Mayor Geld paled at the sight of the Judge’s seal but swiftly put a smile on his face and strolled out to the carriage with his arms spread in welcome. “Madame Elzwig! It is a pleasure to see you here. Not on business, I hope?”
Madame Elzwig stepped down with the assistance of her servant and looked down at Geld, who halted about halfway when he saw the expression on her face.
“Should I be?” she asked. “I found half the town in an uproar over some monster, waving around kitchen implements and cavorting with wayfarers. Care to explain, Geld?”
“Wayfarers?” Eli Smith asked, as beside him the mayor murmured a stream of “Oh, dears” before managing to say, “I’m terribly sorry, we just had a little false alarm this morning. Surely nothing an esteemed Judge such as yourself should be concerned with.”
“Oh, so you caught it, then?” Madame Elzwig said. She motioned to her servant, who passed the two men on the steps and went to Erin looking out around the door frame.
While the mayor stammered for a response, the servant said, “Madame wished for me to apologize about the early arrival. Are there still rooms available for the night?”
“Y-yes,” Erin said. Even counting the wayfarers’ rooms they still had space, although she did not think they would be claiming them tonight.
“And is there somewhere we can put the horses? I’m afraid they have had an exciting morning, and the driver…”
He paused to look over his shoulder, and Erin saw the carriage driver patting the horses and murmuring to them.
“We have a stable around back,” Erin said. “But I don’t think we have anything to feed them.”
“Ah, we’ll take care of that,” the servant said. He was back down the steps in an instant to speak to Elzwig and the driver.
Erin looked back inside the inn, but Kota appeared to have used the distraction to slip away, probably back into the kitchen or up to his room. She sighed, realizing he wouldn’t have been much help anyways, and went out to help the servant unload the carriage. There must have been at least three cases for Madame Elzwig alone, heavy, leather things that dragged Erin’s arms to the ground.
She spotted her dad watching and said, “Kota’s running around, getting the rooms ready.”
“Of course he is,” Eli said, frowning. He turned his attention back to the mayor, who was trying to explain to the Judge what had happened this morning when he really had no clue himself. He was baffled enough to find out that she had seen the wolf.
“Well, what does it matter if it had a strange mark?” Geld said as Erin passed by a second time. “It’s still just a wolf, right?”
“Don’t you think I know a curse when I see it?” Madame Elzwig said in a loud, booming tone. “You need to nip this in the bud, Geld.”
Erin nearly dropped the luggage on her foot, very aware of the servant waiting behind her as she fumbled to get a better hold on the bag. When she couldn’t stall any longer, Erin went up the stairs, puffing under the weight of the luggage but still finding enough breath to ask the servant, “Did you see the wolf too?”
“Just a glimpse,” he said, not even slightly out of breath. “Did you?”
“No, no, Kota and I have been here at the inn all day,” Erin lied. No reason to change their story now.
“I see. Is this the room?”
Erin had found the biggest room for Madame Elzwig, even though she knew the Judge would be used to better than the sparsely decorated room that smelled faintly of lemons. Being a corner room, it did have windows on two walls that looked out over the front yard of the inn and out toward the town, but the extra light did it few favors.
They left the Judge’s luggage there, and the servant went into the room next door to put his own things down. From what he had explained to Erin, the driver would be staying out in the stables for the night, but they would still be paying for his room and board. She didn’t get it, but wasn’t about to start asking questions.
Back outside, Madame Elzwig was waving Geld away. “Fine, fine, you don’t want my help. Just don’t say I never offered.”
“It’s not that we don’t value your help,” the mayor said, and waffled for a way to finish that sentence before coming up with, “I would just hate to waste your time.”
Madame Elzwig put a hand to her mouth to hide a yawn and said, “Well, if you do change your mind, I can at least give you the names of some specialists, but if you will excuse me I need to rest. We traveled all night to get here, you see.”
“Ah, of course,” Mayor Geld said. He spoke with Madame Elzwig all the way to the door, but she did not seem to be listening. Erin could see the red in her eyes and wondered why they did not just stay at Wichel.
Eli Smith stopped Erin and said, “Be careful around the Judge, okay? You and the boy. She has a lot of power and sway, and not just in the capital.”
“Yeah, I know, Dad,” Erin said. She could still hear the mayor trying not to put his foot in his mouth. “She’s been here before.”
“She has?” Eli’s head turned back toward the inn. He sighed and ran a hand over his face, and for a moment looked even more tired than Madame Elzwig. “Well, just be careful. Your mother was worried about you, with…with everything this morning.”
“Oh.” Erin couldn’t think of anything else to say, even as she watched her dad and the mayor walk away. She just wished she could get her hands on the wayfarer that had spread that rumor.
After Madame Elzwig made her way to bed and the servant and the driver went to find some feed for the horses, Erin went around the inn and finally found Kota, asleep on his own bed.
She couldn’t even think about sleep right now, after everything that had happened. Erin wandered back downstairs and noticed the doodles from the desk still sitting on the table. As she shuffled the papers together, she noticed among the stick figures and really bad attempts at drawing trees a familiar symbol. There, in black and white instead of the vibrant color of the original, was the same mark as the one on Kota’s face.
Erin paled, wondering if the Judge had noticed it. She started to ball up the page, but stopped and looked on both sides to see what else was there. On the back there was a stream of meaningless notes, all written in the same loose handwriting that varied in size, but one word in particular caught Erin’s eye: Cure?