A large group of about fifteen or twenty people walked in, all of them taller than Kota and Erin by about a foot and dressed in outlandish green and gold clothes. After a heated argument behind the kitchen door, Erin walked out to meet the group, many of whom were already straying around the inn’s common room, taking in the fireplace and decor (or lack thereof) and chatting in high, lilting voices.
“Hello,” Erin said to the room in general, unsure which of them to address. “Welcome to the Last Inn.”
She felt ridiculous the moment the words passed her lips, and even more so when a giggle came from one of the people roaming around.
“Can I help you?” Erin continued, a little more coldly.
“Yes, we’d like some rooms for the next couple of days,” one of the tall men said. “We have some business in the area.”
“Business?” Erin tried not to sound too surprised, but she couldn’t help looking at their strange clothes. “What kind of—”
A loud cough from the kitchen interrupted her.
“How many rooms would you like?” Erin said without missing a beat.
The tall man considered this and a woman with braided waist-length hair drifted to his side and said, “At least ten if they’re available, and evening meals only.”
“Ah?” Well, that was a relief, Erin thought to herself when she remembered the empty cupboards in the kitchen. “Yes, that’s okay. As for the price…”
The tall woman reached around the back of her head and pulled a slip of money out of one of the ties in her braid, which she handed to Erin. “Is that enough for the first night?”
“Oh, yes,” Erin said, but she looked at the money uncertainly. “I thought you said you wanted to stay a couple of days though?”
The woman smiled and the tall man laughed and said, “We never know how long we’ll stay in one place, but don’t worry, we always pay each day as it comes.”
Erin nodded and the tall man gave a low whistle. At the signal, all of the tall people turned his way and he took the keys to the rooms from Erin’s fumbling hands and started tossing them around the room. Silver keys jangled and flashed in the air before hands clapped over them and, in twos and threes, the people ran up the stairs to put away their bags.
When he was down to just one key, the tall man turned back to Erin and said, “Thank you. We must run now, but we’ll be back in a few hours.”
He dashed up the stairs as well and then seconds later the whole, laughing mob of them came crashing and whooping down the stairs and out the front door. When the door shut behind them it felt like a tornado had just left the room and Erin breathed a sigh of relief.
“Are they gone?” Kota opened the kitchen door a crack and peered in.
“Yeah. Hey, did you interrupt me on purpose?” Erin asked. She sighed when she saw Kota was not about to leave the kitchen and started closing shutters around the common room, blocking out the sunlight.
“You shouldn’t inquire too much into those people’s business,” Kota said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Kota shrugged and waited until the last shutter was closed before walking out into the common room and looking at the empty hooks on the room key rack. “If you didn’t notice, then maybe it’s nothing. How are we going to feed them?”
“Well, I guess I’ll go and get groceries, like always,” Erin said. “That Judge payed well, and we’ve got payment for ten rooms.”
“For one night,” Kota said. “And we have to feed at least twenty people, not including ourselves, for who knows how long.”
“I’ll figure it out.” Erin stuck the money in her pocket, but she did feel a little worried. If anything, knowing that Madame Elzwig would be back in a few days meant that they needed to be ready for that too. “Write out a list of stuff that we need and I’ll pick it up, okay? We should be able to get by if I’m careful with the money.”
Kota tilted his head, reminding Erin a lot of a dog considering something, but said nothing. Instead, he took up a pencil and a scrap of paper off the desk and came up with a list faster than she expected.
“That’s not a lot of meat,” she said, looking over his shoulder at his strange, slanted writing.
“Meat is expensive, and I can make this work.” Kota started to write something else and hesitated. “No, I think that’s it. Can you find all of this in town?”
“Sure, I’ll get it.” Erin sighed and said, “I wish I could just send you out to do the shopping once in a while. This starts to get really boring really fast, you know?”
“Take some time, talk to a few people then.” Kota gave a small smile and said, “Your people will have something new to talk about. A Judge and our other guests, all on the same day.”
Erin imagined the havoc that laughing crowd would make on her sleepy little town and found herself smiling at the thought as she left the Last Inn and climbed onto her bike. However, when she pulled into town and started asking around while she picked up the groceries, she found that no one had seen the Judge’s carriage nor any sign of the tall people.
When the butcher suggested that he thought she was making it all up, Erin huffed and nearly walked out without her packages.
That man had said they had some kind of business in the area, but where else could they be? A strange thought occurred to Erin as she rode over the bridge in town and she stopped to look at the far trees of the forest, just visible over the lower buildings.
A movement caught out of the corner of her eye made Erin turn her head just in time to see the old fisherman standing in the water in knee-high waders shield his eyes, look out at those same trees, and shake his head.