Erin tried to ignore Miles’s incessant smirk as she said, “Well, we’ve seen most of the town now, why don’t we head back to the inn?”
“Yes, please,” Kota said quickly but Miles spoke over him.
“Why stop now? We still have time, and we haven’t even been to the other side of this place yet.” Miles paused and then said, “That is, unless you’re avoiding a certain forge. Afraid of Daddy, are we?”
“No, I just don’t think going by there is such a good idea.” Erin crossed her arms and glared at the vampire. “Why do you want to go so bad, anyways?”
“Well, it is my job to look into the new owner of the inn, after all. I should think that would include meeting her family, references and so on.” Miles brushed his blonde hair out of his face. “Of course, I could always find the place myself. Shouldn’t be too hard, after all.”
Miles turned and walked away. Erin watched him pass by the clock tower and cross the rest of the town center before she sighed and said, “Really? Come on, Kota!”
She grabbed his arm and dragged him behind her as she ran, managing to catch up with Miles about halfway down the street.
“Worried?” he asked.
“About how my dad will react when a vampire walks into his forge? Yeah, a little,” Erin snapped back. “I don’t want to explain to the capital why someone has to be sent to scrape up your ashes.”
The blacksmith had set up shop near the edge of town, in a large building attached to his home. Chopped wood lay in neat stacks around the outside, and a spire of smoke rose from the cutaway in the roof. Its set of wide double doors stood open, allowing a breeze to come in and a steady ring of hammer meeting hot metal to come out, sometimes punctuated with an oath or a yell.
Erin led them into the smithy and Kota and Miles looked around, taking in the tools and materials stacked or hanging on the walls. Kota looked around and up to find the customary horseshoe hanging above his head for luck, gleaming in the light of the fire.
A young man looked up from pumping the fire on the far side of the room and said, “Erin! About time you showed up.”
Yet another one of Erin’s brothers if Kota had to guess, as he had the same pointed face as the younger brother currently watching the inn for them as well as Erin’s chestnut hair. He also had the broad shoulders and build that marked her father, an easy comparison to make as the man looked up from his work and scowled at them.
“Stay there,” Eli Smith said. He finished his current project, some kind of tool that Kota did not recognize, and left it to cool as he straightened up to his full height and faced them. His eyes flickered toward Kota and rested on Miles, and his frown became even more chiseled than usual. “You must be the vampire the capital sent. What’s your business here?”
Miles, visibly flustered in the presence of the overbearing personality that bore down from every line of the smithy, cleared his throat and said, “Yes, sir, my name is Miles. I am here to inspect the inn and make sure that it’s in capable hands.”
“Well, as you can see this is not the inn,” Eli answered. “Marcus, go fetch some more wood for the fire.”
The young man nodded and scurried out. Kota watched him leave and wished he had an excuse to get out of there too.
“Look,” Eli said to Erin once his son left the forge, “I clearly can’t stop you from playing around with this inn business, but don’t drag Arthur into it.”
“Art was off today, I didn’t drag him away from the shop,” Erin protested. “Besides, he wanted to do it, and he needed the extra money. You know they don’t pay him nearly enough for everything he does for that place.”
“He’s an apprentice, he’s there to learn,” her father said. “It will pay off in time. That inn, on the other hand? You’re so worried about Art, but you’re sinking your time and energy into that beaten, broken wreck of a building. Look what it did to Daniel, the man spent his whole life keeping the place up and six months later it looks like no one’s stepped in there in years.”
Kota frowned as the memory of the guest rooms flickered in his mind from his first day at the inn. Clean, neat, with fresh sheets even, someone had to have taken care of them. Aside from the usual wear and tear of age, only the ground floor bore any signs of neglect. He remembered the thick layer of sawdust covering the common room floor beneath a light layer of dust and wondered if ‘neglect’ was even the right word.
“Well, if Erin and Kota refuse the inn or fail in their duties someone else will just have to be brought in,” Miles said, earning a scowl from Erin that rivaled her father’s. “But so far they seem to be handling it. The current guests have already told me they intend to return at some point, as well as tell others about it. Soon your little town will have more than enough visitors, which should be good news for you.”
“What kind of visitors though?” Eli said to himself, but Miles caught the small sound.
“What do you mean?”
“You should know,” Eli said. “Sollis opened his doors to anyone and everyone, as well as everything. Those forests hold strange peoples and creatures, and more than once some monster followed their heels and terrorized this town.”
“Well, I did see the complaints on file,” Miles admitted. “But those incidents happened years ago—”
“Years ago? Look at what’s happening with Joe’s livestock now! I don’t care what they say they saw, no normal wolf could have done anything to a horse like what I saw this morning. Magic follows magic, everyone knows that. It will only get worse with time.”
His stare caught everyone except for Kota, who kept his gaze firmly riveted on the floor and resisted the urge to make sure his hair still hid the curse mark emblazoned above his left eye.