“What do you mean, help?” Erin asked.
Kota shrugged and brushed his hair out of his face. Now that she knew it was there, Erin’s eyes kept straying back to the sunburst mark above his eye.
“I passed a caravan of merchants on the way here. They’re probably on their way to the capital, but no doubt they’re going to want to stop here and do some trading. Are there any other inns in town?”
“Well, no,” Erin answered. “We’re so small, and most people don’t stay long. Everyone wants to get to the city.”
He noted the bitterness in her voice, and said, “So you’re going to have more than enough guests within a couple of days. Wait until they leave, and then make up your mind about this place.”
Erin sighed but didn’t bother to argue. They passed an awkward few minutes making and eating sandwiches with as little conversation as possible, during which Kota did his best to ignore the constant glances and how she jumped every time he moved.
“Thank you for the meal,” he said over the clatter of Erin’s chair falling back when he stood up. “I’ll get my things ready, but if you don’t mind I’ll wait until sunset before I leave. People don’t try to shoot me as much when I travel at night.”
Kota went to the kitchen door but froze when the walls of the room shook to the pounding at the front door. Erin pushed past him and opened the door before it could collapse under the thundering blows and opened it on a pair of men. She almost didn’t notice Mayor Geld, who was nearly eclipsed by the tall, broad-shouldered man who lowered his fist and glared down at her beneath a bushy set of eyebrows set in a brick red face.
With a voice that came down like that of an irate furnace god, the man said, “Erin Lydia Smith. Explain yourself.”
“Hi, Dad,” Erin said weakly. “So I guess you heard about the inn?”
“Not until Joe Farmer comes by my forge to tell me one of my daughters has taken it into her head to try and reopen an accident waiting to happen. Without a single word to her own father, at that.”
Erin shrugged and said, “I’m an adult now. Besides, I told Mom, she was one of my referrals.”
Eli Smith’s jaw worked as he turned his response over in his head and finally said, “Why this place?”
“I…just thought someone should try to do it,” she answered, not quite looking her father in the eye. “Besides, the town needs an inn, right, Mayor Geld?”
The mayor stuttered and said, “W-well, I must admit the business it would bring if travelers had a place to stay.”
The smith turned his gaze on Geld, who immediately stepped back and added, “Tt’s true Eli. Plus, I’ve been getting some…suggestions from the city about the place, and you know what the capital is like! If we don’t do something, they’ll send their own people to run the place. Why not let one of the town’s own give it a chance?”
Eli crossed his thick arms, a maneuver that normally deterred even the most determined of hagglers. “Even if I was okay with this, it doesn’t matter. How do you expect one person to take care of all of this?”
“Mr. Sollis did,” Erin said.
“That was Daniel. This is you.”
Father and daughter stared at each other in brittle silence. That is, until Geld coughed and said, “I’m afraid he has a point, Erin. If you had a partner, it would be a different story, but as it is now…”
Eli nodded and Erin thought fast.
“So if I could find a partner, I can keep the Last Inn?”
“Well, as long as you pay the rent on time,” Geld said, but he looked to Smith for confirmation.
Eli laughed and said, “No one in town would agree to that. Why do you think this place has stayed empty for so long?”
“Kota’s not from around here, so I guess you’re right,” Erin answered and enjoyed the satisfaction of seeing the men’s reactions.
“Who?” Geld said.
“Kota. He arrived this morning, and after talking with him he said he would help,” Erin said. She shrugged and added, “I thought, maybe there would be a trial run, but if he doesn’t work out I’m sure I can always find someone else.”
Eli’s expression grew darker. “Where is this Kota?”
“He’s…back in the kitchen,” Erin said and felt her certainty drop. This was such a bad idea, but she needed to stall for time and Kota was there.
“I think I’ll meet him,” Smith said.
“As should I,” Geld piped in and Erin nodded, trying not to bite her lip as she led them back through the common room to the kitchen.
Erin knew Kota had been listening to every word when they found him hovering near the back door in the kitchen. He cringed when they came in, probably wishing that he’d run when he had the chance. She clasped her hands and made a pleading gesture where the other men couldn’t see and he gave the barest of nods, to her genuine surprise.
“Hello,” he said.
Kota stumbled through a conversation with Geld, accompanied by Erin’s quick answers that often tripped him up even more. All the while, Eli stared at the young man until Kota self-consciously touched his hair to make sure it still covered his mark.
“I can see you two need to work on the details,” Geld said and, after looking at Eli for confirmation, “But I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”
Erin beamed and showed them out while Kota exhaled and leaned against the kitchen counter, trying to still the shaking in his hands. It wasn’t until the men were some distance away from the inn that Eli spoke again, in response to the mayor’s question about his sudden change in mood.
“Please. If he’s still here a month from now, I’ll repair that sign over the door myself.”