THIRTY THREE

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The moment the tavern door closed behind her, Ravenna's discomfort vanished

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The moment the tavern door closed behind her, Ravenna's discomfort vanished. Her eyes squeezed shut as rays of sunlight breached the clouds overhead, spreading warmth across her cheeks. A heavy sigh escaped her and the tension in her muscles diminished. If she listened hard enough, she could even hear the songbirds from the forest.

Someone cleared their throat.

Her eyes shot open. A flood of embarrassment washed through her veins. Ducking her head, Ravenna hastily stepped aside, allowing the sunburnt farmer entrance to the tavern. He nodded graciously at her as he stepped inside and shut the door behind him. Exhaling slowly, she made her way down the steps. Her fingers found the smoothness of the talisman and curled around it. It provided an added sense of comfort.

As she made her way toward town, she noticed that the guards continued to act strange around her. Each one that passed gave her a wide berth, their cautious eyes zeroed in on her hands. None of them trusted her, however she hadn't been deemed a threat to the villagers yet. The secretive glances that each guard shared only proved that Ravenna needed to stay low, and away from them.

The streets were filled with people. A mother paused in front of a vender, eyeing a basket of trout. Her young triplets ran around her feet, squealing like pigs, while the baby in her arms slept peacefully. An elderly couple strolled by, hand in hand. A man waited patiently as the baker wrapped a loaf of bread for him. Several feet away, Henry the Thief argued with a vendor over the price of cabbage seeds.

Ravenna weaved through the crowds until she saw the general store. As she approached the door, Bella's angry voice could be heard. Her eyebrows arched. Curious, Ravenna opened the door and hesitantly moved inside. Bella stood behind the counter, her arms folded across her chest, heatedly arguing with an older woman. As she moved closer to the counter, Ravenna listened.

"There is no way this soap is worth two silver coins," the older woman snapped at Bella. "It's locally made, not exotic."

Bella fumed. "You are absolutely correct, ma'am," she said. Each word seemed to be forced through her teeth. "However, as this particular bar of soap is locally made by hand, I can assure you that it is worth two silver coins. Our prices vary based upon the materials each soap is made from, and their availability."

The older woman scrutinized the bar in her hands. "Is this made of silver then? Is that why this soap is so expensive?"

Bella's foot began to tap. Ravenna moved around the older woman, toward the collection of soaps. It didn't take long to locate a replica of the bar in question, or it's ingredients. No wonder the soap cost two silver coins —it was made with mint, a plant that was hard to grow in this region. With a surprised expression plastered to her face, Ravenna approached the counter with a bar of her own.

Just as the older woman opened her mouth, Ravenna interceded. "Wow," she gasped, holding up the bar of soap so Bella could see it. "This soap really only costs two silver coins? I've been to several other towns in this region, and it's always much more expensive. Mint is so hard to grow these days."

Bella's eyes lit up. "You're right," she told Ravenna, easing out of her defensive stance. "Mint is so hard to come by now. If it were more readily available, our prices would be even lower. Unfortunately, we have no control over whether or not a plant will grow."

"Of course not," Ravenna said. "Anybody would be foolish to believe otherwise. Lowering the prices any further would be a crime."

The older lady's cheeks turned scarlet. Ravenna suppressed a smile as Bella arched an eyebrow at the woman. "Do you still wish to purchase the soap, ma'am? I'd be more than happy to complete our transaction."

With an annoyed expression, the woman handed Bella two silver coins. The moment that the transaction was completed, she hurried from the shop. Bella heaved a sigh and glanced at Ravenna. "Thank you," she said.

Ravenna shot her a grin and returned her own bar of soap back to its spot on the shelf. "It seems as though you've had an eventful day," she remarked.

Bella scowled. "Something like that. How has your day been?"

"Uneventful," Ravenna lied. "Until now, at least."

An exasperated smile stretched across Bella's face. She blew at the few strands of hair that fell across her forehead and crossed her arms. "I'm sorry about that. I know I need to work on my temper."

"I think it was justified," Ravenna assured her. Leaning against the counter, she crossed her arms over her chest and said, "I've come to ask your opinion on something."

Her hushed tone made Bella's eyebrow arch upward.

"Well, someone, actually," Ravenna corrected herself. She paused and glanced around as Bella shuffled closer. Nobody seemed to be paying attention to them. "I want to know what you think of the man who owns that tavern just outside town."

A crease formed between Bella's brows. Silence passed between them as the redhead gathered her thoughts. Ravenna's eyes remained glued to her face, desperately attempting to decipher any emotion that passed through the girl's eyes. Finally, Bella opened her mouth and started to speak.

"There isn't much to say," she said. Her tone sounded slightly off. "I don't know much about him, myself. Just that he has been in the area for a while now. He also tends to keep to himself."

Ravenna tried to hide her disappointment. Considering Bella spent a lot of time interacting with people each day, she'd been certain that the redhead would have heard any sort of gossip about Vyses. "I understand," she said. "I was just curious."

Bella pursed her lips. "If you'd like, I could ask my fiancée," she offered. She ran a hand through her hair. "Eadric is one of the Imperial guards stationed here in town, and would know more about what goes on at the tavern. I'm sure that he could find out more about its owner for you."

"I hate to ask that of you," Ravenna said with a small frown. Bella's affiliation with one of the guards didn't sit well within her stomach. Especially considering how the guards felt about her. "I don't want to cause a ruckus."

With a wave of her hand, Bella dismissed the idea. Determination glimmered within her eyes. "Nonsense. Now I'm curious about the fellow myself. I will ask him tonight. Come by tomorrow, and I will tell you what I find out. I will also ask him to keep an ear out for any new gossip about the tavern."

Ravenna wasn't quite sure what to say in response. Her stomach twisted with knots and nerves. "Thank you," she managed to get out. Then she bid Bella goodbye and took her leave. As she emerged from the shop, she couldn't help but worry about what Eadric would tell Bella.

Would Bella end up disliking her too?

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