The hunter, Terra, made no noise as he left his room and walked down the hall. No one else seemed to be moving at this hour, and the snoring coming from the last room on the left more than covered his footsteps on the stairs.
That did not stop Kota from looking around, half-rising from his seat at one of the tables by the window.
“Can I help you?” he asked, trying to block Terra’s view of the table.
The hunter stopped and stared. “What is that?”
He walked closer and the small, dusty gray animal perched on the table disappeared with a twitch of its nose.
“That was, uh…”
Terra bent over to see if it had disappeared underneath the table and noticed the nearly empty saucer of milk. Putting two and two together with a speed that frightened Kota, he straightened up and said, “That was a house spirit!”
Kota saw the wisp of gray near the top of the stairs and looked back at the hunter. With a shrug he said, “I call him Voi.”
“But they never…You were…” Terra stared at Kota, his expressive face wavering between disbelief and curiosity. “You’re keeping it as a pet?”
“What, Voi? No, no, he just likes milk,” Kota said. He looked back at the window, noting that it was still dark outside with only the barest hints of a dawn coming. “Did you want something?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah, I guess it is early.” He grinned and said, “Habit, I guess. I doubt the mayor would be willing to see me just yet, huh?’
Kota shook his head and stared as the hunter pulled out a seat and sat down.
“Well, while I’ve got you here, do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” Terra asked, motioning toward the seat opposite him.
Kota looked at the seat and thought of many, many things he would rather do instead. He settled for saying, “I should get started on breakfast. What would you like?”
“I would like some information.” Terra pointed at the seat again. “Like I said, it’s early. We’ve got time before you need to worry about your eggs and bacon.”
Kota sighed and sat down. He crossed his arms on the table in front of him and gave the hunter a blank, expressionless stare.
“You’re not from around here, right?”
Kota shook his head. The mayor’s letter probably said as much.
“But you’ve been here for a while,” Terra said, confirming that thought. “What can you tell me about this Geld guy?”
“The mayor?” Kota said, not hiding his surprise. When Terra nodded, he shrugged and said, “He’s short? I don’t really know the man that well. Erin could probably tell you more.”
Terra leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table between them. “Why is he getting a Judge’s help on taking care of this wolf? By the sound of it, no one in town is even looking for the thing!”
Kota shrugged again. “The townspeople believe it is hiding in the forest. They do not go there if they can help it, even before the wolf arrived.”
“What? They have to go into the woods at some point though, for lumber and game and that sort of thing, don’t they?”
“Never that far in,” Kota said. The hunter stared at him with such disbelief that he added, “From what I understand, they go in groups, never alone. They think that this place is too close to the trees for comfort. You saw how worried the patrol was last night when they realized the time.”
“What are they afraid of?” Terra asked, but it sounded more like a rhetorical question. “From the sound of it, the cannishift and this wolf are the most excitement they’ve had in decades. At least in other villages, they’re afraid of the world outside because they know what’s waiting outside their walls. This place is right in the heart of the empire!”
Kota said nothing to this.
Terra drummed his fingers on the table while he thought and then said, “I guess I can ask the man himself later, as well as anyone else who will talk to me. I’m guessing this place isn’t big on strangers?”
“They tend to stare a lot,” Kota said. “You’re not going after the wolf today?”
“I like to know the lay of the land,” Terra said. He traced a circle on the table with his finger as he said, “The wolf hasn’t been seen in weeks, according to what those boys said last night. If it’s anything like the other reports, it may have already moved on.”
Kota tried not to look too hopeful at this suggestion. “You mean you might have to tell the mayor that it’s gone?”
“Or laying low,” Terra said. “Even a normal animal knows that seasons change. It has to stay near some kind of food source to survive the winter, doesn’t it?”
“Maybe it went to the coast like everyone else,” Kota said, but without much conviction. Making sure the hunter found no sign of the wolf was as simple as staying out of the sunlight, but Terra could easily convince the mayor to allow him to stay through the whole winter as a precaution. The longer he stayed, the harder it would be to prevent him from noticing anything. Even one good look at the mark on Kota’s face would be too much.
He made an excuse about breakfast and left Terra sitting at the table, watching the sun rise over the forest in the distance. The only light in the kitchen came from the one he turned on himself before lighting the stove and retrieving the food from the cabinets and fridge. He started everything on autopilot and stood there with his hands braced on the counter while an overloaded pan sizzled on the stove.
Erin found him that way when she came out of her room, after he had made enough to satisfy the first wave of guests that would soon be up.
“Kota?” she said, disturbed by the utterly blank expression on his face. Having seen him like this before did not make it any better, not even when he blinked and whatever thoughts were on his mind at times like this disappeared for the moment.
“Oh, good morning.”
“Morning,” she said. At her suggestion, Kota went upstairs, but as she put out the food she wondered if sleep would help. Erin actually found herself wishing that Miles was still here, if only because it helped to have someone else around that she could talk to about Kota.
“Something wrong?” Terra asked when he noticed that her mind seemed to be elsewhere by the way she nearly dumped a plate of scrambled eggs in his lap.
“Sorry,” she said, but made no move to answer his question. He was the last person she could talk to.
So it did not help when he smiled and said, “It’s Kota, right?”
She stammered and said, “N-no, I just… He just has a lot on his mind, and I’m worried about him is all.”
That sounded like an innocent enough answer, and Terra nodded as if he understood. “It’s hard being in a strange place, I should know. Shy, isn’t he?”
“Er, yeah,” Erin said, figuring that was one way to describe the young man.
Terra nodded. “I used to be the same way.”
Erin had a hard time imagining that. Judging by last night, the hunter thrived in groups, and there seemed to be no connection between him and the way that Kota had a hard time fitting in even in a group that consisted entirely of himself.
“Ah, don’t worry, all he needs is to get out a little,” Terra said. “I’ll see if I can’t get him to open up when I’m not dealing with this wolf business. Sound good?”
Erin honestly had no idea how to answer that.