Early in the morning, so early that all was still dark outside of the inn, Kota turned off the sink in the kitchen with dripping hands and strained his ears. The sound came again, quiet but distinct in the silence: the high laugh of a wayfarer.
Kota turned off the light in the kitchen and stood to the side of the window as he looked out. Dark shapes moved in the yard, around the pile of bags that Erin tossed out earlier.
Just as he checked to make sure he’d locked the door behind him and considered barring it with a chair, Kota heard a knocking at the front door which grew louder with every repetition. Casting a look around, he grabbed the nearest thing and ran to the front.
He intended to open the door only a crack, but as soon as the knob turned in his hand Miles came barging in, nearly pushing him out of the way.
“Sorry, got to put this thing down before I throw it,” he said and dropped a large cage in the center of the room. A disgruntled squeal came out of it before the vampire hit it with his hand. “Doing some late-night cleaning?”
Kota put aside his broom, staring at Miles and the cage. There seemed no good place to start with the questions, so he just went with, “What’s in there?”
“My latest catch,” Miles said. He frowned at the cage and looked ready to kick it. “Did you know that there are people surrounding this place?”
“They’re wayfarers,” Kota said and Miles hissed sharply. “Here for their stuff, and just that I hope.”
“You let them stay here?” Miles asked as he walked across the common room and went into the kitchen. As Kota followed him, he saw the vampire look out the window. “I’m surprised you’re not out there with them. How long have they been here?”
“They came for some rooms yesterday, and tried to leave with Erin.”
Miles looked at Kota. “Tried?”
“It’s a long story,” Kota said.
When he failed to go into detail, Miles nodded as if he had and said, “Right. Well, I think it’s time they took the hint and moved on.”
“What?” Kota tried to stop Miles, but he walked out and the figures in the yard visibly stopped and turned to face him. Miles crossed his arms and said something to the wayfarers, but Kota could not hear the actual words and was not about to open the door or window. He did see one of the wayfarers point at the inn and make a gesture that he did not understand, to which Miles responded violently.
The vampire charged at the wayfarers, but the group divided and ran, fading into the shadows beyond the inn as easily as they blended into the crowds back in town. Miles stalked around the yard and the inn a few times, but he returned within a few minutes.
“Do you think they’ll be back?” Kota asked.
“They always come back, but wayfarers can’t stay away from the road too long,” Miles said. He seemed distracted, and his nostrils started to flare. “What is that smell?”
The vampire leaned toward Kota and sniffed, and his pupils started to dilate. “Is that blood?”
“Deer,” Kota said, stepping back all the same. “We needed the meat.”
Miles pinched the bridge of his nose. “So you were out there while they were wandering around? Did it ever…Did you even think…”
He sighed, unable to even finish. “Look, do you mind if I leave the pig where she’s at now? I don’t want her in my room.”
“It, er, she should be fine in the stables, with the horses,” Kota said, but Miles shook his head.
“No, you are not going back out there again, and I don’t trust her to be alone for too long.” Miles sniffed again and looked inside the fridge. He came out with one of the carefully wrapped packages of raw deer meat and said, “So she can stay there then? If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go eat in my room.”
“Please don’t,” Kota said, but Miles paid as much attention to him as he expected. He went out into the common room, but the pig kept giving him strange looks that made him feel uncomfortable.
It seemed forever before the sun came up, and even longer before Erin and the guests emerged with various states of bedhead and found breakfast waiting for them on the table, with covers to keep the food warm. Miles came down the stairs last and stopped short when he saw Madame Elzwig pulling up a chair at the table with a satisfied smile.
Erin noticed the vampire first and said, “Miles! When did you get here?”
The Judge’s smile slipped away and she looked at Miles, who returned the stare with his own stony expression. A tense silence followed until Madame Elzwig said, “Yes, when did you get here?”
“This morning,” Miles answered. “And you?”
“Yesterday. We wished to stop and rest before returning to the capital city.” Madame Elzwig and Miles were both talking civilly, but their words had all the warmth of icicles. “Out on another one of your hunts?”
Miles nodded and said, “If you will excuse me?”
He nodded to everyone at the table and went back to the kitchen, pausing to pick up the pig’s cage on the way.
“You could have warned me that she was here,” Miles said once the kitchen door shut behind him. Kota looked up from his seat at the table, but before he could even ask the vampire said, “Elzwig! You know that woman tried to have me staked?”
“No,” Kota said, but Miles was too worked up to hear.
“‘The letter of the law says,’” he said in a smarmy imitation of the Judge’s voice. “Just because I became a vampire too close to the timing of the registration, not that she was a fan of that to start with.”
He continued on for some time, ranting about the Judge’s policy on what Miles called “irregulars,” until Kota said, “What’s with the pig?”
Miles stopped talking and stared at Kota, breathing heavily. “What?”
“What is she?”
Miles looked at the pig and then back at Kota, whose expression was blank. “Well, she used to be a sorceress in Circa, a little village you’ve probably never heard of. People kept disappearing in the area, and it turned out someone had a thing for luring in strangers and turning them into animals once she was tired of them.”
He kicked the cage and the pig grunted and stared at him with mean little eyes.
“I take it you were one of them?” Kota said.
“Too close,” Miles said. “Someone got too cocky though, and her spell turned back on her. Now she’s a pig, and I have to lug her to the capital so the wizards there can have a look and see how she did it, so they can fix the others.”
“You left them there? As animals?”
“I’ve got someone watching them,” Miles said. He hunted around in the fridge, shaking his head at the meager offerings before taking what was left from making breakfast and tossing it to the pig. “And if anything happens to them, there will be bacon.”
The pig stopped snuffling through the food to turn a particularly evil stare on the vampire.
Kota frowned but did not say anything to the vampire, who took a seat on the other side of the table.
“You know,” he said, leaning on the table, “If you came to the capital with me, I could get one of the wizards to take a look at…your little problem.”
He spared a glance at the cage, but the pig was eating as if she had not seen food in weeks. He looked back at Kota when the young man said, “No, thank you.”
“I want to stay here,” Kota said simply.
“Look, Kota, you’re just going to have to face the fact that the witch was wrong,” Miles said, leaning closer and lowering his voice. “There is nothing for you here except getting caught by one of those nice people in town and getting yourself killed.”
He did not answer, and made no move to tell Miles about how close he came to that just yesterday morning.
“Just think about it, won’t you?” Miles said, and became surprised when Kota cracked a smile.
“That’s the same thing Miss Elzwig said last night,” he explained. “She asked me to go to the capital with her as well.”
“She did?” Miles’s eyes darted toward the door and back to Kota, but he could no more read the young man’s expression than before. “Why?”
“She claims that she likes my cooking,” Kota said mildly as he stood up and began cleaning the kitchen.
“I’m sure she did,” Miles muttered. He watched Kota and tilted his head as something occurred to him. “Wait, she compliments you on your cooking and you give the Judge venison? The Judge who guzzles wine like it’s water and only eats the finest foods?”
“Oh, was that wrong?” Kota said. He looked over his shoulder and Miles stared at him, speechless.