Erin pulled her yellow metal monster of a bike out of the weeds beside the stable and wheeled it to the road, cursing the inn’s first guest every step of the way. She couldn’t even remember the last time she had to get up this early, but going back to sleep had proven impossible.
The young man’s money felt heavy in her pocket as she rode into the town proper, and she did feel a pang of guilt for the way she’d spoken to him this morning. He’d given her enough money to rent three rooms for a week at Sollis’s old rate, even though he looked like a beggar.
The streets were nearly empty at this early hour, and she fought back a yawn as she rode over the bridge and into the center of town, where the road encircled the clock tower.
She pulled to a screeching halt outside of the grocer’s shop just as two women passed by, and Erin’s head whipped around when she heard one woman mutter something and the other whisper in reply. They caught her stare and hurried away, but not before she heard the muffled laughter. She had no idea what they could be laughing about, and when her stomach growled she could care less.
Inside the grocer’s, she passed a somewhat long list to the clerk behind the counter and impatiently waited while he gathered everything together. The young man’s money would help the inn provide board for the first couple of guests, at least. That is, if any other guests would be willing to stay in a place like that.
Erin’s shoulders slumped and she took her time putting the groceries in the basket of her bike, dreading going back and seeing the place again in the light of day. What was she doing?
Just as she started to get on the bike, the smell of baking bread found her and pulled her down the street to the bakery. She took a deep breath and knew that she would have to go in now when her mouth started to water.
Only one other customer stood at the counter, but there were a few people seated at one of the small square tables, and every one of them looked at Erin as she walked in just as the conversation died and then started back with a few halting, uncertain words.
Erin hesitated and then walked to the counter, her back straight and her gaze not straying to look at the others. It did not take a genius to figure out they had been talking about her, and her mind worked furiously, scattering memories left and right in search of some reason why.
The boy behind the counter gave her a flash of a smile before passing the old woman in front of her a bundle that smelled of fresh bread and cinnamon.
“Here you go, Mrs. Grimsby.”
Erin fought back a sigh. Of course it would be old Mrs. Grimsby. The woman knew everyone in town, or at least everyone’s business. People said that sometimes she knew every detail of a scandal before the people involved even knew there was one, and could spread the news just as fast.
“Thank you,” Mrs. Grimsby said, but her eyes were on Erin. “I didn’t expect to see you here, dear. How are you doing today?”
“Um, good,” Erin said and in reply to the boy’s questioning look she pointed at the glass and said, “One of those, please.”
“Good, good,” Grimsby said, nodding her head as a sly smile crept over his face. “And how’s the inn?”
Erin froze. She could practically hear the other customers’ ears straining to hear.
“Oh, you know,” she said, trying to keep her face blank. “It won’t be long before the inn’s as busy as it used to be.”
One of the seated listeners snorted into his coffee at that.
Grimsby’s nose wrinkled and she said, “I don’t know about that, dear. You may not remember, but the inn used to attract…Well, not our sort of people at all.”
“If you could even call them people,” the not so quiet listener said, exchanging smirks with the others.
“Not unless the capital is defining the word,” Grimsby said and there were murmurs around the room. The empire was growing every week it seemed, and strange people often passed through on their way to the capital. Some of them were not, strictly speaking, human, but the emperor had a lenient view toward that sort of thing. She clucked her tongue and said to Erin,”Dear girl, what did you do to get saddled with that horrible place?”
Her face flooded red and Erin stuttered a reply before fleeing the bakery with as much dignity as she could muster, which failed when she heard the laughter. It rang in her ears all the way back to the Last Inn, where she managed to slam the front door open, an impressive feat when both of her arms were full with groceries. At the foot of the stairs the young man jumped, startled at the noise and even more so by her expression.
She bit her lip. Oh right, this guy.
“Do you need some help?” he asked.
“Does it look like it?” she said and stormed toward the kitchen.
He met her halfway across the common room and without a word took the bags from her and went back into the kitchen. Flustered, Erin looked around and noticed that shutters still covered every window in the common room. The dark air sweltered in the summer heat, and she almost gagged on the smell.
With a series of bangs, Erin went around and threw open every shutter and window in the hope of enticing a passing breeze.
The kitchen door opened again just as she finished with the last window. Erin turned around to find the room completely changed with the introduction of sunlight. For one thing, it now had a wolf in it.