It was oddly peaceful in the East Wood district of West Catoig. The people here were more modest than in the market street or in Greeley. Houses were small and crammed together. On every street corner, the homeless begged for scraps. In the square, so did artists and musicians. Yet, there was an air of community that Ayen was fond of. It wasn't something he had ever known. People caring for each other, never shaming one another for what they lacked, these were concepts Ayen hadn’t witnessed before.
Children played in the empty streets. They were mainly of elven blood, whether half-elf or full. Their laughter was loud and uninhibited as they chased each other around. One child played alone.
She was a young half-elf and she wasn't looking where she was going. Which is exactly how she ended up plowing into Ayen's legs.
"Oof!" The girl fell back onto her bottom. Ayen looked down, startled, only to chuckle at what he found. "What are you laughing at, mister?" she pouted. Her honey brown eyes narrowed as she looked up at him.
Ayen bent and helped her up, staying down on one knee to speak to her. "Mister? Why my name is Ayen and I seem to have knocked down a little lady. My sincerest apologies, miss."
The girl blinked her eyes. Then she smiled, a little blush lit up her cheeks. Clearly his kindness had earned forgiveness in her little heart. "I am Liluth Auna Venharice, sixth child of Vanya Venharel and Klyne Rice,” she said quite proudly.
"Sixth child, my my," Ayen tisked. "That's a lot to live up to."
"I'm not much like my siblings," she said. "They don't like nature like I do."
"What a terrible shame for half-elves."
"Indeed it is!" She nodded her head enthusiastically. "Are you an elf, sir?"
"Yes, I am."
"Have you been to the forest cities?"
"A bit. I may have passed through once or twice."
The girl grew quite excited at that. "Have you seen the tree castles and the tamed birds and the princess?"
"I have seen those things, yes. I suppose you want to know if they're very beautiful." She nodded. "Well they are, but certainly they aren't as lovely as you."
She blushed again. “I’ve been to Silverhallow before. It’s lovely there, but they say it’s not like the forest cities in Treakha.”
Then a voice called out, "Lil, it's time for lunch!"
"I'm coming!" she called back. Ayen could see a half-elf boy standing in an open doorway a ways away. "It was nice meeting you Mr. Ayen," she told him. Then she curtsied and ran to the house. Ayen smiled after her.
There wasn’t any work for a thief in such a place as East Wood. Ayen made his way through and entered into the next district where houses weren’t so small and the people not so modest. Several hours and many stolen jewels later, Ayen passed back through the same square. It was much quieter now as the sun grew low, though children still played chase. He looked around for his friend Liluth. Uneasiness settled on him as he saw, not the girl, but her brother looking frantically around the square.
"Is something wrong, young sir?" Ayen asked him. He looked at Ayen, startled.
"You. I saw you before with Lil. Have you seen her this evening? Have you done something with her?" He was a skinny, willowy boy, yet his hands curled into fists and he tried to make himself look bigger. Ayen held back a laugh. At least the boy cared for his sister.
"Relax, I have done nothing at all to your sister. Where did you see her last?"
"She was here in the square. A swarm of butterflies had settled near the alley over there. They like the waste." He wrinkled his nose. "But Lil loves butterflies. I saw her watching them and when I looked again she was gone."
"I see." The alley he nodded toward was empty now of butterflies and anyone else. "I'll go and look for her. You stay here in case she comes back."
The boy sagged in relief. "Thank you, sir."
Ayen made his way down the alley avoiding puddles of mess. The path winded around buildings, carrying on until it reached a sort of under-city. Ayen passed curtained doors and signs selling illegal wares. He didn't have a good feeling about the place. Not knowing a child had come this way. He walked faster. Then a shrill scream sent him running. He hurried through the alleyway and turned a corner. The walls opened up into an area filled with old crates and barrels that overflowed with rotten food and broken goods. Then he spotted Liluth.
The child was on the ground, knocked backward in the dirt. In front of her were two, snarling, giant rats. They were larger than a child and almost knee height. Their fur was matted from the filth of these back alleyways. Ayen drew his knives.
"Liluth, get away from here!" he cried. The rats turned on him. Ayen threw a knife and it made its mark in the first one's head. Liluth screamed and crawled backward, running into the wall behind her. The other rat hissed and growled its displeasure. It looked around for an escape.
"Hey!" Ayen picked up a bottle and threw it, keeping it from turning on Liluth again. This time it snarled and charged him.
Ayen was quick. He jumped out of the way, then he threw himself at the rat. Liluth screamed again. Nails cut through his shoulder, but his knife was buried deep in the rat's side. When he pulled it out it shrieked, then finally fell over dead.
"Mr. Ayen?" Liluth asked. Her voice was small and trembling.
Ayen took a deep breath. Pain radiated down his arm. He could all but feel the infection setting in already making his skin hot. Once he felt steady enough, he turned to face the child.
"Are you alright, my friend?"
She nodded her head. "Are you alright, Mr. Ayen?"
He forced himself to smile. "Of course I am, sapling. Why wouldn't I be?"
"You're bleeding, sir." Her little fingers twisted together in worry and she chewed her bottom lip.
"Nothing to worry about, but I believe someone is looking for you." Ayen collected his knives from the rats and wiped them clean on the coarse fur before tucking them away. "We'd best not let them worry." He offered his hand and Liluth ran to take it. Her little hand squeezed as tightly as it could and Ayen swore he felt her shaking.
They wandered back through the alleyway until they reached the square. Liluth took off running at the sight of her brother still standing at the door.
"Liluth what happened to you? You're filthy," he asked, holding on to her tightly as she hugged him. He looked up at Ayen and his face grew pale. "What happened to you both?"
"Giant rats,” Ayen shrugged. “Please keep her away from there from now on."
"Oh, I'm not going back. I don't care how pretty the butterflies are," Liluth said with a frown.
"Best you watch them from the square," Ayen agreed.
"Can I offer you a place to rest, sir? That arm looks terrible,” the boy said. Liluth clung to his long legs.
Ayen grit his teeth, but did his best not to let it show. "No, thank you. Just point me to the nearest healer."
Liluth's bottom lip stuck out. "Will I see you again, Mr. Ayen?"
Ayen smiled. "You have a friend forever, Miss Liluth Auna Venharice."
Ayen Fenfir is no common elf, but that won't stop him from pretending to be one as he tries to hide from his past. Life as a criminal isn't easy, but when Ayen sees the bounty for turning in an assassin, known as 'The Angel', he finds himself caught between romance and a chance to retire from his life of crime. 'Don't try your luck in West Catoig' is what they always say, but Ayen has yet to discover just how unlucky West Catoig is for its more humble citizens.