The hikers left the inn at speed. Miles suspected their sudden departure had more to do with getting away from the tension that had descended on the common room than with the time. He couldn’t blame them, but now it was just him and the Judge. Sitting in the same room as Madame Elzwig was enough to set his teeth on edge, but then she turned her stare on him and actually spoke.
“Why are you here?”
Miles kept his eyes on the fireplace and said, “I could ask you the same thing. Shouldn’t you be in the city?”
“I am travelling, on business,” Elzwig declared, catching the slight shift in the vampire’s gaze before he could stop it. “We just returned from Wichel.”
Wichel. That meant she could have made it back to the capital last night, if she had made the effort. Miles never knew Elzwig to leave the city for longer than she had to, everyone knew how much she hated travelling.
“You still have not said why you are here,” Elzwig prodded.
“Well, the sun dictates how far I can travel, doesn’t it?” Miles retorted. The muscles in his hands and face were starting to ache from the effort of not moving or showing any expression. “Some of us don’t have a private carriage to ride around in.”
Madame Elzwig stood up and began to slowly pace around the room. “I thought your kind had your own methods of travel. Flying and all that?”
“Who has the energy for that?” Miles asked. She was blocking his view of the fireplace now, so he turned his stare on the front desk sitting in front of him instead. It occurred to him that Erin really shouldn’t leave inn records sitting in the open like this, but it gave him something to look at as he spoke. “A broken lock. Aren’t there locksmiths in the city?”
“Not one that can teach his daughter how to get around one of the best locks our people can make,” Elzwig said. “If he knows the fault, then shouldn’t he know how to avoid it?”
Miles had been trying so hard to ignore the sound of her pacing around the room that he did not realize she had stopped until the Judge spoke again, so close behind him that it took all of his effort not to react.
“And of course, a little delay gives Kota more time to reconsider my offer.”
“What offer would that be?” Miles asked, and the Judge laughed. He ground his teeth at the sound of that blaring laugh.
“Please, don’t play coy,” Elzwig said. She placed her hands on the back of his chair and leaned closer. “We both know what he is, don’t we?”
Miles practically leapt out of the chair, but he tried to play it off by grabbing the inn’s budget and walking to the fire as if to read it better. He peered at the several lines of red intermixed with black and said, “Oh, do tell.”
“When I heard about a man who could turn into a wolf, I must admit my first thought was werewolf,” Madame Elzwig admitted. Miles did not turn around, but he thought he heard the shifting of paper coming from the desk. “Of course, the moon wasn’t right, so that left either shapeshifter or some form of curse. Going by the events of yesterday, it’s quite obvious now that it is a curse, although I must say I haven’t discovered the parameters yet.”
Miles’s hand went to his mouth and then he let it drop. Amid his spinning thoughts, he wondered what happened yesterday. How did she know? His first thought was of the wayfarers from last night, but they wouldn’t go to a Judge, even if the timing was right.
“Really? And here I thought you had it all figured out,” Miles said. He breathed out slowly and asked, “What are you going to do when he doesn’t go? He won’t, you know.”
“Do?” Miles turned around in time to see the Judge shrug her expansive shoulders and give a little smile. “What can I do? Until he crosses the law, I can’t officially ‘do’ anything, same as you.”
Miles crossed his arms. “Officially, yes. But a lot of things happen off the record, don’t they?”
Madame Elzwig laughed again and Miles gripped the mantel over the fireplace to keep himself from doing something he would regret.
“Oh, where do you get these ideas, Miles?” She walked up and patted him on the face, which turned a shade paler. “You’ll keep an eye on them then?”
Madame Elzwig turned her head at the sound of her servant knocking on the door before entering and sighed. “How did it go?”
“Master Smith said that it would take a day to create the new lock, and had one of his sons attach a temporary one that should suffice until then.” The servant adjusted his jacket and said, “Since it would be another day, I made so bold as to request that they give the lock to Miles to deliver when he returns to the city. I hope that is alright?”
“Of course it is,” Elzwig said before Miles could answer. “It looks like we have no reason to delay any longer. The emperor does tend to worry if I stay away too long. Please, do let Kota know that my door is always open for him.”
She smiled at Miles and walked out with her servant tailing her like a second shadow. The second the door shut behind them Miles swore, and then swore again for good measure. The third time was because he dropped the inn’s budget in the fire and burnt his hand pulling it out.
He slammed the smoking piece of paper down on the table and went upstairs.
“Kota!” He knocked on the door and, when he didn’t answer, opened it and stared at the empty room. The bed was made with neat precision, the curtain over the window pulled to block even the slightest bit of light. The young man’s bag was under the table, but Miles knew that didn’t mean anything.
He sniffed the air and opened the closet door. There were no clothes there, nothing except for a neatly folded blanket lying on the floor. Miles stared at this and then shook his head. Now wasn’t the time.
Miles ran out of the room and looked up and down the hallway before going around the bend and stopping short when Kota, sitting sprawled out on the steps leading up to the attic, waved his hand and motioned for him to be quiet.
In between Kota and the attic door lay a bowl, full of milk by the smell of it. A small, gray ball of fur with long, draggly ears stopped with a point that might have been a nose stretched out toward the bowl, and large, milky blue eyes stared at Miles.
Kota made a small, calming noise and the little creature slowly inched toward the bowl and began to lap it up with a catlike tongue. When he gently stroked the top of its head, it barely paused in its guzzling.
“I found him in the attic a few weeks ago,” Kota said, quietly so as not to disturb the creature. “I think he’s the one that’s been eating the dust on this floor.”
“Great, you’ve found yourself a pet dust bunny,” Miles said, too exasperated to be curious.
Kota managed to pull his attention away from the creature and look at Miles. “Is something wrong?”
“We need to talk. Now.”
Miles rubbed his eyes. “Let’s start with what happened yesterday.”