Erin jerked awake and looked up at Kota with bleary eyes. It was dark in the inn, but she knew that didn’t mean much. Rubbing her eyes, she asked, “What time is it?”
“Um, morning,” Kota said, glancing uneasily at the clock on the wall. Neither of them trusted the thing, as its pendulum tended to stick halfway through the swing, and the big hand would occasionally do a quick spin around the face when they weren’t looking directly at it. “Are you okay?”
Erin rubbed her eyes and felt the mark on her face from sleeping at the table. “I’m…”
She sighed and looked up at Kota. “We need to talk.”
Kota pulled up a chair and sat down, his head tilted in that way that reminded Erin of a curious dog. “About what?”
“You know…Um…” She hesitated and Miles’s words from last night ran through her mind. “Do you remember back when you first came here?”
“Yes. You hit me with a broom.”
Erin studied Kota’s face, but it was as deadpan as the tone of his voice. “Er, but do you remember when you found out Mr. Sollis wasn’t here anymore, and you were ready to leave?”
“It’s just…do you really think there’s a cure for you here?” Erin asked.
“The witch said Master Sollis—”
“I know, I know, but what if she was wrong? She didn’t even know he was dead!” Erin took a deep breath. “The point is, you only stayed because I asked you to. So, with everything going on, I was thinking, maybe….you should go.”
Kota’s eyes widened. “What?”
Erin swallowed and continued, “Maybe it would be good if you went with Miles. He thinks someone in the city could help you, right?”
“But what about the inn? Your father and the mayor only let you open it because they thought you had a partner,” Kota said, with the desperation of clinging to straws. “If I leave—”
“I can find someone else,” Erin said, crossing her arms and looking away so that she didn’t have to see Kota’s reaction. “It shouldn’t be that hard, now that we’ve proven the inn can be reopened.”
“Oh.” Kota sat back in his chair and a silence fell between them.
They sat there, Erin didn’t know how long, the lie leaving a bitter taste in her mouth that did not help at all, before the front door opened and Miles walked in. Behind him the sky was overcast and gray, doing little to lighten the mood in the room.
“What’s going on?” he asked, as if he didn’t know.
“Erin suggested that I go with you to the city,” Kota said, his voice flat and expressionless.
“Well, today would be a good day to go,” Miles said casually. He placed some packages wrapped in wax paper to keep them dry on the table, his hand slipping to Erin’s shoulder briefly. “With the weather like this, I was able to go and pick up our clothes as well as the lock Elzwig requested. It’s supposed to stay like this all day too, so we could make it to the city by tonight if we go now.”
“Now?” Erin said, her voice faltering.
Kota looked from her to Miles and said, “I would need to get my stuff together. Oh, and Erin should get to know Voi before I go. The dust bunny?”
“Oh, right,” Miles said, while Erin just looked confused. He knew Kota had nothing to pack, but he could see he wanted to talk to Erin alone. “I’ll just get the pig ready, shall I?”
“You two are weird,” Erin muttered without her usual enthusiasm as Kota led her upstairs after going into the kitchen for a saucer of milk.
Kota put a finger to his lips as they rounded the corner and placed the saucer on the third step. He made a clicking sound with his tongue and called softly, and just as Erin was wondering if there was a point to this the small ball of dirty gray fur he called Voi squeezed through a crack in the wall about half its size and scurried over to the saucer.
“What is that thing?” Erin said, clapping a hand over her own mouth when it jumped and started to tremble. Speaking softer, she said, “Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Shh,” Kota hushed the squeaking creature and gently stroked the top of its head. “Erin, this is Voi. His kind love places like this, where they can eat all the dust they want. He’s been keeping this floor clean while Sollis was gone.”
“It eats dust?” Erin stared at the thing, and after a motion from Kota reached out and stroked what she thought was the top of its head. Its fur was smoother than she expected, and closer to she was surprised to find that Voi smelled vaguely of lemons.
“And likes the occasional saucer of milk, it seems,” Kota said, smiling. He watched Erin pet the little creature for a moment or so.
Voi was just so soft, like a rabbit Erin thought. She watched him lap up the milk with fascination and asked, “But what is he?”
There was no answer, even when Erin asked the question again. She looked around, but the hallway was empty except for her and Voi.
“Kota?” She stood up and Voi lifted one of his long, trailing ears before scurrying back to the wall. She called his name again as she went to his room, but stopped short when she saw the door standing open.
Inside, the bed was as neatly made as the day she showed the room to him. His only bag was gone, and there was nothing out of place except for his room key, lying on the little bedside table.
Erin raced down the stairs and nearly fell over Miles, who was setting down the cage with the pig in it.
“Whoa!” He straightened up as Erin caught herself and rounded on him. “What are you in such a hurry for?”
“What?” Miles caught her before she could run out the door. “Kota left?”
“Yes, he took his bag and everything while I wasn’t looking,” Erin babbled, struggling to get to the door. “I thought you said he would go with you, but he’s run away!”
Miles pulled her into a chair and put both hands on her shoulders. “Calm down. I’m going after him, you stay here in case he comes back. Got it?”
“It’s my fault,” Erin said, not looking at him.
“Listen to me, stay here Erin.” Miles ran to the door, only pausing to add, “And don’t let the pig out of her cage!”
He hesitated on the road in front of the inn. Which way would Kota go?
Not to the north. Too close to the city, and there was too much open space in the wastes. Too easy to find. Same for the plains. The only cover around was in town and to the east. Miles sniffed and a faint scent confirmed it: Kota had run straight into the forest.