The single-story house bucked, as though shaken by an earthquake. Chairs slid across the floor, rattling window frames threatened to shatter their panes, and a veritable tsunami of dust exploded from the ceiling. Accompanying the dust that was raining down came a single crooked but stalwart nail that had been faithfully holding up a piece of parchment. An enormous tiefling thrashed about on the wooden floor, his bashing hooves shredding a section off the fallen document. The ripping was lost in the growls issuing through pointed teeth, strings of curses in a language that sounded like rolling waves and the buzzing of wasps.
“Just a minute, mate!” the guttural expletives ceased briefly as the gruff voice called out in Common. Then, rafters shook and shingles rattled again. “I swear it won’t take more than…" the words were lost once more as the language of brimstone and ash amidst a downpour of pebbles reasserted its primacy.
"Wait! I got it! I got it!” A triumphant roar broke through the storm. Mephariz Kyjedzaf hopped to his feet, the floorboards groaning as though five men had jumped and landed simultaneously. The purposefully-tattered gray pants that the half-fiend had worked so hard to pull on nearly ripped then, barely saved before the seams burst by the spurting of his tail out of the hole in the back.
"Got my pants, got my vest," A finger thick as a dagger pommel ticked off each item against a jutting horn. "And got my trident!" On queue, the weapon's tines erupted into flames.
The half-fiend roared exuberantly. "Ready or not, here comes--" he almost tripped over his own feet, so sudden was the stutter-step out of his charge.
"Aw, almost forgot the invitation! Can't go to a party without an invitation! Good thing I remembered to put it riiiiiight h--" There was no invitation to meet his eyes when he spun around. The half-fiend's jaw dropped as his free hand shot up to claw at his deep magenta mane. "NOOOOOOOOO! Where'd the invitation go? ARRGHHH!"
A herd of small elephants might have stampeded through the room then, for all the noise that issued from it. After a commotion that surely would've broken the beams in one of the city's less well-built houses finally came the relieved cry, "Ahhh, there you are!" It wasn't quite a shepherd's voice, but it was sufficient to soothe the metaphorical frenzied beasts.
Clearing his throat, the enormous figure started again, "Ready or not, here comes Duke Koraboros of Baator!" He all but charged through the door leading to the adjacent room.
"Eeeeek, my chastity!" cried the lithe figure who recoiled away in denial. Despite the shock in the "victim"'s tone, the crier was anything but helpless. The confident and calculating glint in his ruby eyes never wavered except to dance with delight, and although his arms were wrapped tightly around his limber form to perfectly imitate the distress of an unclad maiden who'd been walked in on disrobed, his sinewy musculature exposed the pose's ruse of vulnerability.
The handsome drow quickly let go of his act, for he was fully clad, albeit clad very strangely, even by his own standards. He still had much to do to finish dressing, unlike his companion who literally had only to put on the two pieces of clothing he already wore. On the other hand, Jarlaxle had lost count of how many layers he'd donned, the entire process was more akin to spinning a cocoon than throwing on a doublet. It was well worth the effort though, for his elegant form was now adorned by a long robe, which would more accurately perhaps be described as a dress. The garment was spun from silk and dyed a deep amethyst. Long, trailing sleeves fell from the shoulders and spread like wings, while shining gold thread wove together to trace intricate peonies. Dark reds and rich blues complemented the vivid purple in pleasing interlacing patterns and gradations that together painted a tapestry of golden petal-sprays heralding the twilight.
Now that he had an audience, the mercenary was as eager to show off his splendor as a male peacock. With a flourish that billowed out his sleeves, the graceful figure executed a slow turn, shifting his lithe frame to capitalize on the advantages that every angle provided. His movements seemed a dance, for in the delicate digits of one hand balanced an intricate golden hairpin, while from the other swung an ordinary-looking white mask. The drow's ruby eyes were only for his luxurious gown, and they glittered with pleasure as the he looked upon himself, not at all bothered by the fact that his attire didn't hang quite right. The waist was just a bit too tight, causing the material to bunch and sag around his torso. Without the correct kind of contours on his chest for the material to spread over, the bundle sat there like a rooster's wattle. Nonetheless, Jarlaxle didn't even acknowledge the ill fit.
Mephariz blew out a long whistle and applauded, the flaming tines of his trident igniting nearby floating dust particles. “Lookin’ smooth, hey! Great colors!” The tiefling wasn't at all bothered by the fact, and most likely did not even notice that the garment was meant to be for women. He'd occasionally cross-dressed himself, usually for comedic effect, though sometimes by accident. Even after he realized the truth, namely on those occasions that he had too little to drink post-appareling, it never mattered much to him anyway.
The drow dipped into an elegant bow, which caused the excess material at his chest to puff out like a frog's vocal sac. When he rose, his brow was knitted with exertion as his hands worked together to push at something underneath the waist sash. His voice, however, was unburdened and sang out with all its usual melodic quality as he said, “This fabulous article came to me from far to the east, past the Hordelands. Have you been out so far, my well-traveled friend?”
Mephariz gave a shake of his large ruddy head. The dandy smiled and took on the lofty voice of a bard. “The traders claimed that it belonged to an empress of Shou Lung. True or not, it would have fetched a grand profit, for the noble ladies of Waterdeep surely do love such exotic items from Kara-Tur. However, when I saw this most exquisite color, I simply could not give it up. Purple is my favorite, you know!”
There was suddenly an audible click, and the drow grinned as the dress suddenly hung perfectly on his changed figure. The wattle was gone, transformed into something akin to lotus buds ready to bloom, smooth petals cupping an inner suppleness. Aside from the additions to his chest however, the mercenary's appearance was only subtly different. Already beautiful outside the constraints of gender, the softened lines of Jarlaxle's face and his fuller lips were hardly noticeable. Furthermore, his unflappable gaze coupled with his bald head rendered him instantly identifiable.
Mephariz’s jaw dropped, as did his shoulders, wings, and tail. The flames of his trident bloomed dangerously above the wooden floorboards, the fiery tips almost licking his fingertips, but the tiefling was too preoccupied by the sight before him to notice. He made an unintelligible noise that was at once a groan and a squeal. After many breaths he reached up and smacked himself, harder than he'd intended.
“Ow! Farruk!” The half-fiend rubbed the whitish handprint on his face, blinking a few times. Finally realizing that his fingers were slow-roasting over his own open fire, Mephariz tossed the trident like a hot potato to the hand he'd just smacked himself with and plunged the burnt fingers into his mouth. “Woell I’ll be a Balwor inna bafhaus! How’b ou vo that?" he slurred around the thick digits that he was sucking on tenderly. "Id wuv magwic, right? Must’ve been magwic.”
Jarlaxle laughed and, having already taken a few precautionary steps away from his bumbling companion, was no longer regarding him. Instead, the drow was looking at his own chest curiously. “Yes, Mephariz, it was magic. Few creatures spontaneously change from male to female, and I normally choose to be those that abstain from such... modifications." An odd light flickered briefly in his eye as he tentatively poked himself in the chest, then moved both hands underneath to cup and squeeze the springy unfamiliar flesh. Involuntary gasps and hums fell from his lips, and he nodded slowly, murmuring, "So this is what it feels like..." His expression turned studious as he tested pressing with alternating fingers, nodding and making mental notes for future reference.
Mephariz gaped, an uncharacteristic sense of self-consciousness creeping over him. He shook his head, his wild hair whipping as he tried to clear away the black flush that had entered his cheeks. The tiefling let out a snort that sounded like a Nightmare could've issued it. "Aw, come on Jarles, this is no time to be playin' with yourself! We gotta go, else we're goin' to be unfashionably late!" The thick tail thumped against the floor as he whined.
Grinning impishly, Jarlaxle turned to his companion, and began to invite him to join in the "entertainment", but quickly reconsidered after realizing that each of the half-fiend's hands were bigger than his own head. Suppressing a wince, caused in part by the pungent smell that now filled the air from a few strands of Mephariz's hair getting caught in the trident's flames during the violent shaking, the drow reassured, "Worry not, my friend, for if there is anything that I never am, it is unfashionable!"
With a wink and a winning grin, the mercenary ran one palm over his hairless scalp, contemplating its smoothness whilst considering his faint reflection in the unpolished windowpane. He glanced to the golden hairpin, the uncertainty in his expression imperceptible in the muddled image that his friend could see. His voice sounding far away, he asked the tall red shape in the dirty window, “Are you any good with hair?”
Mephariz's head tilted as his eyes settled on the mercenary's bald head. "Aye, I can do hair."
The unexpected revelation captured Jarlaxle's attention. “Really? You can do hair? Color me surprised! What styles do you know?”
The tiefling shrugged his large, meaty shoulders, his tail beginning to lash. “A few. Pig tails, pony tails, Cormyrian braids. My buddy Amie had long hair too, showed me how to help. Hells, my other friend Elanee showed me how to do a few elfy hairstyles. I’m good at hair.”
White eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Truly you are full of surprises, my friend! I would never have suspected that you had the patience to become proficient with hair! Why, even many women with long hair can’t manage a Cormyrian braid!"
The tail stopped. Mephariz drew himself up to his full height and puffed out his chest, more than a handful of fangs showing in his proud grin “Bet you're regretting that you're bald now, huh?"
Jarlaxle smiled mysteriously and tapped the golden hairpin against his lips. Turning back to the poor imitation of a mirror, he lifted the simple mask in his other hand to his face, its string slipping naturally behind his skull. Even before the plain surface settled over his features, the material seemed to fuse with his skin, dissipating into it. Long, silky white hair grew and fell about his face, stopping when the alabaster locks reached his waist.
Licking his lips before parting them slightly, dropping his eyelids enough to curtain the ruby glimmer behind long white lashes, the drow turned to the tiefling with a demure half-smile. Mephariz all but had to pick his lower jaw up from the floor, heightening Jarlaxle's victory. "You were saying...?" the mercenary teased, his voice soft and effeminate.
The half-fiend's eyeballs practically popped out of his head. He hadn't even realized how startlingly beautiful she - no, he - or was it she? - looked. Yellow irises fixed on the slender figure, Mephariz stumbled forward, one large paw outstretched. However, when his hand should've brushed against the material that looked more luscious than spidersilk gowns reserved for drow Matron Mothers alone, instead, he felt nothing. Blinking, he waved his hand through the silken locks, but still, his hand passed right through what should've been solid, and nothing but empty air greeted his touch.
"Huh?" the bewildered tiefling managed.
The drow danced back a few more steps, his bare scalp starting to feel a little crisp from the proximity to his friend's flaming trident. "An illusion, nothing more," Jarlaxle lamented. "Alas, I fear that your expertise with hair won't be needed quite yet, my friend."
Mephariz was still boggling. "That's all right mate, we ain't got any rabbits." He blinked, shook his head like a soaked mastiff drying itself off before punching himself in the face. "OW! By Belial's burning breeches! So why'd you ask me about hair, then?"
The mercenary didn't answer right away. Wetting his lips, his held up the golden hairpin and answered simply, "This."
Mephariz hunched forward and squinted at the tiny ornament. “What’s that do, hey?”
"With any luck, what it was meant to do," was the enigmatic reply. The tiefling started to protest, but his jaw went slack yet again. His friend's "hair" came to life, luscious locks lifting to dance about one another, coiling and weaving with the languid harmony of cloud serpents at play. Mephariz didn't know that Jarlaxle had summoned the magic of Agatha's Mask again, didn't understand that the narcissistic drow could've simply willed an immediate transformation of his appearance. However, the mercenary wouldn't have had the pleasure of making the half-fiend's eyes to go saucer-wide if he hadn't gone with the full performance.
Content with his friend's incoherent whimpers lauding his victory, Jarlaxle turned back to the dirty window. Seldom did he lament as much as he did then that he didn't have one of his treasured full length mirrors with him. Even the view of the Jewel of the North bathed in the light of sunset could not distract from the vision of the sculpted intricacy that hung translucently before it.
With a slowness that was more reverent than reluctant, a delicate black hand brought the golden hairpin above the mercenary's forehead. He sucked in his breath as he watched his vague reflection insert the glimmering object into his hair, his hand meeting no resistance as the pin slid through empty air. Bracing himself to catch the falling ornament, Jarlaxle let go.
Instead of feeling the cold metal bounce against his head, the tingle of arcane energies tickled the drow's smooth scalp. The sudden heat and commotion behind him told the mercenary that the magic was working, for otherwise, even Mephariz wouldn't suddenly have moved close enough to give Jarlaxle's faint reflection a red backdrop. However, vague as both the drow and the tiefling's images were, the illustriousness of the hairpin's magic was not to be denied by even the subpar reflection afforded by the dirty window. A sparkling golden phoenix unfurled itself from the ornamental stick and landed, wings spread, neck craned, as though ready to challenge the stars to a contest of flight. The mystical bird's "plumage" cascaded in the form of delicate bejeweled chains that undulated slowly over the harmonious white landscape that it graced.
Even were he not required to touch the magic's workings to verify its integrity, Jarlaxle wouldn't have been able to resist doing so. However, his slender fingers didn't go to the phoenix, but rather to the shining white hair that the avian guarded. A gasp escaped his lips as his fingertips, instead of passing through nothingness, brushed against the silken material. Simultaneously, the chiming of bells sounded in his head so suddenly that he flinched, but quickly recovered himself as this, too, wasn't wholly unexpected.
Brushing nonexistent dirt particles off of himself, the mercenary turned, nearly colliding with his friend. Mephariz was hovering very close. Blinking innocently, Jarlaxle asked, "What is it, my friend? Are you all right?'
"THERE'S A MAGICAL BIRD ON YOUR HEAD, JARLES!" the tiefling boomed as he pointed, and Jarlaxle cringed away, managing to stop himself before he rectified the dirtiness of the window with his fancy gown.
Calmly, the drow took the outstretched hand, and gently guided it to the woven white locks. Although he couldn't feel when his friend made contact, the sudden re-focus of the yellow irises followed by a quick jerk of the large red head first to the left, then to the right, told Jarlaxle that Mephariz, too, heard the invisible bells.
"Didya hear that...?" Mephariz asked, his voice shallow. The huge tiefling took a step back, pulling the mercenary who was still holding onto his hand with him. Jarlaxle felt a little guilty, for his cowering companion looked as ridiculous as a grizzly that'd been spooked by a mouse.
"Yes, Mephariz, that's part of the magic," the drow explained calmly, and the affirmation soothed the tension from the half-fiend's shoulders.
The tiefling seemed to reinflate. "Oh, good. That's good. I was afraid that there was suddenly a ghost or something! I'd always worried about this old house being haunted!"
The mercenary quirked an eyebrow. "A big, strong fellow like you, afraid of ghosts?"
Mephariz stuck out his bottom lip. "I don't like things that I can't wallop!" The thick tail lashed like an agitated snake.
"Fair enough," Jarlaxle conceded with a nod. "Worry not, my friend, I'll be sure to inform you if there are any ghosts in our vicinity. Now, would you be so kind as to do me a favor and tell me how the back of my head looks?"
Although he'd taken it all in good stride, the tiefling was a little sore from being led around so much. Finally spotting his chance, he couldn't resist taking it. “Looks good mate," Mephariz replied nonchalantly, "I like the bright yellow. Looks like you're wearing a rack of bananas. Good contrast.”
“WHAT?!” An initial moment of panic seized the drow, but his eyes narrowed as he spotted the tiefling’s impish grin.
“AHAHAH! AHAH! I got you good, mate! I got you good!” Mephariz fell onto his rear with enough force that Jarlaxle had to flail his arms to keep his balance, and the mercenary scowled through the rain of dust at the giant who was kicking hooves and howling with laughter. He began to retort, but instead his scowl transformed into a sly grin.
"Mephariz," cooed a hypnotically voice, the dulcet tones transforming the abyssal syllables of the half-fiend's name into celestial melody.
“Ahah… ahahah… haaah?” Mephariz rolled himself onto his haunches, then immediately scooted backwards from the beautiful face hovering all too close to his own.
Sultrily, the movements so natural that an external observer would have never suspected the beautiful drow was ever not female, Jarlaxle sashayed to the dumbstruck half-fiend, who continued to scoot until the wall stopped him. Unable to escape further, all Mephariz could do was try not to let go of his flaming trident, for surely releasing it would set his house aflame. The vision that surely would've made all Matron Mothers of Menzoberranzan band together to rid the world of that which so casually outshone them leaned even closer now, reaching out a delicate hand to trace the coarse red cheek and rest below the tiefling's chin. A firm and yet disturbing gentle upward nudge ordered Mephariz's gaze exactly where Jarlaxle wanted it.
"So, how do I look?" whispered the captivating voice, long white eyelashes only heightening the seductive gaze.
Mephariz cowered as though a frost giant was bearing down on him. “B-b-by the Styx, I’d never even knew you was a bloke" he whispered. Swallowing visibly, he chanced in a squeak, "Are you a bloke?"
The drow's hand moved down to brace against the tiefling's wide chest, leaning until his body was barely a hand span from touching his companion. Mephariz whimpered and squeezed his eyes shut as a hot breath washed over his ear, and he felt his eyes start to roll into his head when, just on the verge of swooning, he barely picked out the words, "Got you back!"
Got you back? Mephariz didn't have a lot of experience in these matters, but he was pretty sure that they didn't involve getting each other back. Or, at least, not that and hearty chuckles, which were now issuing from the mercenary in abundance. The tiefling dared to open one eye, and was relieved to see that his friend had backed away, wearing the familiar confident grin on his ebony features.
Jarlaxle winked and extended a hand to his downed companion. Mephariz took the offered hand but didn't use it to hoist himself up, he didn't want to send his friend sprawling. Chuckling along, he nodded appreciatively. “Good costume, mate, good costume.” Pretty, though thankfully not his type. But still - his friend was a looker that nearly changed that.
A horn in the distance jolted Mephariz to attention. He ran to the door and flung it open, allowing in the long rays of the setting sun, which seemed to set his red skin aflame where they chanced upon it. The tiefling called invitingly, “So! We ready to get this show on the road, mate?”
Jarlaxle squinted painfully against the sudden unmitigated onslaught, but was able to feel his way into the cloth slippers. Gathering up the train of his dress in one hand and setting the other daintily around Mephariz’s elbow, he agreed, “Let’s be off then! Lead the way!”
"Aye!" Mephariz roared, and launched into song:
There was a knight who longed to wield a more impressive lance
To carry into battle, and to aid him with romance.
A wizard overheard the knight and granted his request.
The knight at first was overjoyed to see how he was blessed.
Nudging Jarlaxle and winking significantly, Mephariz sang more slowly:
Hey there, ho there, A lesson's coming through: Be careful what you ask for-- For your wishes may come true.
Jarlaxle looked up curiously at Mephariz, but quickly nodded and grinned. He chuckled at the lyrics borne by his friend's booming purr of a growl, which surprisingly held the notes pleasantly if unconventionally.
The knight went to a revel with his weapon thus enhanced.
The lance made dining difficult and tripped him while he danced.
The next day at the tournaments he won the jousting meets,
For all who faced his fearsome lance fell laughing from their seats.
Mephariz began to nudge his companion, but it was unnecessary, for on beat Jarlaxle filled in:
Hey there, ho there, A lesson's coming through: Be careful what you ask for-- For your wishes may come true.
Now, it was Jarlaxle's turn to nudge Mephariz, and taking the hint, the tiefling grandly held out a large paw, inviting his friend to continue. In perfect rhythm with the tune started by Mephariz, Jarlaxle sang:
The knight romanced a lady who admired his staff of oak.
They'd scarse begun their gentle joust before the staff had broke.
The knight sought out the wizard, who replied when brought to task,
"Your wish bespoke how long it WAS, and not how long 'twould LAST!"
The two friends howled their laughter to the skies before singing the final chorus together,
Hey there, ho there, A lesson's coming through: Be careful what you ask for-- For your wishes may come true.
Mephariz wiped a tear from his eye. "Ahhh, that was good, mate! How'd you come up with it? Musta been there yourself, eh?"
Jarlaxle scoffed. "My friend, how you wound me so! Do I really strike you as someone who would ever so compromise my staff of oak?"
"No, I guess not," the tiefling conceded with a cackle. "Not Jarles, the manliest of all ladies' men!" the tiefling exclaimed, wryly plucking a sleeve of Jarlaxle's dress.
"Right you are, and don't you ever forget it!" the mercenary concurred, laughing along with his friend.
Together, they marched toward the western side of the city, where the spires of Castle Never jutted into the darkening sky. Mephariz performed his own made up dance, which he stepped in cadence with their march. The tiefling dragged the light-stepping Jarlaxle along, until they could no longer move as freely among the gathering throng of guests. Nevertheless, the mercenary was in a fine mood, which was helped in no small part by the admiring stares from passing men and women alike. His spirits lifted even more as they neared the castle, the sound of revelry reaching through the crowd to tickle his ears.
However, without enough space to continue dancing, the half-fiend was quickly growing bored. Fearing that his companion's restlessness would turn to recklessness, Jarlaxle mused aloud at Mephariz, "Ah, I just remembered! I didn't tell you about how I got my wonderful hairpin, did I?"
Predictably, the lashing tail instantly stilled. The drow knew that he had the tiefling's full attention now, for both yellow irises were transfixed on him. He grinned, and, fully indulging his friend's love of stories, the mercenary began airily, "A lady traveled with the caravan, and offered to me the wondrous item as a gift. She said that it would complement the lovely dress that I'd just purchased. Naturally, I was suspicious, for one must always be careful when offered something so splendid for free." Jarlaxle looked at Mephariz meaningfully, whose head bobbed up and down like that of a well-behaved child.
Smiling, the drow continued, "My dubiousness must have shown clearly, for she explained with tears in her eyes -- the poor girl! -- that it was an heirloom passed down through her family. However, unfortunate circumstances befell her, and if she were ever to be found possessing the heirloom, her fleeing her homeland would be completely pointless."
Mephariz gasped. Eyes saucer-wide, he whispered in an awed voice, "What did she look like, Jarles? Was she some secret princess on the run? A real damsel in distress type?"
Jarlaxle paused briefly, pouting and furrowing his brow as though struggling to remember. In truth, the exotic stranger was anything but forgettable. Instead of shedding tears, she'd worn a mysterious and omnipresent half-smile. Although she'd been clad in twill homespun, there was an undeniable imperial quality to her that belied her coarse attire. Her fine skin was worn from exposure, but the golden quality of it hadn't dulled. Her hair was frayed, but the elements hadn't robbed the opulent locks, darker than even his own skin, of their sheen. Her brown eyes were so dark that her pupils seemed lost within their depths. But most curiously of all, despite her foreign features, her ears tapered almost as much as his own. He'd heard that Kara-Tur was a land of humans where elves, dwarves, and the races plentiful across Faerûn were rarer than dragons.
What ultimately burned the memory of her into the world wise drow's mind was the demonstration of the gift's capabilities. When Jarlaxle encountered the hairpin and its owner, she was accompanied by a fellow who shared similar physical traits to her, and, while his time with them was so brief that Jarlaxle couldn't identify the nature of the pair's relationship, he was certain that there was some type of deep linkage. At the lady's behest, her male counterpart cast a spell which was clearly illusionary magic, but magic such as he'd never before seen. He attempted to inquire about the intricacies of Kara-Tur arcane traditions, however his attention was stolen by the image of that which he ended up borrowing for own head this evening. Like he did with Mephariz, the mysterious woman had guided his hand, with a piercing glare from her male counterpart, to meet the intangible bells. She explained the imperfection of the hairpin's magic, that although its power to make illusions tangible was a potent one, it was incomplete. For, while it possessed the power to make an illusionary breastplate seem real to the touch, the empowered illusion could not deflect a sword's blow, and further anyone who touched the reinforced illusion would hear bells in their head.
Incomplete as the magic was, the drow was delighted with the magical item, and happily accepted it. He'd started to propose that he and she get better acquainted, but another imperious glare from her male companion stopped him cold. Good-naturedly, Jarlaxle suggested that he could join them, but the contempt with which the stern man regarded him triggered in Jarlaxle's mind a memory of that particular kind of mien that could've only been bred in royalty. Thus, with many more questions than answers, he'd simply bid them safe travels, and wistfully bid farewell to a mystery he might never solve.
Smiling ruefully at Mephariz, Jarlaxle shook his head and sighed. "I'm afraid that I don't remember what she looked like. Alas, she was rather plain and forgettable. The only aspect of her that stood out was that she likely hailed from Shou Lung, but the nearest Shou enclave from where I met her was in Westgate, and that was several tendays away. If I were to wager a guess, I'd say that she was a common thief who stole a prize too great for her to offload safely, and in the end decided to preserve her life rather than risk it by seeking riches."
The tiefling's wings drooped with disappointment, but he quickly perked up again. "Hey, if you ever remember, promise that you'll tell me? I don't care if she was ugly, you sure meet some interesting people! I sure wish I'd been there!"
Jarlaxle smiled and nodded. "Of course, my friend."
Although Jarlaxle's story had provided some distraction, it wasn't nearly enough. Their progress forward was soon stopped altogether by door guards who were checking every attendee's invitation. The drow craned his neck this way and that, trying to see past the crowd, which seemed to be comprised solely of people that were taller than him.
A majestic figure caught his eye then, and indeed, the eyes of many others, and it was Jarlaxle's turn to go slack-jawed. He stared, a thousand questions firing off inside his head, no small measure of them coupled with warnings to look away and to conceal himself, but those warnings could not compel him as much as did the darkly-dressed human astride a tall black horse. The man rode with a practiced ease, his posture perfect as he directed his steed through the crowd. A burnished silvery crown rested over his straight raven-black locks, which were cropped short and neat. The gleam from the spires jutting up from the shining band of silver contested with the piercing gaze of his lambent steely eyes, which, contrasted against attire so rich and dark, appeared to be almost translucent or even colorless. A velvety cape, heavy and black as a moonless night, cascaded from his shoulders like a somber waterfall. Imperial-styled pauldrons framed the dashing figure, his breastplate, chausses, vambraces and greaves overlaying a suit of form-fitting and elegant black leather armor. The pieces of armor were made from gleaming dark metal that Jarlaxle couldn't immediately place, intricate designs tracing sinuous abstract patterns and shapes upon them, as though bespeaking a power that must be held at bay.
“King Artemis the First,” Jarlaxle whispered breathlessly, not believing his eyes and not daring to believe. The sound of his own voice snapped him out of his trance, and, heart pounding in his ears, he raked the intense specter, desperate for affirmation and terrified of confirmation. He took in the familiar weapons belt with its magnificent blades, which, far from detracting from the man's impressive guise, added a delightful air of menace to the ensemble. The ruby gaze drifted lower until it found equally familiar leather gauntlets and boots, so impeccably maintained that no other onlooker would have been able to discern that their well-worn quality juxtaposed with the pristine nature of the rest of the outfit. A pang wracked the drow's chest, and he didn't know if it was caused by the memories evoked by the folds in the leather that he recognized, or by the familiar face rendered unfamiliar. The assassin had meticulously removed the mustache and goatee that Jarlaxle knew him to favor, but even in their absence, the slight frown on those angular features was unmistakable.
The drow watched, rooted to the ground, his hand stiffly clutching Mephariz's elbow, as the crowd slowly flowed past them. He didn't notice his companion chatting and laughing with dignitaries, his attention commanded entirely by the human on the well-bred horse. Jarlaxle knew it was Artemis Entreri, but he could not understand why. His abbil, whom so hated scrutiny and notice, had made himself a center of attention, and Jarlaxle could not understand, for even he could never have compelled Entreri to agree to such behavior. Doubt re-entered his mind as he considered the steed, its obsidian coat glistening with health and barely suppressed power, contemptuously towering over its compatriots. Then, there was that flashy armor -- Jarlaxle's gaze flitted up and down like a drunk bumblebee. He shouldn't have been surprised when the human began turning his way, Entreri was always good at detecting that he was being watched, and he thanked his heritage for affording him the nimbleness and speed to dodge out of sight before that smoldering gray gaze found him. Of course, Mephariz was also to thank, for his imposing form and sprawling wings provided the perfect cover in an area that was otherwise completely devoid of it. Jarlaxle patted his large friend gratefully.
The dignitaries that'd been conversing with Mephariz had moved on by then, but the tiefling was keeping busy pointing both index fingers at people and winking, blowing kisses, or saluting. At Jarlaxle's pat, he paused in mid-kiss-blowing and looked down at his friend curiously. "Jarles? You all right? Yer lookin' a little pale, well, pale for you anyway. Do you need some air?" Mephariz stretched out his wings, causing the crowd around them to yelp and jump aside, the slower to move ones toppling on top of one another.
Jarlaxle managed to snatch a bit of the tiefling's wing membrane before Mephariz could start flapping. He shook his head quickly and smiled reassuringly up at the tiefling. "No, no, I'm fine, I was just getting a little tired from all of this standing about. Tediousness does me little good, my friend."
Mephariz grinned and nodded knowingly. "I hear ya man, standin' around doin' nothing is the worst." he peered closely at the drow. "Are you sure yer all right? I coulda sworn I heard ya say something 'bout a king or somesuch. Don't worry, there ain't no king in Neverwinter, I don't much care for royalty myself. They're always so stuffy and obsessed with eticut-- eleticute-- with all kinds of manners and polite mumbo-jumbo and not gettin' anything done! Ain't no one got time for that!"
"Really?" Jarlaxle managed weakly. "But isn't Lord Nasher the King of Neverwinter?"
Mephariz shrugged. "Hells, I don't know. I always figured he wasn't, 'cuz then he'd be called KING Nasher. But he's LORD Nasher, so as far as I know, he ain't no king."
Still concerned for his friend, the large tiefling unfurled himself to his full height and, shielding his brow with a giant hand, he turned a full about-face while rumbling, "I'll letcha know if I see a king or somesuch... oh! Oh!" The tiefling's hand dropped to his side as he burst out laughing. "Silly Jarles, that ain't no king. About as real a king as you are an empress! Say, he's sure got an impressive costume! Almost as good as yours!"
An idea lit up the ruddy countenance and it spread into a wide toothy grin. "Go hang out with him, hey? Say hello? Mingle? Bet you two would look great together!” Mephariz nudged Jarlaxle twice, grinning. “Come on, mate, it’s a party!”
Jarlaxle blanched, but it wasn't Mephariz's suggestion so much as the realization that his tiefling friend was very big, very loud and thus very attention-grabbing. To accentuate the point, the crowd had moved away from the two of them, creating a substantial gap. The drow also remembered that despite his human friend's distaste for things that were loud and attention-grabbing, the latter's survival depended in no small part on thorough investigation of conspicuous characters, and Mephariz was nothing if not conspicuous. Suddenly very self-aware of how recognizable he was despite his "costume", the mercenary felt the blood drain from his face, and he could feel the nervous sweat on his bare scalp despite the mounds of hair that seemed to grow from there.
“Ahhh, I, uhh…” he grasped futilely for a scheme, feeling almost as though he'd play the part he looked too well by swooning. But that would mean guaranteed discovery, and forsaking the unexpected but no less wonderful opportunity before him.
The thought of "opportunity" roused him more effectively than any smelling salt could. Shaking his head, Jarlaxle smiled ruefully and replied. “I don’t think so, he seems rather unfriendly.”
Mephariz looked dubious. "What was all that about then, hey? I thought you'd wet yerself or somethin'! Thought I'd had to cart you back to bed before the party's even started!" The tiefling stuck out his lower lip, his thick eyebrows drooping.
All the while making sure that the colossal half-fiend stood between himself and the king in black, Jarlaxle smiled winningly back at his companion. "Forgive me, my friend, I was momentarily reminded of some unfortunate circumstances. I realized, greatly appalled, that my look wasn't quite perfect, and, you know very well how much that matters to me." He winked.
The tiefling continued to looked unconvinced. He couldn't understand why his capable friend would be so put off by a teeny human on a horse, but if it made him happy, Mephariz was fine with that. So instead, he snorted, and nodded while rolling his eyes. "Aye, aye, you sure do like to get all dolled up."
Jarlaxle laughed and nodded. "Besides," the drow added as his features began changing again, "It would be most ungracious of me to detract from your splendor, which surely I would have done."
Mephariz flexed his wings again, causing a chorus of fright and dismay, as a few distracted patrons that'd wandered into their void zone toppled. "Aw Jarles you know I ain't that way, there's more than enough of me to go around and I'm always happy to share my spotlight! The more the merrier, I always say!“
The drow simply nodded again and grinned mysteriously as he held out his hands, watching them as his skin changed gradually from black to a sun-tinged cream. He called to his mind the face of the exotic woman from whom he received the magical hairpin, willing the image to Agatha’s Mask, changing nothing except rounding the tapered ears. He hoped that his stark white hair turned jet black as well.
When the color in his arms stabilized, Jarlaxle brought his hands to his face, and found the gradation of his cheekbones much reduced. The bridge of his nose was significantly diminished, nigh nonexistent in between his eyes. He looked up at Mephariz, one eyebrow raised in question.
Mephariz beamed with approval. "Hey there li’l lady! What’s your name?”
Jarlaxle sighed in relief, daring to stand beside Mephariz again. The sable king had dismounted by then, but Jarlaxle picked him out easily enough. He forced himself to tear his eyes away.
"That’s a good question.” the mercenary frowned. He hadn’t asked the Shou woman her name, else he could’ve borrowed that in addition to her appearance. He also didn't know enough about the cultures of distant Kara-Tur to understand the subtleties in their vastly varied naming conventions, and it wasn't something he could leave to uncertainty when a meticulous assassin was concerned. Lacking any ideas of his own, he asked, “I don’t suppose you’ve got any suggestions?”
Mephariz blinked, then shrugged. “Uhh… Hell’s bells, I always liked the name Yuki-Onna… Or Lilith. But you’re looking for something more normal, probably… Um. Rosalind. Agnes. Ella. Eva. Jasmine. Isolde. Aaliyah. Ilanis.”
Jarlaxle wrinkled his nose. “Aren’t some of those, well, not far eastern? And I’m pretty sure that ‘Yuki-Onna’ is Kozakuran, not Shou.”
Mephariz shrugged helplessly. “I dunno shit, mate,” he chuckled. “Yuki-Onna is a demon name anyways. You don’t want that."
The mercenary waved a hand in the air. “Nevermind. Jasmine is great. Yes, I am Jasmine.” He would just have to talk his way out of it if it came up.
"So Jasmine it is!” Mephariz crowed and surveyed the crowd. It was still huge, and they’d be standing out here for ages. He leaned down to where ‘Jasmine’ stood and whispered, “Hey, I know an express way through. Wanna go for it? Trust me, I got this!”
Despite his best efforts, Jarlaxle's gaze kept drifting to where “King Artemis the First” was, and he replied absentmindedly, “Express way sounds good.”
Without warning, Mephariz plucked Jarlaxle up into the air with one hand. The drow squeaked with surprise as Mephariz hoisted him over his head and onto his shoulders. After he managed to pull himself up from leaning back to avoid colliding face-first with the tiefling's horns, the mercenary could see that the view from his new perch was impressive. Nonetheless, Jarlaxle was uncomfortable, all the more so when the commotion drew a disgusted gaze from the sable king that stripped the last cloth from his emotional accouterments. Although he forced a convincing smile onto his borrowed features, Jarlaxle wished then that he stood before his ruthless mother instead, Lolth devour her soul.
Mephariz, on the other hand, felt quite proud of himself. He figured that his horns would serve as fine handles for his friend, which was good because they were taking the "express way".
“Is this a bad time to mention I’m the Knight Captain of Crossroad Keep, mate?” Mephariz shouted up with a roaring laugh. The crowd had gotten accustomed to jumping out of the way when Mephariz flared his wings, but nonetheless there were still a few casualties this time. Tail flickering, eyes flaming with delight, the imposing tiefling boomed, “Knight Captain Kyjedzaf, coming through! Make way, windowlickers!”
The sea of bodies parted at the proclamation, as a path seemingly materialized before the fiend-blooded hero and his mysterious guest.
Jarlaxle sighed and tried not to slump. “Well, at least we’ll be through quickly.” He did his best to look regal, as though riding on the shoulders of a large half-fiend was his customary way of getting around. Somehow, he managed to stay upright and prevent his trailing sleeves from getting caught in the flames of Mephariz's trident.
“I got a front-of-the-line pass just for being one of Nasher’s Knights,” Mephariz muttered smugly to his friend. “Cool shit, huh?”
Resignedly patting one of Mephariz’s horns, Jarlaxle replied, “Indeed. Isn’t it unseemly for a knight to be carrying a lady about on his shoulders, though?”
“I dunno what you’re so worried about,” grumbled the tiefling as he strutted, the train to "Jasmine"'s dress flowing behind him like a cape. “Nobody even knows who you are! …Well, ‘cept for me. Still, relax! You’ll have tons of fun!”
Mephariz saluted the guards at the door, who saluted back without asking for the crumpled parchment in the tiefling's pocket. Despite all the effort that he'd put into looking for it, Mephariz had forgotten all about the torn document that now read, "ation to the Neverwinter Ball". He was too busy being pleased that the door to Castle Never was large enough that both he and his guest could fit through without "dismounting".
Safely inside, Mephariz reached back up, picked his friend off his shoulders and set him back down onto the floor. “See? Quick and easy! Ol’ Mephariz got your back, mate!”
Jarlaxle took a deep breath, shaking the unsteadiness from his legs. “Right you are, my friend.” He brushed some folds out of his dress and resisted the urge to adjust the balance of his chest. He was feeling the beginnings of a backache, and regretted the fact that unlike the gifts of Agatha's Mask, even enhanced as they were by the magical hairpin, his newly acquired feminine traits were very much not illusions.
Looking up into the wide, ruddy face of his large friend, Jarlaxle didn't need to feign his wide smile. “That was rather fun. Thank you for bringing me here, Mephariz.”
“Ayyy! Not a problem there, Jasmine!” Mephariz winked and fondly nudged his friend. He then turned to face the wide open ball room of Castle Never. “Be free, my pretty!” he cackled. “Be free and unleash the fun!”
The disguised drow curtsied. “Same to you, good sir.” With another smile and a wave, Jarlaxle turned away and floated into the crowd.