Kota found the door to the inn standing half open when he arrived, and he warily looked inside. With all of the shutters shut from the night before, the only light came in through the open door and showed the table still set, and all of the chairs sitting around except for the one that Kota had knocked over in his hurry.
The light also showed Erin, who turned at the sound of the porch creaking and spotted the wolf looking in.
Relief crossed her face, hiding what had been there a second before as Kota came in and leaned against the shut door as a human.
“Is anyone else here?” he asked.
“No, I think everyone is still looking around town and the wastes for you,” Erin said. “I mean, for the wolf. Did anyone see…?”
Kota shook his head. “I don’t think so, but I can’t be sure. There were so many close calls, and by now the wayfarers have probably let it slip to someone.”
Erin scowled. “Why did they do that? Why did they drag me out with them last night, I didn’t want–”
She stopped, but Kota did not say anything. She had wanted to go, so bad that she didn’t even give a second thought to leaving the town, her family, everything behind.
“I didn’t…I–” She stumbled for words, but all Erin could think was that this was all her fault. She ran a hand over her face and steadied herself by holding onto the back of one of the chairs.
“They make it hard to say no, don’t they?” Kota smiled weakly and gestured at the table. “Not to mention, I’m sure they slipped something into our drinks.”
Erin walked over to the table and picked up a glass. She sniffed it, but if there was something there she couldn’t tell. Erin slammed the glass back down on the table so hard that its contents splashed over her hand. “Why, though?”
“Recruiting,” Kota said, recalling the fisherman’s words. “But they probably won’t be staying for much longer. As long as we stay away from them and don’t let them pull anything like last night, we should be okay.”
“But what about the wolf?” Erin asked. “Everyone saw it running around town, and they saw enough to know there was something going on! I heard people talking about it turning into a man and back!”
Kota bit his lip and said, “Quick, clean off the tables.”
Kota piled up the dishes into a great stack and carried them to the kitchen without responding. After a minute, Erin thought she caught on and helped to carry the rest to the kitchen sink. While Kota turned on the water to soak the dishes, she ran back and wiped down the tables and reset the chairs. A sudden thought had her run to the desk and pull out some papers someone had drawn some doodles on, probably Miles, and spread them out over the table.
When, a few minutes later, the front door shot open and Eli Smith thundered in, he saw Erin sitting at one of the tables idly drawing as Kota looked in, wiping his wet hands off with a dishcloth.
“Can we help you, sir?” Kota asked, sounding so calm that it surprised Erin. She knew he must be trembling on the inside, even more than she was.
Relief crossed Eli’s face before his usual anger returned. “Where have you been all morning?”
Kota and Erin exchanged glances and she said, “Here, of course. Why, what’s wrong?”
“Half the town’s been yelling that you were attacked by a monster! A giant wolf’s been running all over town, they say,” said a voice behind Eli. The smith stepped aside, revealing the mayor standing behind him and gasping for breath. “We’ve been looking all over for you.”
“Like I said, I’ve been here all morning,” Erin lied without batting an eye. “I was just telling Kota I was thinking about going into town today, since it’s so quiet here.”
Kota nodded, using the dishcloth to hide his shaking hands. “You said something about a giant wolf?”
“Yeah,” Eli said, turning his stare on him. “Some weird stories they’re telling back in town. You heard anything about it?”
Kota and Erin both shook their heads, almost in unison, as Geld tugged at his collar and said, “Terrible stuff, some people have even got it in their heads that the beast is magic or something. Can’t tell you how many people have come to me talking about how it kept changing shape.”
“Like that thing they found over by the farm?” Kota asked.
“Yes, I suppose so,” the mayor said, but he did not look too pleased at that idea. “Bad business. They said the mercenary with that trader caravan killed the thing, right in front of all of them. Word like that gets around.”
Eli frowned and said, “If there’s another of those things around, something needs to be done. This one was running around in town, not hiding out in a barn.”
Kota spotted Eli’s eyes flicker over toward Erin as he spoke. Erin did not seem to notice, as she glanced at Kota before she said, “Maybe it was just a wolf. If these are the same people talking about me being attacked by it, then I bet they didn’t even see the thing. Remember that whole thing when everyone thought there was a monster under the bridge?”
Kota shifted uneasily at this, but luckily no one noticed.
Geld sighed and said, “All the same, we’re setting up a patrol around town. Perhaps it would be better if you two did not stay here. It’s so far from town and the farms, and if something were to happen–”
“Hey, that wasn’t the deal!” Erin jumped up so fast that her chair fell back behind her. “You said we could keep the inn open, and I’m not going back just because of some rumor. Kota’s here, and I don’t think any monster will be coming in the front door.”
“Yes, the handles are hard to use without hands,” Kota said quietly, and Erin glared at him.
Geld hesitated and looked up at Eli, whose perpetual frown did little to show what he thought.
“I suppose, as long as the beast doesn’t show up again,” he said slowly, and when the smith failed to interrupt him he continued, “You two may stay here, as agreed.”
Eli spoke, and the mayor tensed. “Yes, and in the original agreement there was something about rent. How are you going to pay that, exactly?”
Erin thought of the empty rooms upstairs, and the little money they had left from the wayfarers. “We’ll handle it. When is the first payment due?”
“End of the month,” Geld said promptly, not needing to consult on that one.
Erin nodded and said, “Got it,” with enough conviction that Eli’s eyebrows went up. “As long as you don’t try to run us out over this wolf thing.”
Geld tugged at his chin and muttered, “Yes, something will have to be done about that,” but no one paid him much attention as a familiar carriage rolled up in front of the inn. Before its wheels stopped turning, the footman jumped down to open the carriage door for Madame Elzwig.