Chapter 25: The Dark Capital

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I didn't know what I had expected, but it certainly wasn't this. Everything I had heard about Vallinstra—the slavery, the sex and drug trade, the relentless oppression of the human inhabitants—formed a stark contrast to the scene that unfolded before my eyes.

The street behind the Gate of the Forsaken was packed with people. Merchants yelled at passers-by behind their colorful market stalls, tempting them into buying their goods. A delicious aroma filled the air, coming from the different spices and foods that were sold in the stalls and shops. Neither the merchants nor their customers appeared to be impoverished; they all wore clothing of a decent quality and the blush on their faces exemplified their good health. A group of four children were playing some kind of board game next to the great city walls and some others were playing tag. At first sight, all of them seemed to be happy.

Almost too happy.

However, as soon as the doors of the entrance gate had opened and the four of us appeared in the gateway, the hustle and bustle in the street came to a standstill. Dozens of heads were turned our way. My heart hammered in my chest while I endured the citizens' scrutinizing looks and I stuck out my chin, daring them to say something. The others shuffled closer to stand beside me, adopting an equally self-assured stance.

A plump woman with blonde curls and a puffy face stepped forward, her watery blue eyes gliding over each of us. The tone of her voice was neither hostile nor friendly when she spoke, "Who are you and where do you come from?"

"We are travelers, ma'am," Rowan answered, always the diplomat. "We come from the outside."

Shocked gasps went through the crowd, but the woman shushed them with a simple gesture of her hand. "No one ever made it through that maze alive. How did you do it?" With every word, the other citizens moved a careful step closer. The eager, almost hungry looks on their faces sent shivers down my spine. I reminded myself that these people hadn't seen the other side of those high walls for decades—some of them had never been out of the city at all.

Rowan hesitated, biting his lower lip. "We had help."

The woman scoffed and crossed her arms over her chest. "They helped you? Why would they ever do that? What is your business with the Dark Sorcerers?" Her skeptical gaze fell upon Rowan's uniform and she clenched her jaw.

Telling them the real reason for our visit was too much of a risk. Chances were high that they would lynch me if they knew who I was and why I was here. Besides, we didn't owe them an explanation. "Our business with the Dark Sorcerers is none of your concern," I cut in. The woman raised a threatening eyebrow at me. Some of the people behind her growled.

Rowan grabbed my arm, keeping one eye on the blonde woman. "Kenna, we'd better keep these people satisfied for now," he whispered in my ear. "It's impossible to go to the Onyx Tower unnoticed, so if we can get one of the citizens to accompany us along the way, we may well make it in one piece." Disgruntled, I pressed my lips together.

He straightened up and took a step forward, displaying a disarming smile as he raised both of his hands. "For the city of Vallinstra is broken, but its people are not. They shall be avenged when the Tower falls," he quoted in a soft voice.

For a moment, the street was so quiet that I could hear the chirping of a lonely songbird somewhere above our heads. Baffled, I stared at Rowan, but he ignored me, engrossed in a staring contest with the blonde woman. She had stiffened, her face as pale as a ghost.

What had just happened? What was Rowan talking about? It had sounded like he was reciting a prophecy, one I'd never heard of.

The woman swallowed. "Come with me." Without waiting for a response, she turned around and walked toward the end of the street, deeper into the city.

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