A/N: So sorry for the long wait for the update, but here it is! :)
Tarvin was a large kingdom. It started out a small fishing village, many hundreds of years ago, and grew as the world grew. The trade routes were short, from one end of the continent to the other. As ships were created that could stand harsher weather, built with stronger timber, world exploration discovered new trade routes between countries that the peoples of Tarvin never thought to exist.
The natives of Tarvin were bronze-skinned humans, who started out living on the coast in packed-mud buildings and used fishing rods and spears to catch food. They led simple lives, hunting for fish and game in the nearby forests, trading with merchant ships sailing in from southern Alzerroc (the continent of which Tarvin resided.) Everything changed when explorers from Sharyndai, an elven nation to the south-east of Alzerroc, discovered them. The ship had survived a terrible storm and needed repairs. It found Tarvin by mistake, which proved a blessing.
The natives had never seen elves before, nor had they seen ships as large and beautiful and strong as the elves'. This ship was called Calesti, Elvish for "Heaven's Wings", and the humans regarded the elves in fear and admiration. Once their ship was repaired, the elven captain decided he would discuss with his queen about taking Tarvin, for its location was practical for trading abroad. Its discovery could prove profitable for the elven nation. And so he went.
Several months later, the humans were shocked to see a fleet of elven warships returning, led by none other than Calesti. They were conquered without much of a fight; the natives were outnumbered twenty-to-one. The elves docked, claimed the land, and established their laws and revoked the culture of the natives—replacing it with their religion.
Where the elves believed in the Four Gods – God of Life, God of Death, God of Evil, and God of Just – the natives believed in spirits. Their religions conflicted, and to throw away their beliefs pained them. Their homes were replaced with solid structures built with wooden foundations, packed mud, thatched roofs, and so on.
Over the next hundred years, Tarvin became a popular stopping place for voyages and a perfect market place for the world. Elves, humans, halflings, dwarves, and many other peoples from across the world created homes in Tarvin—many being refugees from ongoing wars. Tarvin was peaceful in that it remained neutral in world affairs. Soon, as the kingdom expanded, it laxed its religious teachings, although the Four Gods was still the prime belief of all peoples. Except for the natives, whose numbers dwindled.
Eventually, humans of Ptoshint wished to rule Tarvin. A war between Tarvin and the large northern country transpired and ended quick. A human king replaced the elven, although he kept most of the elven council members.
This was how Tarvin remained for the last several hundred years. The city grew tremendous, expanding miles in a jagged semi-circle. In the center of the Old City was the palace, built a few miles from a small lake. Expanding from the palace was miles of trees and streams, now replaced with mansions well-kept taverns and inns. A large wall was built, expanding as a semi-circle, from one end of the lake, all around the higher-class area, to the other side of the lake. This part of the city was called Luma, where only the wealthy, nobles, and royalty lived.
Beyond the lake was the middle-class area, expanding miles around Luma. To the east was the New Market, the harbor resting on the shores of Cape Horizon. Rivers cut around the middle class area, creating a catacomb throughout the rest of the kingdom. They were called Waterway Roads, where small boats could be used to travel faster from one district to the next.
On the other side of the largest waterway road was the Old Market, which was where the natives' lived when Tarvin was but a simple fishing village. Now, the Old Market was part of a large area called the slums. The slums encompassed most of the southern and part of the western edges of Tarvin. This was where those in poverty resided. Some said there was no law there, and people struggled to survive. Drunks drowned their sorrows and hobbled down the road, starved horses pull carriages piled with starved chickens to the Old Market, the people were stressed, and happiness was something found in their dreams.
"Here it is said the natives still plot to take back their land and seek revenge on the elves for stealing their way of life," Kian finished reading in a spooky voice. He was sitting on a bed in a room decorated in colorful flowers and beautiful draperies. It looked haunted though, as the rain pounded the window and thunder shook the room.
The little human girl whom he was reading to gasped. She hugged her blankets and stuffed doll close, large brown eyes wide. "That's not true!"
"Well, the book says it is," Kian said with a smile. The girl frowned.
"But that means they will want to hurt you!"
Kian laughed. "I don't think you should take it too seriously," he assured. "I was only kidding. Remember what I said though. Tarvin is large, and even a little princess should know its history."
The girl giggled. "But I'm not a princess."
"You might be," Kian said pointedly. "If a prince comes along later, he might fancy you. That won't happen though, if you don't even know how Tarvin was found."
"Maybe—eek!" she yelped as lighting and thunder crackled, shaking the room.
"It's just thunder, miss," Kian said, trying to calm the six year old. The girl nodded her head, though she looked frightfully at the window. Kian resolved to tell her another story, a happier one. "Do you want to hear about the Four Gods and the little duck's quarrel?"
The girl smiled, nodded.
"Well, the Four Gods wanted to create a creature that would inhabit the lakes and be friends with the frogs and insects," Kian said, reciting from memory. It was one of his favorites to hear from his mother as a lad, and he knew that it could calm the little child. He went on, "They made the duck, which was quite happy at first. She swam and swam with all her friends, all day long. And then one day, the Gods wanted to give the ducks a friend, and made the Swan. The swan was ugly at first, but as it grew bigger and more beautiful than the duck, the duck began to complain. She grew jealous and sad, for the Swan was prettier than her. The Swans were harmonious and patient, even though the Duck was constantly mad. Finally, one day she turned to the Four Gods, weeping.
" 'Why did you make the Swan beautiful and me not?' she asked, 'Am I less important? Is she your favorite?' "
Kian paused, allowing the thunder to speak before he continued. He said in a patient tone, "The Four Gods replied to her gently, 'We made the Swan as beautiful as you. If you saw yourself beneath the feathers, you will see how beautiful you are.' The Duck didn't believe them at first, she thought they liked the Swan better. 'Why?' she asked, 'Why could I not be beautiful above the feathers, as the Swan?' The Four Gods simply told her again 'You do not need to look beautiful to be beautiful.' The Duck needed to be happy with herself, and only then would she see that the Swan didn't outshine her. But the Duck couldn't see past her reflection. One day, she would, and when she does, only then will she finally understand the Four Gods' wisdom."
The little girl snuggled under her covers, smiling at Kian as he told the story. "Does that mean the Four Gods think the swan isn't pretty on the inside?" She spoke slowly, tiredness drawing out the words.
"Some believe so," Kian said. "The Four Gods warn us all the time not to trust the look of a person. Just because a person is beautiful doesn't make them a good person." He heard a knock on the door and lifted his head. A soldier peered inside.
"Officer Kian," the man bowed. "It is time to set guard."
Kian nodded. The man retreated and the elf looked at the girl. "Will you sleep, Miss?"
She nodded. "Thank you for the stories!" Kian smiled and stood.
"Just think of them, and if you need anything, I will be in the hall." When she nodded, while yawning, he left. Shutting the door behind him, he took his post next to the soldier who spoke to him.
"You really enjoy telling stories," the man said, leaning against the wall. Kian shrugged, armor clanking. He didn't wear much, just the minimum required, but it was still heavy and burdensome.
"Anything to sit down for a while," he jested with a light laugh.
"Yes, though by the looks of it, one would have thought you'd be a father by now," the other elf said. Kian's mouth twitched, but he smiled anyway.
"I think we've had this discussion before," he said. "Taking care of a child that knows not to mess in its pants is different than raising one that does for the first couple years." He shuddered at the thought.
"It's not that bad, Kian," the elf said. "The mother does most the work."
"But not all," Kian mumbled. In elven culture, raising a child was both parents' work. Even if it was a daughter, a father would be expected to help educate her from cleaning to grooming to the knowledge of their ancestry and religion. For the humans, it was different. Men only educated their sons to fight or take up the family trade; women had to do the rest. Elves considered it barbaric and tragic, but trying to teach the humans to follow their ways was one of the reasons Kian believed the elves let themselves be conquered. Teaching a human was like teaching a rock.
"Besides," Kian went on, absently rubbing his gauntlet with his hand, cleaning it of smudges. "I haven't found a woman yet."
His comrade scoffed. "You mean you haven't accepted one yet. You had six eligible brides, but you turned them all down. They were rich and noble too."
Kian didn't answer for a moment. He heard thunder, but it was distant. The storm was lightening; it would be over soon. Then he said, "You know me, Quintin. I'm picky." He smiled at the elf, who chuckled. "How is your wife, by the way?"
"Eight months pregnant, healthy, and very demanding," Quintin said with a sigh. "She sent me out at midnight's call just to get rosemary tea."
Kian blinked. "Where did you get it? Most shops are closed long before midnight's call."
"My brother-in-law owns a shop," Quintin explained. He paused suddenly. "Did you hear that?"
Kian was already standing with his hand on the hilt of his sword. He had heard it; it was a shuffle, almost like the sound of curtains being tossed aside, or a blanket. Kian looked at the door. "I think Miss Eli mistook a shadow for a monster again..."
There was another shuffling sound, and the elves exchanged glances.
"Should we check on her?" Quintin asked.
Kian nodded, reached for the door.
He wished he hadn't.
Kian Ellinvor was an officer of noble status. He was a good commander, with keen senses and decent reflexes, even if his ability with the sword was hampered by his passive attitude. However, when given a duty—especially when protecting living people—he took his job seriously. Especially after hearing about the deaths of Lord Etlua and Lady Niafil. He was assigned with Quintin—another officer, though he reported to Kian in this mission—and several other men to guard the manor and guard Miss Eli, the deceased Lord and Lady's daughter.
Now Kian sat in a room, in a cushioned chair that did not feel comfortable, near a fire whose heat was unwanted, waiting to hear from the king words he did not want to hear. The elf's blue eyes were transfixed on the polished table in front of him, unseeing. All he saw was the horror of that night. The girl he was chosen to protect.
Shuddering, unable to stomach the thought, he closed his eyes.
The door opened.
Immediately, the officer stood so fast that his bones popped, and he waited for His Majesty to signal him to sit. Kian did so, keeping his eyes lowered as a show of respect. King Adrian was revered, even for being a human, for his lineage had shown deep care for Tarvin's people. Although in the past year, the king seemed to lack such strong emotion for his people.
Kian would otherwise be honored to be in his presence, but the nature of the meeting was somber. After the king entered, the Chancellor followed. Ilidor's soft steps and haunting appearance sent a shiver through Kian, forcing him to keep his eyes lowered. He still felt the elder elf's eyes boring through him.
Once King Adrian was seated and Chancellor Ilidor stood patiently at his side, the meeting began.
"The entire House of Etlua is finished," King Adrian said quietly. "It is sad news, to think that one of the finest officers could not protect the last of them." Kian gripped the chair's edge, nails digging into the wood. He hung his head, ashamed.
"Forgive me, Your Majesty," he said quietly.
"Do not apologize; everything you did was right," King Adrian said, voice strong. "You were thwarted, however, by someone who had lingered somewhere you couldn't find him."
"My men and I did a sweep through the room three times," Kian said, not wanting his men to be blamed. "There was no one there but us."
"Then one of you must have done it," King Adrian stated. Kian tensed.
"Quintin would tell you the same, Your Majesty."
"He did." Adrian leaned forward, hands folded. "Please describe to me what your precautions were before setting post for the night."
Kian explained. The routine was simple, but efficient; no one could have evaded them. The elves had swept through the halls and corridors, the rooms and closets, and even checked the rooftops and balconies before returning to post. The girl's room lacked a balcony and they were on the third floor of a building that had little grip to climb. Kian's voice shook though; he did not like remembering that night.
"After...finding her..." Kian tried to keep his composure as he finished. "My men and I scoured the manor. We looked everywhere, went in the rain and checked the roofs and even the stables, servant quarters, and store houses. When we confirmed there was no one there, we rung the bell." There was a bell within a half-mile of every manor, only to be rung to warn others of danger, to keep look out for something dangerous, or that something awful had happened. Kian had the bell rung to signal all three things. He could still hear them pounding through the rain, he could still hear the neighboring bells ringing in response, one after another, until the night sang laments.
There was a long pause, the king's eyes shifting from Kian to the papers he had on the desk.
"It had stormed." King Adrian finally said. "I imagine visibility would be low when checking the balcony and roof, before all this happened."
Kian bowed his head. "It was, Sire. We looked several more times than usual, heard nothing besides the rain and thunder, and decided it was clear. We locked the doors and windows to be certain."
King Adrian said nothing. Ilidor leaned down, saying something in the man's ear that Kian did not hear. The human shook his head, shaking his hand as though dismissing something. Despair flickered in Ilidor's eye, though he shed no further emotion, and he stood straight.
"Tell me, Officer Kian, what did you do just before the incident?"
Kian flinched, not wanting to think of it. This was the king, he reminded himself. He had no choice. "I told her some stories, tried to calm her," he said, the memory twisting his heart. "She was afraid of the storm, but the stories made her feel better. Time passed and she finally was tired enough to be undisturbed by the thunder. I left, taking my post with Quintin, just outside her door."
"Did you take any breaks between the time you took your post and the time of the incident?"
Kian shook his head. He opened his mouth to speak, but decided against it.
"What made you want to check on her?"
"Quintin and I heard a noise...sort of like the shuffling of cloth on the ground," he said quietly. "I opened the door to find..." he didn't want to finish.
"What was she wearing?"
Kian closed his eyes, shaking his head. "Just the night gown, nothing different." Except for the blood.
"Nothing at all?"
Kian looked at him, not understanding why it would matter. "She had a ring I didn't notice before," he said.
The king looked unusually interested. "A ring? Made of steel?"
"I don't know, Your Majesty, it was dark," Kian said quickly. "I didn't think to check."
Kian looked up, feeling pressured and disgusted at the same time. King Adrian didn't seem to care that a six year old was dead. He wore no sorrow in his eyes, only keen interest. It unnerved him, but he had to think rationally. Why would the king ask about the ring so excitedly? There was another reason. Perhaps he had an idea who wanted the House of Etlua dead and why. The question burned in his throat and he wanted badly to ask, but he waited for the opportunity to present itself. Otherwise it would be impolite and disrespectful.
"Officer Kian," King Adrian addressed sternly. The elf bowed his head. "I had prepared and sent letters in advance to your home as well as five other officers, but I believe I should tell you now so you are ready. It is unfortunate what happened, but there is a mystery behind the House of Etlua's death that links to dozens of other deaths. Although the other deaths are not so important as the Etlua family, they were all done by the same killer."
Kian knew where this was going, but said nothing. He already accepted it, eager to do justice.
"I want you and the five others to find this murderer, and put him to death."
Kian bowed his head again. "I will be honored, Your Majesty."
King Adrian smiled, approving. "Then it is settled. You will investigate the slums, for that is where the killer's base is. Of all his kills, they always trace back to the slums, so there is no doubt if you go there and look hard enough, you'll find him. I will provide enough funds to last you and your comrades three months of lodging, food, and necessities. If in three months you have not found the killer, you will be allowed a week break, but then will be sent back."
Kian only barely heard his orders. He was still caught on the word 'slums.'
"That will be all, Officer Kian," King Adrian stood, followed by Kian. "May the Four Gods speed your progress and bless you and your men with luck."
Kian thanked him, and left when he was dismissed. Just outside the door, he reached out and leaned against the wall.
"The slums? The slums?" he wanted to sink down and argue his fate, but it wasn't the right time or place. Instead, he continued to walk, trying to imagine what the slums would be like.
In the end, he knew he was facing certain misery. The only comfort he had was the notion of finding this killer.