Kota looked up anxiously at the gray sky overhead as he walked down the road, wondering if the sun would show its face again today. He turned at the sound of footsteps and a look of dismay crossed his face before he could stop it when he saw Erin’s father coming his way. Even worse, Eli seemed to be smiling.
The blacksmith caught sight of him around the same time, and it worried Kota more than a little that his smile did not diminish. If anything, it grew a little wider as Eli said, “Well, well, didn’t expect to run into you. Where are you headed?”
“Er, back to the inn,” Kota said, unsure of how to deal with this friendly version of Eli. “I told Miles–”
“That would be the vampire, right?” Eli interrupted. “Yeah, he came by my forge earlier today.”
“Oh,” Kota said, and then, “Oh.”
He knew now why Eli looked so happy. Miles had told him that Kota was leaving today.
“I was heading that way myself,” the blacksmith said, and Kota nodded. That sounded like his luck.
They started to walk toward the inn as an awkward silence grew between them, until Kota realized that here was the perfect opportunity to ask the blacksmith a few questions. He doubted he would ever see the man in a better mood.
“Are you going to see Erin?” he asked. He thought it would be best to start with an easy question, but as soon as the words left his mouth he regretted them.
“Yes.” Eli’s smile faded and he seemed more like his flint self. “If you’re leaving, then there’s no excuse for keeping up this charade any longer.”
“She could always find someone else to help her with the inn,” Kota offered, but the blacksmith snorted.
“Like anyone with any sense would deal with that place.”
Kota coughed and Eli quickly amended himself. “That is, anyone who knew better… No, it’s just… Not the place for her, you see?”
Kota stared, fascinated. Eli had more in common with Erin than he thought. He took a chance and said, “Is it because she wants to go to the city?”
“No, no,” Eli said quickly. “Her mother did the same thing when she was younger. I just think there are better places where she could earn the money. The bakery’s always looking for workers, and Lord knows Geld could use some help in the office.”
“So why not the inn?”
Eli’s smile was completely gone now, and a scowl started to take its place. “That place is almost as bad as the forest now. I don’t know how Daniel could stand it, knowing what he did.”
“What happened there?” Kota asked, knowing the blacksmith’s answer before he even said it.
“You wouldn’t understand, boy.”
And like that, Eli was completely closed off again, as unapproachable as ever before with his face set into that frown that came so naturally and his eyes brooding as he watched the inn come into sight. Kota looked at the inn and tried one last ditch effort.
“If you’re so against the inn, then why did you make us the new sign?”
Eli looked at him and Kota’s steps took a slight curve that moved him a little farther away. “You noticed that, did you?”
“Well, considering the old one was about to fall off–”
“I lost a bet, that’s all,” Eli said, interrupting him. “Although now it looks like I was right. What time are you and the vampire leaving?”
Kota coughed and muttered something before opening the door to the inn and calling, “Erin, your father’s here.”
He darted inside past the astonished girl, who watched him run over to where Miles sat in the corner nursing what was left of the deer meat and begin berating the vampire in a low voice that neither of the Smiths could hear.
Erin looked back at her dad and asked, “What are you doing here?”
“I came to help you pack,” he said, with even less tact than usual.
“Pack?” It did not take even half a second for Erin to connect the dots. “You think I’m coming home? Look, Dad, if it’s about that wolf again–”
“No, it’s about him,” he said, nodding toward Kota. “He leaves, you have no partner, and that was part of our deal. No partner, no inn.”
“He…” Erin hesitated, realizing that Kota had never actually said he would be staying. “Even if Kota left, I could always find someone else in town.”
“Funny thing. That vampire over there asked around, and it seems no one’s interested.” Eli looked over Erin’s head at Miles and said, “Isn’t that right?”
“Well, yes,” Miles admitted. He even tried to bribe a few, but he wasn’t about to say that out loud. “But, sir–”
He was interrupted by the sound of a cart pulling up in front of the inn, most it loaded down with crates of fruits and vegetables, although someone had left a space at the very back. One of the men sitting up front waved and called, “Ready to go? We can’t wait all day!”
“Farmer said he had a delivery going to the capital,” Kota explained. “So I asked him if they would be willing to take a couple of passengers along, and he agreed.”
“Well, it looks like you’re already packed,” Eli said, eyeing the bag on Kota’s back.
“Oh,” Kota said, just now remembering it. He had taken a detour back into the forest to retrieve it, having dropped it in his hurry to get to Miles. “Actually–”
“Could you give us a second, sir?” This time it was Miles’s turn to interrupt, and Eli stared as Erin and Miles pulled Kota into the kitchen and shut the door behind them.
“Are you rethinking going to the city?” Miles asked, and Erin frowned at the hopeful tone in his voice.
That hope quickly died when Kota shook his head and said, “No, why?”
“Well, you said a couple of passengers…”
“Yes, you and the pig lady,” Kota said.
“Oh.” Miles blinked and they were sure that he had completely forgotten about the pig.
Erin breathed a sigh of relief, but knowing that could easily mean Kota planned to just run off again she said, “While you were gone, we noticed something in Sollis’s journal.”
She showed him the passages, which Kota looked at with a wooden expression while she explained how they thought whatever Sollis had been looking for might be connected to a cure.
Kota examined the sun and moon emblem, personally thinking that the jotted notes were so vague they could refer to anything.
“Miles said he thought it might be worth looking into,” Erin said, as if sensing his hesitation. “Right?”
Kota looked up at Miles and saw that they both knew what the vampire was trying to do. Miles smiled and shrugged, completely unashamed. Kota looked at Erin, completely oblivious to the gesture as she turned pages and kept pointing out passages that referred to Sollis’s search.
Kota placed a hand on the journal to stop her and smiled. “Then I can keep working for you?”
“Partner,” Erin corrected. “But only if Miles agrees to be the one to break the news to Dad.”
They both turned on the vampire, whose smile quickly faded. “Oh, dear. Can’t I just go back out in the sun?”