Hunger scratches within me as insistently as a rat clawing through a decaying wall. The morning's almost gone and there's still no sign of Alvar. Stupid punk. If he'd been on time, he would have already taken my coppers, returned with a dark rye loaf and left again, taking a quarter of the loaf as payment for saving me the trouble of getting soaked. Alvar's one of a dirty pack of forsaken, homeless elf-children trapped here with the rest of us. Many days the chunk of bread is the only food he gets.
I'm not motivated by pity, though. Fact is, I just can't stand the rain. The stinkin' rain that pours down every damned morning like the sewage of the gods. Some of the old songs of my people tell of cleansing rains, life-giving rains. But here in Elftown, the rain just makes everything filthier, if that's possible. Muddier and more foul.
Alvar's probably dead. Yesterday morning he was jabbering about rising up against the humans. I cuffed him pretty hard. If one of the city guards caught him talking like that, his throat would have been slashed quicker than a fisher gutting a saltwater pike. And then his family would be hunted down and killed too, if he had one. Every so often, talk of revolt simmers up and the blades of the humans send a red tide through Elftown.
Life is no dance in the woods when you live in the elven ghetto of a human city. Elftown's an old prisoner of war camp turned slum, home to the city's foulest industries, smelting and tanning. It's a grim place. Clean air is just a sylvan dream here. Beauty is just as rare.
We elves are not allowed to leave, a restriction enforced by well-armed and armored soldiers on walls that guard inward. When I was Alvar's age, I dreamed of escape too. I swore that someday I would climb that wall and slink through the city gates to disappear into the countryside. Or swim underwater through the harbor gate unseen by the archers in the mole fort. Hopeless dreams of a foolish child. You try to escape, you die. It's that simple.
I dream smaller now. A more cynical dream perhaps, but also more attainable: that someday I may get good enough at brewing ale so that it doesn't taste like piss. So that someday I can scrabble out a slightly better existence as a tavern owner.
But today isn't someday. Today, I am a hired sword. An enforcer sworn to the service of Jet, one of a half-dozen elven ward bosses building petty empires in the gritty mists of Elftown. It pays well, for here. Enough that I don't have to take a shift at the blast furnaces or the tannery vats or in the port. Enough to eat and live in my own little square box in a tenement that probably won't collapse for at least a few more years. Enough to drink and whore when I feel like it. And the opportunity to scavenge something extra, here and there.
A sharp rap at the door twists my hunger. "About damned time," I mutter. I am tempted not to share the loaf with Alvar today, as punishment for his lateness.
But the voice that calls through the door isn't Alvar's.
"Arquë?" It is harsh and adult. And uncertain.
"Yeah, this is Arq," I answer abruptly, reaching for my cutting sword. "What's your business?"
"Jet sent me. You're wanted."
Great. No bread for me this morning, then. And I have to go out in the rain anyway.
"Hold on," I call out. "Just gotta get dressed." I pull on my tunic and reach for my leather cuirass.
"Can you hurry up? I'm getting stinkin' soaked out here!"
"Save your piss for the piss-pot on the corner," I reply, buckling on the cuirass. Jet uses his greenest recruits for messengers. I owe this guy no respect. Jet himself is best not kept waiting, though. I don a hooded cloak and slip out into the street, locking the door behind me. I don't bother to wait for the messenger. He half-runs through the slimy mud to catch up and walk beside me.
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