of this reeking place."What do you know?" Gromph demanded, suddenly very anxious once more."No more than you," Jarlaxle replied. "Lloth is likely angry at Drizzt's escape, and at the damage to the chapel. You above all can appreciate the importance of that chapel." Jarlaxle's sly tone sent Gromph's nostrils flaring once more. The mercenary knew he had hit a sore spot, a weakness in the archmage's armored robes. Gromph had created the pinnacle of the Baenre chapel, a gigantic, shimmering illusion hovering over the central altar. It continually shifted form, going from a beautiful drow female to a huge spider and back again. It was no secret in Menzoberranzan that Gromph was not the most devout of Lloth's followers, no secret that the creation of the magnificent illusion had spared him his mother's unmerciful wrath."But there are too many things happening for Lloth to be the sole cause," Jarlaxle went on after savoring the minor victory for a moment. "And too many of them adversely affect Lloth's own base of power.""A rival deity?" Gromph asked, revealing more intrigue than he intended. "Or an underground revolt?" The wizard sat back suddenly, thinking he had hit upon something, thinking that any underground revolt would certainly fall into the domain of a certain rogue mercenary leader.But Jarlaxle was in no way cornered, for if either of Gromph's suspicions had any basis, Jarlaxle did not know of it."Something," was all the mercenary replied. "Something perhaps very dangerous to us all. For more than a score of years, one house or another has, for some reason, overestimated the worth of capturing the renegade Do'Urden, and their very zeal has elevated his stature and multiplied the troubles he has caused.""So you believe all of this is tied to Drizzt's escape," Gromph reasoned."I believe many matron mothers will believe that," Jarlaxle was quick to reply. "And, thus, Drizzt's escape will indeed play a role in what is to come. But I have not said, and do not believe, that what you sense is amiss is the result of the renegade's flight from House Baenre."Gromph closed his eyes and let the logic settle. Jarlaxle was right, of course. Menzoberranzan was a place so wound up in its own intrigue that truth mattered less than suspicion, that suspicion often became a self-fulfilling prophecy, and thus, often created truth."I may wish to speak with you again, mercenary," the archmage said quietly, and Jarlaxle noticed a door near where he had entered the extradimensional pocket. Beside it the zombie still burned, now just a crumpled, blackened ball of almost bare bone.Jarlaxle started for the door."Alas," Gromph said dramatically, and Jarlaxle paused. "M'tarl did not survive.""A pity for M'tarl," Jarlaxle added, not wanting Gromph to think that the loss would in any way wound Bregan D'aerthe.Jarlaxle went out the door, down the cord, and slipped away silently into the shadows of the city, trying to digest all that had occurred. Rarely had he spoken to Gromph, and even more rarely had Gromph requested, in his own convoluted way, the audience. That fact was significant, Jarlaxle realized. Something very strange was happening here, a slight tingle in the air. Jarlaxle, a lover of chaos (mostly because, within the swirl of chaos, he always seemed to come out ahead), was intrigued. What was even more intriguing was that Gromph, despite his fears and all that he had to lose, was also intrigued!The archmage's mention of a possible second deity proved that, showed his entire hand. For Gromph was an old wretch, despite the fact that he had come as far in life as any male drow in Menzoberranzan could hope to climb.No, not despite that fact, Jarlaxle silently corrected himself. Because of that fact. Gromph was bitter, and had been so for centuries, because, in his lofty view of his own worth, he saw even the position of archmage as pointless, as a limit imposed by an accident of gender.The greatest weakness in Menzoberranzan was not the rivalry of the various houses, Jarlaxle knew, but the strict matriarchal system imposed by Lloth's followers. Half the drow population was subjugated merely because they had been born male.That was a weakness.And subjugation inevitably bred bitterness, even-especially!- in one who had gone as far as Gromph. Because from his lofty perch, the archmage could clearly see how much farther he might possibly go if he had been born with a different set of genitals.Gromph had indicated he might wish to speak with Jarlaxle again; Jarlaxle had a feeling he and the bitter mage would indeed meet, perhaps quite often. He spent the next twenty steps of his walk back across Menzoberranzan wondering what information Gromph might extract from poor M'tarl, for of course the lieutenant was not dead-though he might soon wish he were.Jarlaxle laughed at his own foolishness. He had spoken truly to Gromph, of course, and so M'tarl couldn't reveal anything incriminating. The mercenary sighed. He wasn't used to speaking truthfully, wasn't used to walking where there were no webs.That notion dismissed, Jarlaxle turned his attention to the city. Something was brewing. Jarlaxle, the ultimate survivor, could sense it, and so could Gromph. Something important would occur all too soon, and what the mercenary needed to do was figure out how he might profit from it, whatever it might be.