After tending to Lani’s horse, Erin went back into the common room of the Last Inn and placed the box of chel shells on the table where Kota sat. She originally had the idea of waiting until Kota asked about the box, but soon realized they would be there all day. Instead she said, “Do you remember when I asked you about the mer?”
Kota glanced at her and opened the box. He sighed when he saw the shells inside, glittering in the light overhead, and asked, “So what did the mer say?”
“Sollis was looking for something, something that could break a curse!”
The news did not have the expected effect on Kota, although Erin had to admit she wasn’t sure what she expected. Surprise, for sure, maybe even a little bit of excitement, or even just a smile would have been a start.
She did not expect him to sigh and run a hand over his face, pushing the hair out of his eyes so he could look fully at her with an expression that looked a lot more like pity than relief.
“Erin, even if Master Sollis was looking for something to break a curse, there’s no reason it should be able to help me. There are no cure-alls.”
“But your witch said Sollis could help you,” Erin said, putting as much emphasis on the words as she could. “She must have heard he was looking for this thing from one of the mer or the other people he asked for help, and sent you here for it! I mean, it can’t just be a coincidence, can it?”
Kota sat back in his chair and sighed again. “Erin…”
“What’s with you? Don’t you care at all? This is your curse, your problem, and you’re not doing a thing about it!” Erin bit her lip when she saw Kota bow his head and hunch his shoulders. “Don’t do that!”
“Don’t do what?” Kota asked, even as he sank lower in the chair.
“That! Hiding behind yourself, acting like you’re scared, trying to make me feel bad just because I’m trying to help you.”
“I’m not–” Kota started, but there was no stopping Erin now.
“Since you got here, you haven’t done a single thing to help yourself. You haven’t looked for a cure, you didn’t even leave the inn until Miles and I forced you to, you ran away when he offered you a chance to get better, you hide from everyone and act like they’re all out to get you,” Erin said, and would have kept going for longer if she did not have to stop for a breath and Kota used the opportunity to get a word in.
“…Did the mer tell you anything else about this cure?”
“Not really. Just a roundabout way of saying only a human could find it, and then that I already knew how to find out, which I don’t,” Erin said, realizing that this bit of information did not help her case much. “But I don’t think the mer was lying, not about the cure.”
“I don’t suppose Master Sollis ever said anything to you?” Kota asked.
Erin shook her head and then, because Kota’s eyes were trained on the table, said, “No. I never really saw him that much. I mean, sometimes he would tell me stories, but they were just stories you would tell a kid. Nothing about curses, or ‘chains’ like the mer called it.”
Kota ran his hand over his face again but this time stopped when his fingers touched the mark branded over his left eye. After a minute he let the hand drop and asked, “May I see the journal?”
“Sure,” Erin said. She retrieved the journal from the desk and handed it to him just as a knock came at the front door.
Kota had just enough time to sweep his hair back down over his forehead to cover his mark before the door opened and a couple of guests walked in.
By the time Erin and Kota set them up with a room and helped them take their bags upstairs, more people were coming in, and then more after that, until it was time for Kota to start worrying about feeding all of these people. Erin saw Terra come in and immediately start up a conversation with a group of strangers, and sometime later spotted Lani sitting at her own table, surrounded by several men who were hanging on to her every word.
Part of her wanted to ask the two how their search for the wolf had gone, but when she tried to bring up the subject Terra just shook his head and muttered something about “muddled tracks” while Lani smiled and changed the subject.
She wondered why she bothered. Erin reminded herself of what she had said earlier: it was Kota’s problem, his curse, not hers. The more she thought about it, the more she realized that she was sick and tired of curses and wolves.
She thought about this the whole time she ferried dishes out to the guests and to those townspeople who had come for the food, and by the time the dirty plates were back in the kitchen she was more than ready to sit down at a table with some of the guys from the town patrol and a group of people on their way to the city.
“I’m from Valre, a village east of here,” one of the young women with the group told Erin. “It’s even smaller than this place.”
“Really? Why are you going to the city?” Erin asked.
“For work,” the girl said with a shrug. “The capital is always looking for new help, you know. Some of the factories and schools even send out recruiters, like the one who came to my village.”
“You’re all going to work at the same place?”
The girl laughed and the guy sitting next to her shook his head and said, “No, we’re just traveling together for safety. A few of us were talking about getting a room together, but Lucy and some of the others don’t have to worry about that. One of the perks of housework, I guess.”
“Yes, sweeping and dusting is going to be wonderful,” the girl said with as much sarcasm as she could muster.
Erin thought about this while the others talked. Recruiters never came to this town. She guessed they figured if anyone wanted to go to the city they would just do it, but no one ever left.
She wondered if she could just pack up and leave for the city. Moving to the inn was supposed to have been a trial run, after all, and a way to earn some money to get by on once she was there. She had never really planned on a certain time to leave, or even exactly what she would do once she got there. Now she was thinking it would be worth working for Madame Elzwig even if it meant getting out of here.
Erin jumped at the sound of Kota’s voice and looked around. Nearly everyone else had gone home or to their rooms, and the fire in the grate had died down while she wasn’t paying attention.
“Why don’t you go to bed?” he asked gently.
Erin stared up at him, wondering how he could act so nice after everything she had said to him earlier. Didn’t he ever get mad, or have regrets, or do anything just because he wanted to, and not because someone had asked or told him to do it? Why couldn’t he be selfish, or even the least bit normal?
“What?” he asked, after the staring went on for a little too long.
“You’re weird,” she muttered, not expecting him to hear over the sound of the chair scraping back.
“I know,” Kota answered with a smile that only frustrated Erin more.