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SPARKS EXPLODED ACROSS her skin like a wildfire

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SPARKS EXPLODED ACROSS her skin like a wildfire. Ravenna's eyes widened as she stared intently at the man behind the bar. Strands of alabaster hair tumbled down his back in a thin braid. The corners of his lips were twisted upward into a crooked grin. His eyes reminded her of sweet red wine. Her stomach twisted into knots. The familiarity that radiated from him in massive, roiling waves unsettled her.

Her jaw clenched. "I am," she said. "Who do I have to talk to in order to get one?"

"Why, that would be me, lass," the man replied. The rag seemed to disappear from as he pressed his palms flat against the counter. The muscles in his arms flexed. "I'm Vyses, the owner of this beautiful little establishment. The rate is ten coins per night."

Ravenna's fingers curled around her coin-pouch and her gaze dropped. Ten coins a night wasn't the most expensive price she'd encountered, especially for such an isolated inn. Competition and greed had not yet marred the prices. She just wasn't fond of forking over any amount of money for something so trivial. The bookkeeper had told her that not every villager accepted the concept of magic or magical creatures. Even if she didn't sleep, the townsfolk would notice if she disappeared into the woods at night. All it took was one guard to whisper, or one sleepy child to peer out the window.

Or one creepy ghost girl to find her.

The bartender seemed to notice her discomfort. His eyebrow arched and his heated gaze scorched her skin as it traveled over her body. A slender tan finger pressed against his chin. "Well, I suppose I could afford to offer a discount. Especially to such a pretty lass such as yourself. Though, it may come at a small price."

Her hands clenched into fists. She shoved her hand into her pouch and withdrew ten coins. "I don't need a discount," she snapped. Money be damned. She wasn't about to let this pervert make a move. "Here's your fee. Now show me to my room."

"Suit yourself."

The man's gaze lifted above her head and scanned over the crowd behind her. His lips twisted with slight annoyance before his expression returned to his natural, flirty disposition. His hand waved, beckoning someone closer, and a homely looking boy approached the bar. He glanced at the bartender and then back at Ravenna. He dipped his head. "Right this way, Miss."

"Not so fast," the man behind the counter intervened. His braid swung against his back as he rounded the counter. He flashed a coy smile and ruffled the boy's curly brown hair. "I'll take this one, Lyth. Watch the bar."

The boy's eyes widened. His complexion paled as he looked at the hunks of burly men that surrounded them. Before he could contest, the wine-eyed bartender offered his arm to Ravenna. "Right this way, lass. I'll kindly take you to your room."

Ravenna stared at his arm. She could kill him. Easily. With a single flick of her wrist, several spikes of ice could stop his accosting behavior. Not a single man in this tavern could stop her. But she couldn't kill him and remain here. He was too well liked in this town.

His arm dropped. He chuckled at her obvious discomfort and winked when her gaze lifted to meet his. Ravenna folded her arms across her chest, trying to hide the ice that crawled across her palms. Her eyes narrowed as the white-haired man gestured toward a somewhat hidden staircase in the corner of the tavern. She followed him through the crowd and up the stairs, into a brightly lit corridor. The rowdiness of the bar immediately faded away. Panels of wood lined the walls and a tattered rug stretched across the floor. He led her further down the hallway and to the right, stopping in front of a single wooden door.

"Here you go, lass," he purred. He pushed a key into the lock and opened the door. "Do you plan to stay long?"

"I haven't decided yet," Ravenna said. She glanced at the room. It was fairly small, with bed pressed against one wall and a window carved into another. A battered looking chest sat at the foot of the bed and a wardrobe was pressed against the wall beside it. She entered the room and glanced out the window.

The darkness made her stomach twist into tighter knots. She turned back toward the door, annoyed to find the bartender still standing there. He leaned against the doorframe with his arms across his chest.

"Don't you have a tavern to run?" she commented idly and carefully set her bag of scrolls on top of the chest.

"It's not very often that travelers visit our town," the bartender remarked. "What brings you to these parts?"

She folded her arms across her chest. "I don't see how that's any of your business. Now if you don't mind, I would like to retire for the night. It's been a long day."

The bartender didn't immediately move. Instead, those wine-red eyes lingered on her face, burning her sense of discomfort across her skin. He arched an eyebrow and jerked his chin toward the chest. "All that I ask is that you refrain from performing any of those pesky little spells inside my tavern. There's a reason you can't hear the bards and drunkards down below. I'd like to keep it that way."

Ravenna straightened. Her gaze dropped to the floor, and noticed the slight haze of magic that covered the heavy stones. She clicked her tongue. "It's just research. You have nothing to fear."

"Good to hear!"

His hand grasped the doorknob. He sent her another coy smile. For a moment, his canines were sharp, extended longer, like fangs. A chill scraped down the length of Ravenna's spine as his eyes flashed crimson. "If you need anything, anything at all, just holler, lass."

The door clicked shut and Ravenna exhaled sharply. Anxiety washed through her nerves like a bolt of lightning. She quickly moved toward the door. The bartender had left the key in the lock. She twisted it and pulled the key out, setting it down atop the chest. Now that the door was locked, she felt slightly more secure.

She shuffled toward the bed and sank down onto the straw mattress. She pulled the ugly green quilt over her body and sighed. Her anxiety started to fade, overtaken by an entirely different sensation. It was like her blood had been replaced with lead. Her gaze found the window again. From her bed, she could see the roundness of the moon, a bright white in an expanse of darkness.

Ravenna realized that she was tired. Really tired. A type of bone-deep exhaustion that she hadn't felt for a long while. She blew out the candle that illuminated the room and hid beneath the covers. The scrolls could wait until morning. She didn't want to attract the curious little ghost girl again.

As she drifted to sleep, those wine-red eyes reentered her mind. Crimson swirled within their depths.

She'd seen them before. She just knew it.

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