Erin and Kota settled into a rhythm over the next couple of days, albeit a strange one. Because of Kota’s “condition” he declared that he would take over the night shift whenever the guests began to arrive, a prospect that seemed dimmer every day to Erin. Until then, they spent what felt like every minute cleaning and making what repairs they could to the Last Inn, with Erin taking over the outside details such as the yard and cleaning the windows.
More than once she turned around to find one of the regulars around town passing by, even those who rarely strayed beyond their homes. Every one of them craned their necks to look at the building, only to look away as soon as they caught her stare. Kota also noticed and questioned Erin about it one afternoon.
She shrugged and said, “They’re curious. Not much happens around here, in case you haven’t noticed, and word spreads fast around town.”
She didn’t mention that part of that word was more than likely about the stranger known to be staying at the inn. Kota always seemed jumpy whenever he found someone looking in, and she wondered more than once how he would handle it when real guests arrived.
That answer came sooner than she expected, that evening in fact. With a noise that heralded their arrival before they even cleared the forest, a line of wagons came rumbling over the dirt road, kicking up a steady cloud of dust that hung around even as they pulled to a stop in the field next to the inn.
Inside the inn, Erin raced to the door while Kota barely glanced out the window.
“That would be the merchants,” he said calmly. “They arrived sooner than I thought they would.”
After some shouting, a group of five approached the building while the others attended to the horses. Erin hovered near the door, not wanting to appear too desperate as the men and women sized up the building and muttered to one another.
One, dressed in rich, bright colors, looked up at Erin and said, “Where is the innkeeper?”
“That would be me,” Erin replied, and received some blank stares in return. “Mr. Sollis passed away, and I am the new innkeeper.”
Another man, dressed in more practical clothes that together with the sword at his side screamed “mercenary,” bowed and said, “We are sorry to hear of your loss. Sollis was a good man.”
Behind him the merchants gathered again and spoke in more urgent whispers.
“You knew him?” Erin asked, but her eyes were on the merchants. She had seen this kind before working for her father.
“Yes. I travel with the caravans often,” he said. For a moment that seemed to be all until, with a glance over his shoulder at the merchants, “Do you know what he used to charge?”
“Twelve full pieces per room, per night,” Erin answered, and the mercenary nodded. It was five more than what Sollis charged.
“That much?” The merchant who served as speaker for the others spun around and said, “That’s nigh-on robbery! We spoke, and we will only pay five.”
“We’ve been doing some much-needed repairs, and that money has to come from somewhere,” Erin said. “Twenty-three for two rooms.”
“I am afraid that we can only go to five full and one partial,” the merchant responded.
Erin planted her feet like she’d seen her father do many times before, a stance that told the haggler she could go all night. The mercenary stood by and waited while the process went on for what seemed like forever to Erin before they finally settled on the price of ten full pieces for each room, along with food and the use of the stable. The merchants shook their heads as they paid for the first night and went back to the wagons for their belongings, while the mercenary hovered behind.
“Not bad,” he remarked and walked away to bark orders at the guards.
Erin nodded, her mind still revolving around the money in her hand. The guards would be staying with the wagon of course, but none of the merchants were about to share rooms no matter how much they complained about the price. She went inside to find Kota hovering near the door.
“Someone has a fan,” he joked, earning a scowl from Erin.
“You could have helped, you know.”
“I’m not the money person,” Kota replied with a shrug. “You may want to put that somewhere safe, by the way. Now if you’ll excuse me, there is cooking to be done since someone left the pot boiling.”
“I can’t take care of everything!”
Kota bowed just like the mercenary and went in the back just as the guards entered with the merchants’ luggage. Erin retrieved the keys from behind the counter and directed them up the stairs. As much as she hated the cleaning, especially the way Kota nagged her whenever she tried to cut corners, it was a relief now. She didn’t doubt that if they had seen it three days ago, not one of these well-dressed, prim merchants would have even bothered to stop.
The mercenary came up the stairs last, waiting until the merchants checked out their rooms before dropping his own bag at the room he chose for himself, the one situated at the end of the hall next to the stairs. Without even pausing to look at his own room he strolled the length of the hall and back, and Erin thought he might be counting beneath his breath.
“It’s a habit,” he explained when he caught Erin’s stare. “I don’t like surprises.”
Not knowing how to respond to that, Erin just nodded and went downstairs where the merchants had already gathered around the tables at the promise of food. When Kota entered the room with trays laden with food and a cheer went up around the common room, Erin found herself thinking for the first time that this might actually work.