Kota and Miles turned at the creak of the door and Erin stopped halfway inside the kitchen. She glanced at the cage on the floor when the pig gave a snort, frowned, and said, “Either of you going to explain why there’s an animal in my kitchen?”
“That depends,” Miles said, eyeing the open door, “Are you going to explain why that animal is out there?”
It took a second for Erin to register what he said, and then her face flushed red and she shut the door. “What’s with you and the Judge? The look on her face when you walked in, it’s making the other guests nervous!”
“She doesn’t look like that all of the time?” Miles smiled, but when Erin’s expression failed to change he sighed and said, “Look, we just don’t get along. No reason to go into details, except one: when is she leaving?”
Erin shrugged. “How should I know? They only paid for the one night, so I guess she’ll be leaving before long.”
“Hm.” The vampire drew his legs up into his chair and sat there, hunched over and thinking this over. When it became evident that he would not be adding anything else to the conversation anytime soon, Erin shook her head and looked at Kota.
“Are you okay?”
Kota stopped in the act of a taking a sip of his drink, the glass a few inches from his mouth. “What? Oh, sure, why wouldn’t I be?”
“I mean…You must have had a long night, with nothing to do and all,” Erin said.
Kota glanced at Miles out of the corner of his eye and said, “Boring enough, I suppose. How was breakfast?”
“Oh, the guests liked it, and Madame Elzwig is raving as usual.” Erin walked around the kitchen, picking things up only to set them back down again. She fiddled with the egg carton and said, “I, um, wanted to give you this. It’s not much, but with what we got from the hikers, and Elzwig…”
Kota looked at the money she handed him with surprise and a touch of confusion. “You’re paying me?”
“Well, you don’t have to say it like that.” Erin tapped her fingers on the counter and did not quite look at Kota. “I just thought you might want it for something.”
“Why?” Kota looked at the money and then back at Erin. “Do you want me to start paying for the room again?”
“What? No!” Erin shot a glare at Miles, but his face remained locked in a deadpan, thoughtful expression. “I don’t know, buy something for yourself, get some decent clothes, save it, whatever. It’s your money, okay?”
She went out of the room at just short of a run, but kept enough presence of mind not to slam the door behind her.
Kota looked at the money and back at the door, then over to Miles. “That was strange, right? It wasn’t just me?”
Miles snapped out of whatever thought he was in and jumped out of the chair. “I need to write a letter.”
He walked out without another word, leaving Kota sitting at the table alone. At a sound he leaned over and looked at the pig in the cage, who stared back at him with narrowed eyes.
“Yeah, I’m not asking you,” he said and stood up. Before he could reach the door, it opened again and Madame Elzwig’s servant bowed at him.
“Madame wished for me to inform you that we are leaving within the hour,” he said.
“Oh?” Kota had to fight to keep his eyes on the man and not look at the doors or windows to the room.
The tall man had slicked back hair and his clothes were impeccable, without a sign of a single wrinkle or blemish, but he didn’t leave much of an impression. Everything about him was carefully tailored to suggest servant or butler, even the way he spoke.
“She wishes to know if you have reconsidered her offer,” the servant said.
They both looked at the sound of a thump and saw Erin in the middle of the common room, picking up a chair and apologizing to one of the hikers.
Kota cleared his throat and said, “You can tell her that my answer’s still the same. I want to stay here, at the inn.”
The servant gave him a small, brisk smile and said, “Exactly as she thought. Ah, while I’m here, I would like to take a look at the wine cellar. It’s a little passion of mine, would that be possible?”
“Er, sure, it’s this way,” Kota said. He went to the corner alcove next to Erin’s room and pulled up the ring in the floor to reveal a set of steps leading down. He considered telling the servant about how they found the cellar door under a layer of grime, but by the time he worked up to saying something the servant spoke again, in a different tone of voice.
“Paget told me about the wayfarers, how your…friend chased them away from this place last night.”
“The driver,” the servant said. He picked up a dusty bottle and turned it over in his hands. He held it to the light for further examination as he said, “Terrible things they said about you, those wayfarers.”
Overhead the floorboards creaked beneath the distant murmur of voices.
“Fortunately, empire law does not consider the testimony of such people valid.” The servant replaced the bottle with care and walked further into the cellar. “Otherwise, Madame might be required to look into some of their accusations.”
“They would say anything though, wouldn’t they? If it meant they could get their hands on someone else,” Kota said. He could feel himself shaking, and leaned against the cool stone wall of the cellar to hide it.
“Thus why we don’t listen to them.” The servant stepped around a pallet and out of sight, but his voice still carried through the cellar. “But one does have to question why they are so interested in you, Master Kota.”
“Just,” Kota started and swallowed before continuing, “Just Kota. I’ve heard the stories. The wayfarers target people with few attachments, outsiders, strangers—”
“I was given to understand from Miss Erin that you were from the area,” the servant said. Kota scanned the gloom, trying to find where he was at now. “Your clothes, and that accent would suggest otherwise, though.”
“Northern. I say the lowlands, but Madame Elzwig has it pinned to the mountains of the borderlands.”
Kota edged toward the door in slow increments. The second he was on those steps the servant would hear and could give a warning, but by the time anyone responded he could be out the door. He already knew how long it took to get to the forest from the inn, and then—
The servant stepped out from behind a wine rack, precisely halfway between Kota and the door. “I don’t suppose you would be willing to settle that for us? No? Then may I just say that it would be prudent if you kept Madame’s offer in mind. A Judge’s hand reaches far, as does her protection.”
“And do I need protecting?” Kota asked.
“How should I know?” The servant absentmindedly turned a bottle so that its label faced up. “But considering the attention you’ve been getting lately, I wouldn’t burn any bridges. Here is Madame’s card. If you’re ever in the city, or need any help, do consider it.”
“But I don’t—” Kota looked up from the little white card to see that the servant was already going up the stairs. He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose until his headache and the shaking passed.