The short walk into town seemed all the shorter to Kota, who kept trying to press his hair down to better cover the mark on his face and looking up at the sky as if expecting the dark clouds overhead to break cover at any moment and leave him exposed to the sun.
“You fuss with your hair more than a teenage girl,” Miles said. “No offense, Miss Erin.”
“Really? How old do you think I am?” Erin asked. “And just Erin is fine. Where do you two want to go first? I mean, there’s really not that much to see, besides the clock tower and the river, maybe, and some people like to see the church – oh.”
“What? I won’t burst into flames if I go in.” Miles paused on the paved road that separated the houses on either side. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I won’t. Hasn’t happened yet, right?”
Erin decided to lead them along the main road, which happened to be the only road. The rest of the side streets were little more than dirt paths, and while it was possible to go just about anywhere in town using the alleys the view lacked anything remotely interesting. That said, the most interesting view in town today seemed to be the two strangers, if the many, many looks Miles and Kota received from the townspeople was any indication. A few even turned around to watch them walk by, and faces looked out from some of the store windows.
“You don’t get many visitors around here, do you?” Kota asked. His head ducked down when a nearby couple whispered and he seemed to be making a bid to hide behind himself.
“Well, no, but…” Erin looked at the others and coughed before saying, “Word travels fast around here, you see, and the merchants apparently like to talk a lot while they’re selling and trading.”
“Ah,” Miles said.
“Ah what?” The moment they reached the bridge Kota latched onto one of the railings and looked down into the river below to avoid the stares. The sound of the water combined with the croaking of frogs and the quacking ducks splashing in the water helped, and if he closed his eyes he could almost forget they were in the middle of town.
“Ah, they know there’s a vampire staying at the inn, right?”
Erin nodded and for Kota’s benefit said, “Yes, and people have been asking about Kota every time I come into town. They’re just curious, that’s all.”
Kota just nodded with his eyes clenched shut. When he failed to move or otherwise respond for five whole minutes, Miles and Erin looked at each other and without speaking grabbed each of Kota’s arms. Together they managed to pry him away from the bridge and walk him into the center of town, where a large multistory clock tower dominated the area.
“Why couldn’t I have just stayed at the inn?” Kota asked, and Erin swore she heard the hint of a whimper in his voice.
“Don’t you like your walkie?” Miles said in the most patronizing way possible. “Come on Kota, it won’t kill you to look around.”
He grabbed Kota’s arm again and pulled him around the circle of stores, pointing out the patch of green at the foot of the tower and the squirrel in the tree who hissed at Kota.
Erin decided to hang back and let them run around, so she couldn’t hear what Kota muttered in a steady stream under his voice at Miles but she did see the young man give a few fleeting smiles after a while. She wondered what could make someone so scared of other people like that. He walked around like he expected the world to kick him. Did it have something to do with his curse, or had Kota always been like this?
“Well well, look who’s got two boys hanging on her arms,” said a familiar voice.
Afterwards Erin looked back on this moment and felt a strong surge of pride for managing to keep her face expressionless as she turned and said, “Hello, Mrs. Grimsby. Out for a walk today?”
“Oh, yes,” the little old woman said with a smile that suggested something. Erin wasn’t entirely sure what it suggested, but she thought it was probably dirty. “Doctor says I need to get out more, you know. I see you’re getting out of that stuffy old inn today. Tell me, is that the partner I’ve heard so much about?”
Erin wondered how much Grimsby could have really heard as she said, “Yes, that’s Kota. Art’s taking care of the inn so I could show them around town.”
“And that other one,” Grimsby’s voice lowered and she leaned in closer to Erin as she said, “The scrawny one dressed like a scarecrow, he’s the capital’s vampire?”
She misinterpreted the surprise on Erin’s face and chuckled. “Don’t be so surprised, those traders have been talking about it all morning. Just like the emperor to send one of them here.”
Mrs. Grimsby continued on, chattering about the country today with the occasional thinly veiled barb toward those “bats” as she called them, but Erin paid little attention. She looked at Kota, still rake-thin and dressed in cast-off clothes from the attic that hung on him like a sack, with dark circles under his eyes from lack of sleep (did he ever sleep?). Compared to Miles she could more than understand Grimsby’s mistake.
Before she could correct the her, Miles and Kota returned and the vampire gave Grimsby a deep bow and a smile that made the woman cluck.
“Good afternoon, ma’am. Do you mind if we take back our guide?”
“Of course not,” Grimsby said. She beamed at Miles and gave Erin a brief wink as she said, “You two should go by the forge and see Erin’s father. The man’s been worried sick you know. I’d warn you about walking around outside town alone, but with this one around I don’t think you’ll have to worry, eh Erin?”
She chuckled at Erin’s discomfort and walked away, after making a discreet gesture in Kota’s direction designed to ward off evil.