SEVENTY SEVEN

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WARM SUNLIGHT KISSED Ravenna's cheeks as she ventured past the inn's front door, into the bustling town that waited outside

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WARM SUNLIGHT KISSED Ravenna's cheeks as she ventured past the inn's front door, into the bustling town that waited outside. It reminded her a lot of Caelan's town. A small market had blossomed in front of the inn, filled with small wooden stands overflowing with a variety of wares. People roamed through the street, shoes scuffing against the stones beneath their feet. A chorus of constant chit-chat filled the air, mingling with the sweet chirps of songbirds.

It brought a sense of peace to Ravenna, a sense of serenity.

That is, until she crossed paths with a sour-looking guard. He bristled past her, almost knocking her to the ground, and stormed away without so much as a glance. A flicker of anger boiled deep within her gut. It took all of her willpower not to go after him, to spare him momentarily. Her nails dug into the heels of her palms. She needed to focus. She had a mission.

The trip to the market had been planned out the night before between her and Vyses. Ravenna was supposed to inconspicuously roam the streets. Not only was she tasked with replenishing their coin supply, but she needed to catch up on the local gossip as well. It was imperative for her to find out whether or not the King had begun to make moves against their rebellion. She had until midday to find out. Then their usual attack would begin and they would move on, to Zeporia.

She sucked in a deep breath and looked around. It didn't take very long to pinpoint her wealthy targets. She floated from stand to stand, talking cheerfully to vendors and customers alike. Her fingers moved quick, aided with her duplication spell, and it wasn't long before her pockets jingled with each step.

The gossip in town was weak, however. Everyone whispered about the murders, about the massacres, about their fears that their guards would be the next victims. Ravenna had expected as much, however.

One of the few things that she'd learned over the time she'd spent roaming about, before she'd met Caelan, was that nobody spilled the hard, cold gossip like a drunken man.

She turned her attention toward the tavern.

Her stomach turned at the idea of entering it. The mere building brought memories of that night, of that guard that had attempted to harm her. She knew that it was silly to place such an attachment upon the building --the attack had taken place in the street and the tavern itself had nothing to do with it. Yet her memory had connected her memories of the two, making it hard to relive one without experiencing the other.

Ravenna's hand reached out. Her fingers curled tight around the wooden railing that lined the staircase leading to the tavern's entrance. She closed her eyes for a moment. Through the symphony of sounds emanating from the market, she could still hear the rumble of drunken laughter and lively music bleeding through the walls. It made her skin prickle with unease.

Cautiously, Ravenna made her way up the stairs, toward the door. She opened it and, immediately, the stench of ale and sweat enveloped her. She did her best not to retch and forced herself further inside the tavern.

To her disgust, she discovered that the main room was filled, mostly, with guards. An abundance of drunken men, their armor cast aside and littering the tables, slurred and danced about. A few women, clad in soft, revealing silks, danced around them. Ravenna watched, from the corner of the room, as several guards moved scarily close to the massive fire pit situated in the center of the room. Her hand lifted, fingers curling around the talisman that dangled from her neck. It burned her skin.

She shook her head, struggling to ignore the surge of anger that swelled within her. These men annoyed her. Their duty was to protect the town. They were supposed to be patrolling the streets. It was disgusting to know that, despite all the fear bristling through the town, a majority of the guards felt comfortable turning themselves into mindless, drunken oafs. If someone, or something, attacked the town right now, these men would be absolutely useless. And it wasn't even midday yet.

Ravenna forced herself to move through the crowd, toward the wooden bar situated on the other side of the room. Elbows shoved her left and right, followed by a slew of half-hearted apologies and hungry stares. She ignored them in favor of the bartender.

"I'll take a drink," she said as she approached.

The older woman behind the counter squinted at her, her eyebrows furrowed together, until Ravenna flashed a coin. Then her expression relaxed and she prepared a mug, passing it to her.

Ravenna took a small sip and looked around. The rowdy, drunken ones seemed focused around the flames, continuously toasting their victories and singing along with the bard. A group of relaxed, somewhat sober looking guards were gathered around one of the tables in the corner of room. They'd removed most of their armor, almost hiding it on the ground beneath the wooden table. It made it harder for her to see their weapons or their ranks. They appeared coherent enough to make small talk, however, so she decided to test her luck.

As she approached the table, the men glanced up and suspicion flickered within their eyes. She immediately flashed a warm smile, hoping to ease their concern, and raised her glass. "Hello, boys," she purred.

Amusement entered their eyes. Their gazes darted around the table, a silent message exchanged between them. Then one of the men leaned forward, his eyes raking over her dress. "Hello, sweetheart," he greeted. His own lips twisted around a smirk.

She flashed a grin. "Mind if I join you?"

The men began to shift around, making space for her. As they moved, she could hear their feet brushing against the armor beneath the table, making it clink. Once there was enough space for her to sit, she moved forward. As she sat down, she caught a glimpse of their breastplates, of the crimson red cloaks attached to them.

Her heart stopped. Her grin didn't falter. She took another small sip of her drink and then leaned forward, her elbows resting against the tabletop. "I have to admit," she said, glancing around the table, her expression sly. "I'm slightly curious. What are the Blood Knights doing all the way out here? I thought you were supposed to stay in the Capitol?"

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