Erin slid back in the cushioned seat of the carriage as it started again with a barely noticeable jump. It was surprisingly roomy, although now that she thought about it she couldn’t see Madame Elzwig settling for some cramped box that jolted around at every bump and hole in the road. The wheels sounded as if they glided over the ground more than anything. The windows on either side were strangely shaped so that Erin could look out but the people the carriage passed on the town streets could not look in, no matter how much they stared.
“Is this your first time in a carriage?” Neil asked.
“In one like this? Yes,” Erin said, looking around. “Is that a light on the ceiling?”
“Yes, for Madame to read by.” Neil sat painfully straight in his seat, his hands carefully folded over each other. “May I ask, how is it to be the keeper of the Last Inn? Do you enjoy it?”
“It’s…interesting.” Erin thought that word summed it up best. It was hard to concentrate, when she kept wanting to look out the window at the streets and people they passed. She could hear the people talking, if not what they said, but from the grumbling she thought they probably recognized the carriage from yesterday.
“Busy?” Neil asked.
“Sometimes,” Erin admitted. “We’ve been making repairs, and Miles said business will probably be picking up soon so we’ve been getting ready for that.”
“Ah, yes, the traveling season is starting, isn’t it?” The servant smiled, but it looked as stiff as the way he sat. “I suppose you’re glad to have Kota to assist you. And Miles too, it seems?”
“Um, Miles is just helping out today, that’s all,” Erin said. She did not want to make that a regular thing. “But yes, I couldn’t keep the place open without Kota.”
True enough, but she blushed at how she sounded as she said it. This guy worked for the Judge, and she was not about to let him think they could just hire Kota out from underneath her.
That was all he said, but the silence did not have a chance to become uncomfortable by the time the carriage pulled to a stop in front of the smithy. Neil popped up like a cork and opened the door for Erin before she was even half out of the seat.
“Thank you,” she said as she stepped down.
A noise made her look around and she spotted her older brother, Marcus, standing at the door to the forge and staring at her in obvious horror. Erin quickly walked over to him and pulled him off to the side where Neil and the driver could not hear.
Just in time it seemed, as he gasped out, “That’s the Judge’s coach! What were you doing in there?”
“They just gave me a ride,” Erin said. “Go tell Dad they’re here, okay? They’re looking for a new lock, tell him that. And stop staring, would you?”
Marcus nodded and ran in as Neil approached. Erin did not know what he said to get Eli to the door so fast, but the smith had that look in his eye that promised trouble.
“The Judge in there?” he asked without any greeting or introduction.
“No, sir, she is still at the inn. We have a commission for you, if you’re interested,” Neil said, seemingly unfazed by Eli’s thunderous expression. He explained about the lock as they walked around to take a look at the back of the carriage, but Erin did not feel up to listening to that.
She walked into the forge and Marcus looked up from stoking the fire.
“I wouldn’t stick around if I were you,” Marcus said. “Dad’s not happy.”
“When is he ever?” Erin asked, turning over some of the tools on the workbench. She looked at Marcus and realized that here was the solution to her problem. “Hey, could you make some new keys for the inn? Some of the last guests walked off with theirs.”
“Me?” Marcus frowned. “Even if I did it, we’d need to change out the locks, probably all of them so that you would just have the one master key. You realize how much that would cost?”
Erin sighed. “I know. I suppose it’s too much to hope for a family discount?”
They both jumped as a bunch of keys crashed onto the bench next to Erin and a far from happy laugh came from the door.
“Or you could save a lot of money and just get the original keys back,” Eli said. He walked over to the far wall and dug around in the box of scraps there while Erin and Marcus stared at the keys. They were all obviously from the inn, and a quick count proved that all ten of the wayfarers’ keys were there.
“How did you get these?” Erin asked.
“Search crews looking for that monster wolf found them outside of town, along with that,” Eli said. He pointed to the corner and Erin thought she might be sick at the sight of her yellow bike waiting there for her.
Erin started to explain, or at least to give a believable lie, but her father gave her a look and a signal to stay quiet just as Neil walked in.
“This is the material I was talking about,” Eli said, showing the metal to the servant. “We can have it ready by tomorrow.”
“We were planning on leaving today,” Neil said. He thought about it and said, “I suppose Madame might be willing to have Miles bring it in when he returns to the city tomorrow night. Would that be acceptable?”
Eli and Neil discussed the details while Marcus and Erin stood by, trying not to look at each other or the keys on the bench. It seemed an eternity before Eli showed the servant to the door with receipt of purchase in hand.
As soon as the carriage pulled away, Eli turned and said, “Explain. Now.”
“Some guests at the inn ran out on the bill without returning their keys. They must have tossed them when they thought they were far enough away,” Erin said, the explanation ready thanks to the time to think.
“And the bike?” Eli asked.
“I must have left it somewhere by accident,” Erin said, adding truthfully, “I haven’t ridden it in days, not since the last time I came to town for groceries.”
“Funny, because it was left in the middle of the street. Alandale found it, and he said it hadn’t been there the night before when he walked home.” Eli crossed his thick arms. “Care to explain how you left your bike in town yesterday morning without leaving the inn?”
“I didn’t leave it there,” Erin said. She crossed her arms and frowned in imitation of him. “Look, thank you for finding the keys and the bike, but don’t treat me like I’ve done something wrong. Why can’t you just believe me for once?”
“Tell me then, did you let those wayfarers stay in the inn?”
Erin bit her lip and said, “Yes, but I didn’t know what they were.”
Eli threw his hands up and stomped away while Marcus looked from one to the other in confusion. “Wayfarers! Really Erin?”
“How was I supposed to know?” Erin asked. “How do you even know about them?”
“The Judge mentioned them, remember?” Eli said. Before Erin could protest that this wasn’t what she meant, he said, “Are they still here?”
“No, Miles said they left the area last night,” Erin said.
“Miles. The vampire?” Marcus asked, latching on to the conversation even though Erin wished he wouldn’t.
“Yes, him. Dad, I need to get some things and get back to the inn before dark. Is there anything else you want?”
Eli shook his head and she took that as a sign to grab the keys and wheel her bike out of the forge before he could change his mind.