Chapter 2:

A Rat's Home

The Wolf Among Rats

Looks like I ended up on the South side of the city. Ren'll have arrived at the Épicier manor by now so I need to head North-west so I can join him and collect our pay. Then what? I suppose Ren and I can actually hit up a tavern and see where the day takes us. Oh and we can invite Freala, that busty vixen.
Although I blend in with the homeless elves just fine, I should still avoid the city's soldiers and any templars. Noble family's troops are fine though.

Solaris, the city, is divided by the four noble families with the Duke and the temple ruling over it all. Nick owns a small portion of the North side and most of the farmland around the city. He shares the North with the Artisan's guild, while the Hozfur and Vulpe families oversee the South. Based on the green and grey cloaks of these soldiers, I think I'm in Hozfur territory.

Oh right. He's probably waiting so I should hurry. I pick up the pace and after taking too many alley ways and back streets, I arrive at the Épicier manor. It almost looks like a proper castle with working walls, a gate, and the mandatory tower for shooting down flying beasts. The manor itself, however, looks more like an art piece with gargoyles upon each corner and elaborate hedges bordering the walls.
I wave to the guards over the gate and after a bit of waiting, the gate creaks open. I waltz in and meander over to the stables where Ren is hiding from the rain with our score. As soon as I stride in, Ren jumps up from the bench and shoves me. "What were you thinking!? Why would you do something like that!?"

I laugh it off and say, "I got out just fine didn't I? I told you the well led to-"

"That's not what I'm talking about! Why-"
He stops himself and looks around before angrily whispering, "Why would you snatch the fucking kid!?"

Oh, he's actually angry. I stop smiling and contort my face to match his expression. "What's your problem? It got their attention didn't it?"

"That's not the point. You traumatized that kid!"

"So what? We're all traumatized at some point. It's high time humans get their share. Justice at it's finest."

He shakes his head and looks at me like I just ate a pile of shit. "Did you actually just call that justice?"
He backs off frustrated with my answer. "I knew you hated humans, but this is too much man. You can't just terrorize random people and call it justice."

I shouldn't have to call anything I do justice. I lean in to accentuate a point and say, "We're thieves Ren. Even if what we do wasn't justified, it's not exactly heroic. What makes what I did any worse than you?"

He throws his hands up, gripping at the hair near his ears. He throws his hands down and steadies himself. "They're merchants Kar. They can recover from a bad investment. But that kid- no. No, I won't do this Kar. I can't do this."
We both take a step down. His eyes cast away as he bites his thumb nail. Something he's always done when nervous. He's been holding on to this for a while. After a bit of light rain platting on the roof and the neigh of a horse, he asks, "Kar, do you ever regret becoming a thief?"

I look around worried someone might've heard. "Ren, this really isn't the place to have a conversation like that."

He sighs. "Right right, I know. I just-"

"We can continue this later. Let's just grab our pay and get out of here."

He stares at me for a long while before finally nodding his agreement. I change into a dry set of clothes we prepared before hand and we march across the manor's courtyard into Nick's office. His office is a separate building where he meets with business partners so he doesn't have to invite them into his home.
The maid in the entry hall announces our arrival and we're invited in. Nick, the toad of a human, is sat at one of his side tables playing some board game with his chamberlain. His lavish clothing struggles to hold back an endless tide of fat as he moves his pieces across the board.

Never taking his eyes off his game, he finally croaks out, "I heard about what happened in the common markets. Well done. A message like that is sure to ring in the common-folk's heads for a fortnight at least."
He rings a bell and a maid enters the room with a bag of coins.

After looking through it, I can't help but feel a bit annoyed. I say, "Average pay? I had to break free from templars for average pay?"

With a swig of some expensive booze he says, "This is the amount we agreed upon. Don't forget your place ashskin."

I shrug. "All I'm saying is, we need a bit of incentive. Why should we try as hard when the outcome is the same?"

"How about I don't turn you in to the Duke for incentive?"

I raise an eyebrow. "And lose your best thieves?"

He leans back in his velvety seat and sighs. He rings the bell again and his maid returns with our bonus. Looks a little less than a quarter our original pay. About time. Nick waves his hand at the door. "Be gone. I don't want you rats in my home any longer than necessary."
Ren and I bow, then leave.

The walk back to our homes is quiet. The only sound is the shuffling of the fruits Ren stole and splats from our feet in the mud. The paved roads don't reach out to 'New Town' where we live. I never fully understood that name. They call it that because none of the buildings are fully built, but they've been under construction for as long as I can remember and it's not even outside the city walls.
We pass doorless doorframes and half built walls while Ren hands out the fruits he stole to some of the homeless elves. I don't get why he just gives away all the food we've earned, but it's always made him happy so I've never questioned it. They thank and praise him as usual, but there's a dark cloud surrounding him. I didn't even hurt the kid so why is he taking this so hard. Whatever.

We eventually reach the old oak tree in the centre of New Town, ready to part ways. Under the cover of the oak's leaves I turn to Ren and say, "To answer your question. No. You know I enjoy our work. It feeds our families well and we're keeping some humans down."

He keeps his gaze on the tree while saying, "But isn't there a better way? I joined you thinking I could help people, but... I don't know."
He starts chewing his thumb.

I ask, "What are you thinking?"

He shakes his head and looks me in the eyes. "I can't do this anymore Kar. I can't work for Nick anymore. I won't. It's not right. We shouldn't have to starve some random human families just to feed us."
I feel my face twitch in anger, which he noticed. "I know I uh... Don't have the same experiences as you, but they're still people. You have to see that."

Agh, damn it. Because he's extending his compassion to the damn humans, he's going to get us killed! I take a deep breath before saying, "You know what happens if we just leave. Not to mention we don't have the money to survive the trip to another city."

He looks to the ground dejected. "I know. But the other day I saw an elf with the nobility, not as a servant or anything, but an actual noble! Not a merchant, Kar, a noble. That means there has to be a better way right?"

"Where did you see that?"
I shake my head and say, "Doesn't matter. Even if he does live here, there's nothing we can do."

"That may be true for me, but it's not for you! If anyone can find a way, it's you. Please Kar. I can't do this anymore. Besides, think of Zleal and Veena. They don't deserve to live here do they?"

I sigh. "You bastard. You know I can't resist when your sisters are involved."
I lay my hand on his shoulder. "We'll get them to Langolitha. I promise. Oh, and I guess you can tag along too."
I interrupt him before he can say thank you. "But. You have to be up for one more job. I'll look for a way around it, but if I can't find one."

He nods his understanding. "Thank you Kar."

I nod and turn around. "I'll see if I can find that elf you were talking about, but we can discuss it further tomorrow. For now let's just drop these off eh?"

He shouts his agreement and walks off. Son of a bitch Ren, making my life difficult. He's not wrong though. It would be better for all of us to live in Langolithia, especially the children. But Lords be damned if getting there would be easy. Protection during the trip besides, we'd need a shit ton of food and somewhere to sleep. And I don't even know any methods of getting money without stealing it. And not many people have enough money to steal from anyway. I'll find a way. I always do.

As I turn a corner, my house comes in sight. The old couple who lives in the house with us wave at me from the garden while their grandchildren run through streets playing some game. Before I can walk through the door a hand smacks hard into my chest to stop me. Oh yeah, she's here too. "Hey mom, didn't see you there."

My mother greets my gaze with a weary scowl and says, "Did you-"

I stop her before she can finish. "Steal? Of course not. Ren did though. We should really control that kid before he gets himself hurt!"

She repeatedly jabs her finger into my chest with each word. "How long are you going to keep doing this!? What if you get caught!? Or Ren!?"

I open my mouth to offer some snarky remark, but remember that I actually have something I need to say. "Ren and I were just talking about that. To get out of our... Arrangement with our employer, we need to leave the city. We think we have a way to make the money. Without breaking the law."
I'll try anyway.

She pulls back her hood to reveal her long light-brown hair tied into a messy tail and long droopy ears. "Look me in the eyes and tell me the truth."

I pull back my hood and stare into her maroon eyes, the only trait I share with her. Apparently I look like my grandfather on my dad's side, the only other elf in the world with white hair, stormcloud-grey skin, and a sharp face. I also inherited my father's ears which I'm especially thankful for. Long straight ears, that stick out are the most attractive ears a guy can get.
Ren has straight ears, but they stay with his head. It does work to our advantage sometimes. Makes him much less threatening. Long droopy ears, like mom's, make cute girls damn attractive.

After our eyes lock, I hold up my hands and say, "I promise."

Apparently she can tell when I'm lying by watching my eyes. After she's studied my eyes for long enough, she lightens up. "By the Lords, you're telling the truth."
She takes one step forward and pulls me into a hug. Would you look at that. This is the first time in a long time that she's hugged me out of nothing but joy. Usually its out of worry or just because. As my arms reach around her, she asks. "By the way. Why are you completely wet under your cloak? It's not raining that hard."

"Some jerks pushed me into a well thinking I was Ren."

She smacked the top of my head for lying. "Get inside and get changed. It can't be healthy walking around like a used rag. Besides, I'm sure the kids would love to hear one of your crazy stories."

Ugh. She's basically telling me to watch the kids until she gets back. Well there goes my plans. Oh well. I can think about solutions while watching the kids. And it's not like it has to be done today.
I oblige and she thanks me by pulling my head down and placing my forehead on hers. Her favourite position to say, "I love you Kar."

My eyes roll before my hands land on her shoulders. "Love you too, mom."
She releases my head and leaves to go do whatever it is she does. I think she works in a brewery. I step inside, leave most of my clothes on hooks to dry, and step through the curtain leading to our room. "Hey, snot goblins."

Ja'Lith, the eldest of the three, is sitting in the middle of our bed teaching the twins to read. The twin sisters eagerly jump out of the bed and call out my name. "Kar!"
They run over and cling to each of my legs and stare up at me with familiar maroon eyes. Wyn, the pale-blonde twin, pleaded for entertainment while Naelu, the even paler-blonde twin, begged for fun. I answered their call by lightly bonking them on the heads with my bag of strange fruits. They giggled and asked "What's in there?"

"Sit down and I'll tell you. I promise you'll like it."
I make up some wild tale about Ren and I saving some cute girls and they reward us with this bag of strange fruits.

I have no idea what these fruits are, but they can't be that bad. It's a healthy looking yellow and the insides are juicy. It even smells really good! Reminds me of Summer. You can tell it's foreign. We all took a bite at the same time. Our faces slowly scrunched up until we all spit it out. This is terrible! Ugh, I can still taste it! It's all tingly and gross!
The kids all went 'eww' at the same time. I add in some life lesson about always accepting gifts from others, then proceed to eat the whole damn thing to my displeasure. They found my reactions entertaining, so I guess it was worth it.

The rest of first-day was spent playing with the kids until they fell asleep on me. I am in a terrible position. How am I ever supposed to fall asleep like this? One of them is laying flat across my chest like I'm the bed, another is holding my arm above my head at some uncomfortable angle. And the last one is laying on top of her sister with her head against my neck.
I sigh into the darkness. Hope you're comfortable kids.

When I open my eyes again, I don't find the hair of a twin in my nose. In fact, I don't feel all that uncomfortable anymore. I look down and figure out that mother came by and fixed us. Now we're all situated into our usual spots on the only bed. I'm safely on the edge while mother and the kids occupy the middle. Time to escape while I have my chance.

I slink out of bed, out the curtain, through the door, and emerge a free man on the outside. Looks like the sky cleared up and the Sun is just peaking out of the mountains to the West. Guess I'll go see what's going on by the old oak and wait for Ren. Looks the same as every sunny day. Various humble vendors set up, a few elves relaxing on the benches under the tree, and some templars... Templars? They never bother to come here. Are they... Wearing blindfolds?

Taylor Victoria