Kota came close to falling over the railing, and would have if the fisherman had not reached out a hand and grabbed him.
“Sorry,” he said, letting go of Kota’s arm. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“It’s…I…” Kota looked around and, seeing that they were alone, said, “Thank you again for your help yesterday, Mr…”
“Wen. Just Wen.” The old man leaned his fishing pole against the railing of the bridge and added, “Again? I don’t recall a first time.”
“Sorry,” Kota said. “And thank you. You saved my life.”
“Did I?” Wen shook his head. “No, you look the sort to stay alive. You mean I saved your secret.”
Kota tightened his grip on the railing of the bridge, feeling the rust crinkle under his hand, and did not know what to say.
“The wayfarers are gone,” Wen said, propping his elbows on the railing and looking out over the water.
Kota nodded, not bothering to ask how he knew. A silence settled around them, the fisherman apparently content to stay in the same place all night while everything from the last two days ran through Kota’s mind until he said, “If they knew…”
He did not finish the thought, but Wen looked at him with an understanding that surprised Kota, tinged with sadness. “If you’re asking for advice, I’m not the one to go to. But I can tell you that history is not on your side there, when it comes to this town.”
Kota sighed and turned his head at the sound of Miles calling his name. “I should go,” he said, thinking that it would not be good to let the vampire get frustrated. “Thank you, for yesterday.”
Wen nodded and stared out over the water. As Kota came to the end of the bridge, a thought occurred to him and he looked at the darkness under the bridge and said, “Thank you, too.”
A grunt came from the troll, which was probably about the best he could have expected. Kota followed the sound of Miles’s voice until he found him down one of the town’s side streets, peering behind some trash cans.
The vampire dropped something small, which scurried away, and wiped his mouth before turning to face Kota. “Ah, there you are. Ready to return to the inn?”
He saw Kota’s expression and sighed. “Look, I get hungry when I have a lot on my mind. I’m a stress drinker.”
“And chasing down rats helps with that?” Kota asked.
“Again, unless you’re offering, don’t criticize,” Miles said. He flipped up the collar on his shirt and said, “Come on, let’s get back before the patrol volunteers get too eager for some hunting.”
They walked back to the inn in silence, Miles unusually silent and Kota still thinking about what Wen said. Erin looked up when they walked into the inn and Miles slammed the door behind him before slamming down into a chair.
“Did it go that bad?” Erin asked.
“The mayor’s calling in hunters, and there’ll be a patrol in town now,” Miles said. “Under Elzwig’s advice, of course.”
“Well, he said ‘professionals,’ but Elzwig tends to go for the straight shot.” Miles scowled. “What is she playing at?”
Erin looked at the two of them and wondered why Miles seemed to be more upset about this news. Kota sat down at the table with the two of them and stared at nothing in particular, his face blank and his eyes unfocused.
“Are you okay, Kota?” she asked, when this went on for a little too long.
“What? Oh, yes.” Kota shook his head and, seeing the two of them staring, felt that he should say something more. “I bought some clothes with the money you gave me.”
“Good?” She looked to Miles for help, but the vampire just gave her a shrug and a look that said he had no idea what was going through Kota’s head. “Are you worried about what the mayor said?”
“Him? No, not really.” Kota rubbed his eyes. “I’ve been expecting it, since yesterday. But why call in a professional? Are there no hunters here?”
“Wouldn’t complain too much when they throw you a bone,” Miles muttered.
Erin shifted uneasily and said, “I don’t think anyone around here does that sort of thing anymore. There are a few guys who go into the forest and wastes to hunt, but always in a group and never that far. I can’t see any of them going after some kind of ‘monster,’ no matter how tough they act.”
Kota thought of Peter holding that gun and the patrol forming at her father’s forge right now and thought Erin wasn’t quite right on that point, but did not argue. He ran a hand through his hair, unintentionally sweeping his hair out of his face enough to reveal the mark there above his left eye.
It seemed brighter than ever to Erin, or maybe that was just because of the bags under his eyes. Now that she looked, his face seemed paler than ever, and the livid mark practically shined in the dim light of the inn. Across the table, Miles’s eyes studied the mark, perhaps thinking the same thing.
“I’ve got some stuff that I need to do, so I can watch the inn if you want to get some sleep,” she said.
“What do you need to do?” Kota asked. “I can—”
“I think I can handle it,” Erin cut in. “I don’t need your help to do everything around here, you know. Go and get a few hours of sleep before you’re totally useless.”
Kota stared and then got up and went upstairs without another word. Erin leaned forward and buried her head in her arms.
“Can’t take a hint, can he?” Miles said, staring up the stairs after him. He looked at Erin with her head still on the table and decided to test his luck. “He’d probably do anything if you told him to, though. Wouldn’t he?”
Erin turned so one eye could look at him through her hair and said, “I don’t know about anything, but he doesn’t put up much of a fight. Sometimes I wish he would stand up for himself more. It’s a little…”
She broke off, but Miles nodded and said, “Unsettling. He’s very attached to this inn, you know.”
“Like I said, he thinks there’s some kind of cure here thanks to that stupid witch.” Erin sighed, blowing a few wisps of her hair up into the air. “What kind of person makes up something like that?”
“So you think she made it up?”
“It’s the only thing I can think of. How would Mr. Sollis know anything about how to fix him? He never left the inn if he could help it.”
Erin fell silent, and Miles waited a full minute before saying, as carefully as he could, “Then maybe you should tell Kota to give up.”
“What?” Erin sat up and gave him a fierce look worthy of her father. “Why would I do something like that?”
“As opposed to letting him chase after a fool’s dream until some hunter arrives and puts an end to him?” Miles’s eyes flashed, perhaps as a trick of the light from the fireplace. “He won’t listen to reason! If I could just get him to a capital wizard, but no!”
He slammed his hand on the table, palm down, and Erin’s heart hammered.
“I’ve given him every chance, even that Elzwig has in her own way, and he’s determined to stay in this wretched little inn until someone kills him. He might listen to you, but you don’t want him to leave because that would be inconvenient.” He spat out the last word and Erin winced, if only because it hit home.
He stood up, the chair scraping behind him, and walked out the front door with a declaration that he needed some air. Erin heard the door slam behind him but did not turn her head. She just sat there, her hands curled up into balls that shook as tears of shame rolled down her face.