The Tybee vineyard sat not far from West Catoig. It was a wide expanse of twisting vines and field hands that moved about between the dense rows. The manor itself was nearly a castle with its tall, stone walls. It sat atop a hill with brick carved into one side which was likely the outer wall of the wine cellar. Along a winding brick road, were lines of trees and hedges, kept neatly groomed by gardeners with hedge trimmers.
It was all too easy to join the crowd of servants on their return to the vineyard after selling the Earl Tybee's goods in the city. The group chattered, excited for their share of the profit even if it was meager compared to the Earl's own earnings. Ayen found himself pleasantly surprised by the amount of gold coins in one woman's hand as she counted her cut before tucking it into her pocket. Perhaps Earl Tybee wasn't the worst of them, but Ayen wouldn't doubt that the man had something shady up his sleeve. Regardless, Ayen planned to case the estate in the hopes of pocketing enough to pay his rent.
Ayen left the group at the first opportunity. He carried himself with purpose, never letting his eyes wander, always watching the path ahead. So long as he appeared to know where he was going, he wouldn't be questioned. No one looked twice as he entered the dim wine cellar.
It was a cold, damp, space that smelled of wood, dirt, and alcohol. It was tempting to swipe a bottle, but that would be too obvious. There was certainly someone watching those, someone who's job would be in danger if one came up missing. He also wouldn't be able to pay his rent on stolen wine and getting drunk while living on the street wasn't especially appealing.
Ayen followed the row of large barrels to its end and turned the corner where he almost stepped on a familiar little bird.
Smudge looked up at him and quacked indignantly.
"Ah, sorry old friend. I meant nothing by it," he said gently. The duck tilted its head as it watched him.
A bouncing mess of red curls came around the corner. "I know that voice," Keyleth said. She blinked wide brown eyes at him. "What are you doing here? You weren't looking for me were you? Listen it wasn't me. Smudge here can be a bit-"
"Keyleth, I'm not here for you," Ayen cut her off before she could confess her sins. "In fact I had quite forgotten that you worked for the Earl at all.
She put her hands on her hips. "'Worked for' is a bit of a strong phrase, but yeah, this is where I spend my time."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I kind of owe the Earl a debt. So, we have something of an arrangement."
Ayen raised an eyebrow at her and she shoved his shoulder. "Not like that you pervert. I keep watch over the manor and the Earl's stock."
"Whatever did you do to indebt yourself to him?"
Keyleth's cheeks turned red and she chewed her lip. "It sounds super childish when I say it out loud." Smudge squacked and then he bit at her ankle. "Yeah, I know, I saved your life, but still. People eating ducks isn't actually a crime."
"You saved Smudge from him?"
Keyleth took a look around. "You didn't hear this from me, understood?" Ayen nodded. "Earl Tybee's daughter, Tessa, is a sorcerer. She enchanted these duck eggs so that when they hatched they would be ducks that lay golden eggs, but Smudge here wasn't exactly born with the right parts for egg laying if you know what I mean. I just happened to be here dropping off a delivery from the butcher shop when I saw poor Smudge in a cage and the Earl and Tessa were arguing about her not doing any more experiments on animals because apparently they don't always go well."
"I see," Ayen said. What exactly that meant, he wasn't sure, but he made note to stay clear of Tessa if he ran into her. For good measure, he'd stay away from any animals he saw either.
Keyleth smiled at her little duck friend. "I'm not sure what it was, but something in me said that Smudge was intelligent and that it wouldn't be fair for them to cook him so I asked the Earl if I could buy him, only I didn't have any money at the time. So I offered to trade my services instead."
"For how long?"
"A year," she shrugged.
"Keyleth that's an absurdly long time for a duck- ow!" Ayen jumped back as Smudge chomped on his ankle.
"That's why I took that job with the farmer. If I can make enough money, the Earl said I could buy my way out. Not that this is such a terrible job, but he doesn't exactly have to pay me, does he?"
"That doesn't mean he shouldn't. A person has to eat."
Keyleth shrugged again. "I'm used to this life by now. It's never exactly been easy- but wait a minute." She narrowed her eyes. "What are you doing here, Ayen?"
"I'm here on business," he said, arms crossed against his chest. Smudge quacked at him.
"Yes, very suspicious," Keyleth agreed.
"Oh, don't pretend you can understand the duck, what do either of you know? I'm here to see the Earl and that's it."
She continued to stare with narrowed eyes. Ayen wasn't sure why, but he was sweating a little bit. She couldn't possibly know what he was actually there for. He'd never given her any reason to think he was anything but an upstanding citizen. After a minute she seemed to come to the same conclusion, relaxing her posture.
"Fine, but I'm watching you. If any of this wine comes up missing, I'll know who's responsible."
"Of course, Keyleth. Why would I ever think to cause trouble with you around?"
Hands on her hips, she rolled her eyes. "There's something not right about you, but I can't say what."
He faked an appalled expression. "It wouldn't be that I'm an elf would it?"
"Oh get out of here." She shooed him towards the cellar door. "Don't forget to ask the footman to announce you. Earl Tybee doesn't like people walking in unannounced."
"Of course. I wouldn't dream of it." He walked past the pair as they continued to scrutinize him. It was just his luck wasn't it? Now he had to be careful about when he returned and what he took or else Keyleth would send the city guard after him. At least she didn't know where he lived.
At the top of the stairs was the kitchen. The cooks were busy with dinner and no one noticed him pass by. The footman stood waiting in the foyer, but he didn't look twice at a common looking elf leaving the kitchen. Unless he made himself known, he was too good at blending in. Such was the benefit of pointed ears in a kingdom where pointed ears only got you shoved into the slums. Just another reminder of how different Ayen's life had become.
He waited three days before coming back to the Tybee Vineyard. This time, he avoided Keyleth and managed to sneak his way into the dining room. It was there on the mantle that he found a jade statuette of a woman with a parasol. If Keyleth ever guessed that it was him, she never sent the guards after him. Maybe she didn't know it was missing or maybe she just liked him.
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.