Erin stared at the page, turning it over a few times and reading over the barely legible scrawls for anything else, but it all seemed to be nonsense. Still, the drawing of Kota’s mark, combined with that single word, made it impossible to ignore. She went and found the grocery list from yesterday in the trash, but Kota’s handwriting did not even slightly match the writing on the note.
She chewed on her lip until it occurred to her: Miles. Of course, the vampire must have done it. She imagined him sitting at the desk, procrastinating writing his report, and scrawling on this scrap piece of paper while he thought.
Cure? Well, Erin thought she knew what that referred to as she turned on the stove and used it to set the corner of the paper on fire before dropping it in the sink. As she watched the paper burn and then turned on the water to wash away the ashes, she wondered if there really was a way to cure Kota. Why did the witch send him here in the first place?
She turned the thought over all day, and by the time evening was coming on the only idea she could come up with was that the witch probably just wanted to get rid of Kota. That, and to go through the wayfarers’ rooms and get all of their stuff out. She piled up everything in the backyard, figuring that if they wanted it that bad they could come and get it themselves.
It was as Erin tossed the last of the bags onto the surprisingly small heap that she heard voices around the front of the inn. Thinking it was the wayfarers back again, Erin ran inside and through the inn to the front door, ready to lock it if need be as she looked around the door.
“Ya’ll open?” asked a burly man with a pack on his back nearly as big as him. Around him stood a couple of other people with backpacks, all of them with the look of people who had been walking for days, or weeks.
They certainly didn’t look like wayfarers, but all the same Erin warily answered, “Yes, we are. Are you looking for rooms?”
“Yeah, and food if yeh’ve got it,” the man answered. His stomach rumbled in unison and the others laughed and kidded him about it, but none of them sounded like wayfarers.
Erin opened the door all the way and told them the rate as they came in, stomping their feet on the welcome mat to get the dust off their boots and looking around.
“How far is the capital from this place?” asked another of the backpackers, whose face barely peeked out between a bushy beard and a mass of hair.
“I think most people make it in about two or three days, walking,” Erin said and the travelers broke out into grins and slapped each other on the shoulder.
“Not far at all!”
“Far enough,” Erin muttered to herself. She turned at the sound of footsteps on the stairs and saw Kota looking down over the railing, pushing his hair down to cover his mark. “Kota, we have some more guests. You feel up to cooking yet?”
“Er, sure,” Kota said. Aware of the travelers looking his way, the young man nearly ran down the stairs with his shoulders hunched almost to his ears and muttered something before darting into the kitchen.
“Not a big talker, eh?” said the burly man as he pulled off his backpack and started rooting around in it. “Come on, I’m not footing yehr bill.”
After they paid and went up to their rooms to clean up, Erin put the money away and looked at the hooks for the keys, most of which were bare. She was not looking forward to explaining to her dad why they would need new locks and keys, but she doubted the wayfarers were likely to return theirs.
“Hey, Kota?” she called, staring at the hooks. “You need any help in there?”
Kota leaned into the room and asked, “How many am I cooking for this time?”
“Um, seven, no, eight, including me and you,” Erin said. “Do we have enough food?”
Kota smiled. “I think we can make it work.”
By the time they had everything cooked, the travelers were sitting around one of the smaller tables in the common room and even Madame Elzwig had made an appearance, sitting at her own table with her servant at hand and watching the fire someone had started in the fireplace.
Erin put out the food for the guests herself and ate in the kitchen with Kota. While they didn’t say it, neither of them were eager to spend too long in the common room after last night, and Erin settled for just going to check on the guests occasionally.
“Oh, good, more shopping tomorrow,” Erin said, eyeing the empty bags and containers still sitting on the counter. “What are we going to do about breakfast?”
“I…think I have an idea for that,” Kota said, but would not go into any details. Erin found herself looking at him occasionally, the note still on her mind. Did he still think about finding a cure? He’d never said anything, but Erin had to admit that he never talked about anything unless she pried it out of him.
“I’ll take care of the dishes this time,” Erin offered and sighed when Kota just shrugged and took out the trash. Maybe she could get a decent conversation out of one of the travelers.
Erin distantly heard the front door open and shut, but she didn’t think anything about it until after she finished the dishes and realized she was still alone in the kitchen.
“Kota?” She walked out into the common room and Madame Elzwig’s servant looked up from the game of cards he’d started with the other guests to say, “Madame requested his presence at her room, to deal with a maintenance issue I believe.”
“Oh,” Erin said, wondering what the problem was this time. She hoped it didn’t have anything to do with the plumbing as she went up the stairs and down the hall.
She stopped short outside the Judge’s room when she heard the woman’s imperious voice coming through the door.
“—wonderful meal. It’s not often you can find a decent cook out in a place like this, and I don’t think I’ve ever tasted anything like those grilled mushrooms.”
“They grow wild around here,” Kota said. Two sharp bangs followed by a scraping noise nearly made Erin jump. “There, I think that should do it for the window.”
“Fantastic.” The creak of wood signaled that the Judge had taken a seat. “Tell me…Kota, right? How long have you been working here at the inn?”
“A month or two, maybe?” A pause followed and Erin could almost imagine Kota shrugging and smiling. “I’m not very good at keeping track of that sort of thing. If there’s nothing else—”
“I want to hire you, boy,” Madame Elzwig said, and Erin had to cover her mouth to stop a sound from coming out. “As a chef, mainly, but I am willing to pay extra for additional services.”
When Kota was slow to answer, she added, “How much are you paid, here? I can assure you that I can more than match it.” Madame Elzwig named a price that made Erin’s jaw drop, and added, “As well as room and board at my residence in the capital. I must admit that there are also many perks working for a Judge.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” Kota admitted. “But I would rather stay here.”
By the sound of it, Madame Elzwig drummed her fingers on the desk for a tense minute before saying, “Well, my offer will stand. Take a night and think it over.”
Erin heard Kota walking toward the door and darted down the hall before he could see that she had been eavesdropping. She waited on the stairs where the guests downstairs could not see her and pretended to walk up just as Kota came out of Madame Elzwig’s room.
“Oh, there you are, Kota,” she said, faking a smile and hoping that she did not sound too strange. “Do you want me to take the night shift?”
“No, I had plenty of sleep today,” Kota said. He gave her a crooked smile and said, “I think I can find a way to pass the time.”