Erin walked back into the common room without saying a word to Kota. Her legs shook from nerves and her arms trembled under the weight of the enormous tray piled with a myriad of plates, but fortunately Madam Elzwig’s servant moved into action and took it from her. He passed the plates out with a precision that spoke of years of experience, placing them in a neat array around the madam’s table and setting aside the two glasses of water that he had requested.
“Would you mind if I took these outside?” he asked, motioning toward the glasses. “Nothing will persuade the coachman to leave his horses, I’m afraid.”
Erin nodded and Madam Elzwig asked, “Are you sure you two would not like something to eat?”
The servant bowed and said, “No, Madam, but thank you. We wish to wait until we arrive in Wichel.”
Erin knew Wichel, it was the port city to the southeast that many of the foreign traders came from. With their coach and fresh horses, they could have made it to the city before nightfall if they had not chosen to stop at the inn.
The servant left and Erin wondered if she should go back to the kitchen as well until Madam Elzwig fixed her with a steady, bright eye and said, “Please, sit down, girl.”
She said it in a way that sounded more like a command than a request, and Erin found herself pulling up a chair and sitting down on the opposite side of the table. Silence fell in the inn, except for the sound of the madam’s fork scraping across plates and her steady chewing.
It put Erin on edge, waiting for her to say something, anything. She kept thinking of that insignia, the eye surrounded by vines. It wasn’t a family crest, it was the insignia of an imperial post. A Judge.
Capital Judges oversaw the highest courts in the entire empire. They investigated cases on their own, and were known to interrogate people through various methods to get to the truth. Very few people could overturn one of the Judge’s sentences and even fewer laws applied to them when they were on the case.
“Have you ever been to Wichel?” Elzwig asked, with barely a pause in her eating. When Erin shook her head, she said, “You should go, it’s a beautiful place this time of the year. Shame I’m going on business.”
“You’re a Judge, right?” Erin asked, unable to hold the question in any longer.
“That I am,” Elzwig said. She took up a knife and began on the side of beef. “Got a man the bounty hunters brought in on a charge of murder back at the capital, bad business. I have to go and check up on it, of course.”
Erin nodded, and when the madam allowed the silence to return for an even longer stretch, Erin felt the need to fill the void by saying, “We had a bounty hunter here, a few weeks ago. Do you know Miles?”
The corners of Elzwig’s mouth turned down and she firmly placed her fork and knife down. She delicately wiped her mouth with her napkin while her eyes bored into Erin before she said, “Yes, I know the vampire. What business did he have here?”
“He came as an inspector,” Erin said slowly, wondering if she should have kept her mouth shut.
“Hmph.” Elzwig lifted her fork again just when Erin was wondering if she had finally stopped eating. “An inspector, you say? They must have wanted an excuse to get him out of the capital, not that I blame the office. What did you think of him?”
Erin knew that the madam clearly had something against the vampire, though she could not guess what. She decided to go for the safe answer and said, “I didn’t get much of an impression before he had to leave on another job.”
Madam Elzwig sniffed and asked no more questions. Erin sat there, her mouth firmly clamped shut, and watched as she went through every single place, scraping the last one clean before she sat back with a contented sigh. The chair gave another groan but held up to Erin’s relief.
“I simply must give my compliments to the chef,” Madam Elzwig declared.
Erin thought of what would happen when Kota stepped into the sunlit room and said, “I’m sorry, Kota is…shy. I’m sure he’ll be glad to hear that you liked it, though.”
The servant returned just as Madam Elzwig levered herself onto her feet and declared, “We must be off. Neil, pay them for the excellent meal. I look forward to more of your Kota’s work when we return the day after tomorrow to stay the night.”
Erin barely had time to process this before Neil pressed the money into her hand and placed two empty glasses on the table with all of the other scraped clean dishes. She waited while Madam Elzwig climbed back into the coach and the coachman urged the horses on before she ran back into the kitchen where Kota was washing dishes.
“Well, at least we’ll have one guest this week,” Kota said as she tried to explain about Elzwig.
“But you don’t understand,” Erin said, but she was interrupted by a knock at the front door of the inn. They looked at each other and she asked, “Do you think they came back for something?”
They heard a loud, high-pitched laugh that did not belong to Elzwig and certainly not to her companions. Kota peeked out of the kitchen and said, “Or maybe not.”