One baking hot morning late in the summer, every door and window on the ground floor of the Last Inn stood open in an attempt to tempt in a nonexistent passing breeze. Kota, in the form of a wolf, lay sprawled out on the floor of the common room. Erin looked over when he snored and went back to going through the little notebook she had started to use to keep track of the inn’s records.
Not that there was much to keep track of. Since Miles left, not a single guest had come by, and the roads to and from town were disturbingly empty. The side of the page that noted their expenses was getting longer by the day, with the cost of food and repairs. They barely had enough to get the two of them through the end of the week, even with Kota’s small appetite. The only reason they had that much was because Erin had been buying discount, the bread from the bakery that had started to harden and other food that was on its way out. It was a good thing Kota knew how to work with less than stellar materials.
Erin bit her lip and tapped her pen on the page. It wouldn’t be long before the mayor started talking about paying rent, too.
Lost in these unwelcome thoughts, she missed the sound of horses clopping their way down the road over wheels rattling, or the snorts as they were reined in outside of the inn. Kota’s ears twitched at the sound of boots hitting the ground, and when the steps leading to the front door creaked he went from asleep to darting into the kitchen in the space of a second.
Erin looked at the kitchen door as it swung shut and then back at the front door when a man knocked on the door frame and poked his head inside. He was tall, so that his head almost touched the top of the frame, but Erin could still see an imperious coach drawn by two tall horses waiting outside. One glance at the coat of arms, a shield with an eye in the middle of interlocking vines, told her that they must have come straight from the capital.
“Yes, sir?” she said, trying to ignore the pattering of claws on the kitchen floor as Kota paced around, no doubt wishing that he had gone up the stairs and wondering if he should go out the back door. “Er, welcome to the Last Inn, is there…there any way I can assist you?”
She did wish that Kota would knock it off already.
“Yes,” the man said, looking down at her. “Madam Elzwig wishes to know if this place serves drinks, and food. If so, we wish to procure some for an early lunch before we continue on.”
“Oh, yes, of course,” Erin said quickly. Drinks were not a problem, as Kota had discovered a well-stocked wine cellar while cleaning in the storage room off the kitchen and they would probably go for that, or water. Food, on the other hand… She heard the distinct sound of the kitchen window closing as well as the door, followed by cupboard doors opening and closing. “Please tell Madam Elzwig that we’d be delighted to serve her. I’ll just go and…have a talk with the cook.”
The tall servant stepped forward and lowered his voice, as if afraid that the coach would overhear. “She prefers a wide spread, if you understand me. Red wine, preferably from the year of the Dancer, and no onions. The coachman and I will just have water. And she does not like to wait.”
“O-okay,” Erin said but the servant was already walking back to the coach with long, loping strides. She hurried back to the kitchen to find Kota back in his regular shape and what little food they had gathered on the island in the middle of the room. “I guess you heard.”
“I think I can pull something together,” Kota remarked as he turned over a packet of bacon and sniffed something in a jar. He shuddered and tossed that into the trash. “But we may be going without.”
“If she pays half as well as that coach suggests, we can buy some more,” Erin said, but her nerves were jangling. She had seen that coat of arms before, but no matter how hard she tried she just could not remember where. “Do we have any of that wine?”
Kota shrugged and she went down into the cellar herself and returned a few minutes later with a dust-covered bottle she found in the corner to sizzling skillets and a flurry of activity. She stared at this until Kota gave her a sign to put the bottle down on the counter and attend to the guests.
She arrived back into the common room in time to see the servant opening the door to the coach and hold out his hand to assist Madam Elzwig down. She was almost as tall as him, and so large that she was nearly round. Expensive clothes did their best to hide it, but the coach noticeably rose a few inches when she stepped off the ground.
“So it is still open,” she said. Her round face tilted up toward the sign, and Erin felt a flood of relief that they had spent all that time cleaning and repairing until she added, “Just as shabby as ever, I see.”
Erin fought to keep the smile from sliding off of her face as she led them inside, where the servant pulled out a chair that put up a feeble protest when the madam sat down in it. He stepped back, put both arms behind his back, and seemed ready to stand there the whole time.
This was off-putting enough, but when Erin returned with the salad and wine and orders from Kota to stall until the rest was ready, Madam Elzwig began to ask questions.
The first was innocent enough, as her sharp, prying eyes roamed over the room, “Tell me, girl, how long have you been running this place?”
“Oh, just over a month,” Erin said, surprising herself with how long it had been. Then again, it seemed like she had been here forever at the same time.
“You must be poor Daniel Sollis’s granddaughter, right?” There was a pitying tone in her voice now, and Erin blushed.
“No, ma’am, I don’t think Mr. Sollis had any family.” She wondered how often the madam had come here before. Maybe that was where she had seen the coat of arms, from a previous visit.
“Oh? Then how did you come by this place?” Madam Elzwig turned over some lettuce and Erin held her breath until she took another bite of the salad.
Erin explained how she had volunteered to take on the inn, which then led Elzwig to ask about the mayor, then Kota. Erin went carefully here, and felt that she gave the impression that Kota was just another young man from the area, and the questions soon turned to the town, and Sollis, one right after the other until Erin felt as picked over as the salad.
It came as a great relief when she was able to take the empty bowl back into the kitchen and deposit it into the sink.
Kota put the last plate onto an enormous tray, loaded with what seemed to be all of the food they had left. Erin wondered if it would be enough as she stared longingly at the last pastry from the bakery that she had been saving for herself.
“Be careful,” he said in a low voice. “Should you really be telling her so much?”
“She just asks a lot of questions,” Erin said with a shrug, thinking of Mrs. Grimsby. “Just like any other gossip.”
“Or like an inquisitor,” Kota remarked dryly as he started to put the dirty dishes into the sink. With his back to her he could not see the sudden change in Erin’s expression as she remembered where she had seen the coach’s insignia before.