Chapter 18

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It took a week of near constant travel before they reached anything that could truly be called civilization. The land between Haywood and Catania – the next closest city – was scarcely populated apart from the occasional small farm. While the cost of living in a large city like Haywood or Catania was exorbitantly high, venturing too far from the city center was considered a much higher price to pay. Only the poor and desperate lived more than a day’s ride from either Haywood or Catania, where a Paladin, or at the very least a few knights, were stationed in the event of a demon attack. Those who took the risk of living beyond the Paladins’ reach were easy prey. 

To Sam’s disappointment – for it certainly would have relieved the tedium of their travels – they had but a single demon attack the entire time they were on the road. It was a small, pathetic thing – a watermelon-sized ball of fur with shrunken vestigial wings. Hopping about on its one spindly limb, the demon was about as threatening as a one-legged chicken. Tristan made them use it for target practice. Sam almost felt bad for the creature, until it tried to take a bite out of her leg while she waited for Tristan to locate his bow and arrow.

Though a week’s journey was not overlong by most standards, Sam had never made it out to Catania before. The duke of Catania and his much younger duchess had visited Haywood a few times, but whether they would remember her face, even if it was fully healed, was dubious. She hadn’t seen a mirror in days, but her skin was no longer sensitive to the touch and she sensed she resembled her old self again. She doubted that Tristan would seek an audience with the duke, so it would likely be a nonissue regardless.

Considering their relative proximity, Sam was surprised by how different the two cities were. Perhaps the contrast was heightened by Haywood’s anticipation for the Grand Fair, but the people of Catania seemed downright downtrodden in comparison. At this time of year, the marketplace was supposed to be abuzz with excitement for the warm weather and display of new wares. The business district of Catania, however, was a somber place. As Sam peered into the shops’ display windows, the shopkeepers were alternately harried or sour faced, and the prospective buyers stared at their feet rather than their companions.

“Will we be staying in Catania long?” Sam asked Tristan.

“Just for the night. We’ll leave at first light tomorrow,” said Tristan, stopping to admire a leather pair of boots.

 “Good.”

Tristan arched a brow. “Don’t think much of Catania, do you?”

 “Everyone’s so gloomy. I’d grow depressed staying long in a place like this.”

Tristan looked around as if seeing the market-goers for the first time. “You know, it is rather dreary. I hadn’t noticed.”

 “Is all of Catania like this?” Sam asked.

Tristan stroked the blond stubble on his chin. “I suppose I can’t fairly say. I know a few of the Paladins posted here, and they’re a raucous lot. I’d hardly characterize them as gloomy. We might run into them while we’re here – they frequent the Hog in Armor, where we’ll be staying the night.”

 “The Hog in Armor? What kind of name is that for an inn?”

An apt one, as it turned out.

They arrived at the Hog in Armor just past sundown, after Tristan replenished their supplies and spent an inordinate amount of time examining a crossbow, which of course he did not buy. The innkeeper, a tiny man with delicate spectacles perched low on his nose, somehow managed to look down at them despite his small stature. “Can I help you?”

“Aye,” said Tristan. “We need a place to sleep for the night – three rooms, if you have them, but three pallets would do as well.”

The innkeeper took in their disheveled appearance, their clothes dusty and skin grimy from the road, and sniffed distastefully. “We’re full.”  

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