"What?" I ask Enturi in disbelief. Whatever I had expected to hear, this was not it.
"I'm drawn to you," he repeats.
I am dumbfounded. I don't know what to say. I stare at him and finally throw out a one word question.
"I don't know," he says honestly. "There's just something about you; something that makes me feel connected to you." Resentment flashes across his face. "I don't know why. You're not very nice. And you make it absolutely clear that you don't like me at all."
"I don't like anyone."
"Why is that?" Enturi asks. "Why are you so angry? What makes you so damned special that you walk around as though the rottenness of life here in this filthy stinking pisspot of a slum called Elftown is a personal affront to you and you alone? We are all trapped here. We are all dirty and poor and miserable. Why in the name of the unnameable goddess do you think you have some unique right to bitterness?"
"Because I know!" I hiss without thinking. No one has ever asked me this. It unleashes a flood of emotion within me. Anger and bitterness and . . . something else. My eyes burn. I grit my teeth and regain a measure of self control.
"You know - what?"
His eyes are wide, curious. Shit. I should have kept my mouth shut. Too late now.
"I know what it is like to be free."
"Impossible!" Enturi exclaims in disbelief. "How could you? No one gets out. And if they did, they would never come back. There's no way you could know what it's like! Unless . . . . " I can see his active mind working. "Unless you started out free and they captured you and put you in here, like they did to our ancestors after the war. Is that what happened, Arq? Why didn't you tell anyone?"
I shake my head.
"No, it's not like that."
"What then?" It is Enturi's turn to sneer. "How could you possibly have any idea what it's like to be free - to live out there?"
"Because-" It's hard to continue. I promised Nana Romina I wouldn't tell anyone. She made me swear to keep this secret, again and again. But what does it really matter now?
"Because I know the songs."
Enturi stares at me like I'm mad.
"What?" he asks, confused. "You know the songs? What songs? Singing is forbidden. How could you possibly know any songs at all, much less ones about . . . outside?"
"I used to be a street rat," I tell him. "Until I met Nana Romina. Her husband had died and she was lonely. So she rescued me from the streets. Took me in, fed me, clothed me, raised me. And taught me the songs of the elven people."
"Listen, Enturi," I say. "Elves are oral historians. It's our nature. Sure, we can read and write as well as any other intelligent race, but that's not really our way. We may have libraries, centers of learning and gathering places, but we have no cities or large settlements. We are a nomadic, sylvan folk. We keep and share our history, our culture, our customs, in songs."
"Nana Romina said that when the humans brought us here and walled us into Elftown, they forbid song so we would lose our memories of who we are, of what it means to be an elf, of what it's like to live free. So we would be happier with our lot, compliant. All those who sang, in violation of the human laws, were taken and killed. All but her."
"She made me promise never to sing them where anyone might hear me and never to tell anyone else, or the humans would find out and I would be killed, and the songs would disappear forever from Elftown."
Enturi shakes his head, absorbing this information. He looks at me curiously.
"How many songs did she teach you?"
"All of them," I answer. "All the ones she knew, anyway. It's a lot. I know songs about elven history, about battles and heroes and quests and successions. I know songs about how to make weapons and how to make war; about diplomacy and how to make peace. Songs about living in harmony with nature and other peoples. Songs about art and crafts and poetry and musical instruments and dancing. About hunting and gathering and agriculture, about harvest and storage and preservation, about making wine and cooking. I know songs about goddesses and festivals and nights of full moons and celebrations of solstices. I know funny songs and sad songs and frightening songs and songs that inspire and give hope."
"The songs have taught me how we live and how we love and how we die and how we create communities and what makes us happy and good."
"That's how I know what it's like to be free. That's how I know what it's like to be an elf."
"And every day I wake up in this goddess-forsaken prison of a slum and I see none of it. None of it. Everything that makes life worth living for elves has been taken away from us here. Every day the filthy rain pounds just a little more elvenness out of us. Every day we become more desperate, more violent."
"And Enturi," I say brokenly. "I see all this, and I can't stop it."
"That's why I'm so angry and bitter all the time. I'm sorry."
As an enforcer for Jet, a petty elven crime boss, Arq has it better than most in Elftown, the prisoner of war slum of a human city. It's violent work, but it provides him with a little more money than he needs to survive, a little status, and a little free time.
When a prostitute under Jet's protection is brutally murdered, Jet sends Arq and a team of enforcers - including his creepy, ambitious rival; Jet's dangerously alluring girlfriend; and a chatty dwarf-of-all-trades - to find the killer and make an example of him. But when they uncover the dark reason for the murder, the delicate balance of power in Elftown begins to crumble.
To avenge a friend's murder, Arq must contend with betrayal, warring crime bosses, deadly monsters, underworld plots, and forbidden magic that, if discovered by the humans, will send a red tide of death through Elftown. His greatest challenges, though, will be grappling with his own bitter, violent nature, and trying to figure out what it means to be an elf in a place where the humans have taken away everything that makes life worth living for elvenkind.
Author: A. Harris Lanning
Cover Art: Xavier Ward