Erin turned away from the front door in time to see the kitchen door swing shut and a gray shape race up the stairs.
“Kota?” She walked up the stairs, after pausing to retrieve the broom, and found the door to the young man’s room standing open. He paused in the act of gathering his few possessions into his small bag.
“What, are you going to beat me with the broom again?” he asked.
“Huh? Oh, no,” Erin said and shifted her grip on the broom. “I was going to, um, sweep up here.”
“I see,” Kota said, his gaze dropping to the polished floorboards visible beneath the rug. “Strange how different this floor is from down below.”
Erin shrugged. “Thank you for covering for me down there.”
“Your father is…” Kota paused, but could find no other way to say it. “He’s terrifying, actually.”
“Yeah, a lot of people say that. Or they would, if, you know, they weren’t so scared.”
“Is that why you didn’t tell him about the inn?”
Erin started and said, “No, I’m not scared of him, but you saw how the mayor acted. If my dad had said something before now, there’s no way Geld would ever let me take this place. I’m just lucky you were here, to pretend to be my partner.”
Kota closed his bag and said, “And I am lucky you did not tell them what I am, if you want to call it luck. Thank you again.”
He started to walk toward the door and Erin immediately raised the broom in self-defense.
“Really?” he asked.
“Sorry, it’s just the whole wolf thing…”
Kota rubbed the back of his head and didn’t respond. Erin watched him head down the stairs and followed him down. Now that the sun was no longer shining directly into the common room he didn’t seem to worry about turning back into the wolf.
The young man stopped and turned around.
“Do you enjoy stating the obvious?” he asked, without any malice or sarcasm as far as Erin could tell. “Yes, I am leaving. Maybe I can…”
He trailed off and Erin said, “It’s just that, if you’re gone my dad’s just going to say I can’t do this by myself again. I mean, I think I can, but you said you used to clean and stuff for the–for the witch, and if you wanted to stay around a little longer and help out around here I could let you keep the room and eat here, then I could have more time to find a real partner or something–”
“Wow, that’s a really long sentence,” Kota said, his eyes widening in the face of the torrent.
“Well, yes or no?” Erin said crossly.
“What about the ‘wolf thing’?” Kota asked.
“You said you’ve got it under control, right?” Erin asked and Kota quickly nodded. “And if you don’t, well, you’ve met my dad.”
Kota winced at the barely veiled threat, but he’d heard worse working for the witch.
“Well, I suppose I could always handle the night shift,” he said, cracking a smile that Erin didn’t return. “Although if you do expect me to clean, you’re going to have to let go of that broom sometime so I can use it.”
“Fine then,” Erin said and tossed him the broom. “Put your bag up and get to work. Oh, and just so we’re clear the partner thing is just for my dad and the mayor. You work for me, got that?”
“I think I can understand that,” Kota answered with a straight face. “So I get to go from working for a witch to working for a girl with a broom. At least I don’t have to worry about you testing out spells on me.”
“I can learn!” Erin yelled behind him as he ran up the stairs.
By the time Kota came back down she had already returned to the kitchen to clean up in there, so he industriously began sweeping. The thick layer of dust crumbled beneath the broom and after some time gave way to another, more surprising layer.
“Sawdust?” Kota muttered to himself. He looked around the room, taking in the tables and chairs and the mantle above the fireplace, all of which seemed to have the normal amount of dust for a building that had stood empty for so many months. Then there were the halls and rooms upstairs, all suspiciously clean while it looked like someone went out of their way to cover the floor of the common room.
He began to sweep much more slowly and carefully, as if expecting to uncover something hidden beneath the trash and sawdust, but after going over the whole room he only ended up with a pile of dirt and bare floorboards. He noticed a stain here and there, but nothing out of the ordinary for a place that had seen more than a few less than careful guests.
He left the pile of dirt by the door to take care of after the sun went down and went back over the floor again with the broom. Erin returned and whistled at the sight.
“So that’s what the floor looks like,” she said.
“I’m just about to mop in here, should make the place look much better,” Kota said. “Um, Erin, when you said that Sollis passed away recently…How did that happen?”
“Oh,” Erin said, and then, “Oh. He didn’t… No, I mean, I heard he was working outside when it happened. They said it might have been a heart attack, or just old age. Why?”
“I’m sorry, it just crossed my mind and I thought I would ask,” Kota said quickly. “I’ll get the water ready and finish this, then wipe down the tables.”
Erin nodded and took the broom to take care of the sweepings. Kota waited until she walked outside before taking another look at the nearly faded stains. It was just a thought, but one too hard to shake.