SIXTY ONE

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A TIGHT KNOT coiled within Ravenna's stomach. She walked behind Vyses, her arms crossed over her chest, following him toward the main entrance. As she walked, she couldn't help but scope out the guards that surrounded them. Several seemed to weave in and out between the buildings outside of the gate, patrolling the streets. It was a common practice, a routine that was performed throughout the kingdom. Yet it brought forth fresh memories of the Caelan's small town, of the guards that hated her and their corpses. This city wouldn't be as easy to escape from, should Ravenna need it. The simple thought made the hairs on her arms stand tall.

Vyses slowed his pace, glancing back at Ravenna. "Don't worry," he said, his voice low. "There won't be near as many guards within the walls."

She nodded. As they approached the entrance, a single guard stepped forward to greet them. His face was shielded by a heavy iron helmet, a small flaming insignia engraved within its center. A sword dangled at his side, clinking against his armor with each step that he took. "What business do you have here?" the guard asked.

"Just visiting for a while," Vyses answered. He smiled and placed his hand on the small of Ravenna's back. "My family and I have been exploring the kingdom. There's talk of a famously delicious sweet treat floating around and I've heard this city is the best place to get my hands on it."

The guard paused for a moment. "You'll have to pay the visitors tax then," he said.

"A visitor's tax?" Vyses's brows furrowed. "I don't remember paying a tax the last time I visited."

"It's a fairly new installment," the guard assured them. "If you want to enter the city, it will cost three hundred coin. Per person."

Ravenna frowned at him. She stepped away from Vyses, moving closer to the guard. It took all her strength to ignore the nerves that tickled the insides of her stomach. She stared intently at the guard. "I don't think so. This tax obviously doesn't exist."

The guard hesitated and her frown deepened. He took a small step back. "Alright," he said, his tone softer. "Alright. You're right. Just keep quiet about this and follow me."

A smile curled along Ravenna's face. It had been a while since she'd had to sweet talk her way around. Not to mention, exercising her eye for nonsense felt pretty nice as well.

The guard stopped them just in front of the massive wooden gate. He looked up and waved. Ravenna followed his gaze, spotting a single guard within a small tower atop the wall. The guard moved, pulling a small lever. The sound of metal grinding against metal filled the air as the wooden doors slowly opened.

"In you go," the guard told them. "And remember, not a word about this."

Ravenna ignored him, too focused on the dirt encrusted city that sprawled out in front of them. Buildings of grayed, rotted wood were clustered together around them. The stone pathways that weaved around the buildings were colored a muddy brown, tattered weeds sprouting between each stone. Beggars littered the streets, crouched in the corners of the buildings, their skin smeared with grime and blistering sun damage.

Vyses sucked in a sharp breath. She glanced at him from the corners of her eyes. He chuckled dryly at her and said, "Welcome to Elery."

"We need to find Aster Inn," Ravenna said. She glanced around again. Several children raced each other through the streets, their laughter and chatter filling the air. Their clothes were tattered, filled with patches, and their feet were bare.

"Just be wary, lass," Vyses said, his voice low. "We weren't joking when we said this town is known for thievery. Watch your pockets."

Ravenna pursed her lips. Her hand rested lazily atop her coin purse. Anything else of value, such as Calean's notebook, was tucked away safely within the bodice of her dress. And if someone managed to snag it without her noticing, well, they'd rightfully earned it at that point.

Even Lyth seemed on guard as they walked through the streets. His shoulders were tense, his eyes darting this way and that. It was strange to watch a kid walking around so stressed, so focused.

Elery seemed to grow more crowded and cluttered the further they traveled into it. Weathered buildings seemed to overflow onto the streets, like clusters of untended weeds, packed so close together that their metal plated roofing touched. People roamed the streets, dressed in various items of clothing. Apparel seemed to range from patched rags to elegant purples and furs. Those dressed in the latter were a rare sight, however, and surrounded by guards. As they neared the center of the city, a marketplace sprouted from the chaos, filled with shouting merchants and wooden stalls.

As they passed through the market, Ravenna noticed a beggar roaming about. He bumped into a younger woman, almost knocking her over. The woman scowled at him, berating the man as he apologized profusely. A guard sauntered over and pushed at the man, his voice swallowed by the crowds around them. The beggar waved his hands in surrender and rushed off. The entire ordeal seemed innocent enough.

But Ravenna knew better. The movement of his hand was quick and unnoticed by the woman, whose pockets had been picked clean of their coins. Her grip tightened around her own coin purse.

"There!" she heard Lyth say. She followed his gaze toward the opposite end of the market. A brightly painted sign stood out amongst the bleak grays of the city, depicting the words "Aster Inn" within its center.

Vyses grabbed Ravenna and Lyth both by the hands. He weaved them through the crowds, toward the inn, and it wasn't until they'd climbed the stairs that he released them. Lyth stepped forward and opened the door. Just as Ravenna was about to step inside, a scream burst through the chaotic noises of the marketplace.

Her blood ran cold and she turned around, fully prepared to fight her way through the city. But the guards weren't after her.

She grimaced. A pair of guards had cornered a man dressed in tattered tan clothes. The man fallen to his knees in front of them, the skin around his right eye bright red and already swelling. Blood dripped from his nose, staining the stones beneath them. One of the guards had grabbed a fistful of the man's clothes, almost hoisting him from the ground. His free hand was drawn back, prepared for another punch.

"Get inside, Ravenna, now," Vyses said sternly.

"What's going on?" she asked, allowing him to lightly push her inside. The door immediately closed behind him, blocking the view of the fight.

He shook his head. "I don't really know. Though I doubt the man did anything to deserve a beating like that."

Ravenna's stomach twisted. "That's not right."

"It's not, lass," he said. "But there isn't much to be done."

"Surely there is a way to stop them," she said.

"Ever since the queen passed, the king hasn't cared about anything but alcohol and whores. The guards have had free reign ever since," a new voice cut in. Ravenna glanced back over her shoulder to find a young man staring intently at them. He stood behind a wooden desk, a rack of keys dangling on the wall behind him. He smiled at them. "You must not be from around here. The name's Gaius. Welcome to my Inn." 

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