Midnight found Kota sitting in a chair close to the low fire, which provided the only light in the inn’s common room. Occasionally he would turn a page of Sollis’s journal, but otherwise he stayed so still that an onlooker would have thought he had fallen asleep.
In fact, when his head dipped down again and the worn out journal started to slide out of his hands, there was someone watching, and she used the moment to ease her way down the stairs and walk up to his chair unnoticed.
“If you fall asleep like that, you’ll wake up with a crick in your neck.”
Kota’s head snapped up and he nearly knocked his chair over trying to look around. Seeing Lani smiling down at him, he stood and said, “I’m sorry, did you want something?”
“I couldn’t sleep,” the young woman announced as she walked over to the fireplace and leaned against the mantel. “Do you always stay up like this?”
“Yes, usually,” Kota said. He glanced at his chair but remained standing like Lani.
“It must get boring, sitting up all night.” It was hard for Kota to read Lani’s expression with the firelight behind her, casting a shadow over most of her face.
“I find ways to keep busy.” Kota noticed that he still had Sollis’s journal in his hand and moved it so that Lani would not notice. “Are you sure I couldn’t get you something to drink?”
“No, I don’t think a drink will help me get to sleep,” she said, shaking her head. Her ponytail, now untidy, lost a few more strands of dark hair, one of which caught on the corner of her smile. “Would it be okay if I sat up with you, for a little while?”
“Er…” Kota hesitated, during which time she pulled a chair up next to his and sat down, patting the seat of his chair until he followed suit.
“This is cozy, isn’t it?” Lani stretched her feet out toward the fire and sighed. “It’s just so cold up in my room, you know?”
“I’m sorry,” Kota said automatically. “I could find you some more blankets–”
Her hand grabbed his when he started to stand and Lani said, “Really, it can wait, Kota. That’s your name right, Kota?”
Kota nodded and sank back into his chair.
“Everyone in town talks about your cooking,” she said, propping her chin up so that she could sit and study his face.
“Oh, yes. The ladies say you might look like a scarecrow, but you sure know your way around a kitchen.” Lani grinned at Kota’s expression and added, “They say even Madame Elzwig herself tried to buy you out.”
“Do people really talk about me that much?” Kota asked, failing to sound as casual about it as he meant to. “I’m sure they have better things to talk about.”
“I’m sure they’ll have more than enough to say about me and that hunter after today,” Lani remarked. “They love their gossip, these people. They ate up the story about the wolf and those shadows.”
“You told them about that?”
Her bright eyes examined Kota’s face with an intensity that worried him as she said, “Why not? You tell people a little story, and they’re more likely to tell you something in return.”
Kota turned that over in his mind and nodded. “So you spent all day asking around after the wolf?”
“Oh, no, I don’t need to ask around about that.” Lani laughed, but quickly stopped when she realized how loud the sound was in the quiet inn. “No, that was before I made a few arrangements for tomorrow.”
“What sort of arrangements?” Kota asked, not needing to fake his interest.
Lani leaned forward so that she was uncomfortably close to Kota and said, “Now why would I ruin the surprise? I just hope you’ll be there to see it all this time, instead of the tail end of things.”
Kota shrugged. “Well, I can’t make any promises if I don’t know what you’re talking about, but if you need me…”
She reached out and brushed the side of Kota’s face with her hand before he pulled away, coming unnervingly close to touching his mark. “I will.”
Lani smiled again and stood up before stretching and faking a yawn. “Well, I suppose I’ll see you in the morning. Goodnight, Kota.”
Kota did not answer, not that she waited for him to do so. He heard her go up the stairs, and as soon as the sound of a door opening and shutting reached his ears he rubbed at his face to try and get rid of the feeling of her touch.
Lani did not wait long that next morning to put her plan, whatever it may be, into action. Just as the first guests prepared to head on their way after breakfast, she stood in the center of the room and declared, “Ladies and gentlemen, as you may or may not know, I am a tamer. If any of you would like to watch a demonstration of my abilities for free, please follow me to the edge of the forest.”
“And just what are you going to do?” Terra asked from his place near the stairs, speaking over the other guests.
Lani smiled, her eyes finding Kota as she said, “I am going to summon the unnatural wolf that has been plaguing this village and put its exploits to rest.”
Terra snorted and shook his head, but a murmuring started among the others. The inn soon emptied as a stream of followers trailed Lani toward the line of trees in the distance.
“You’re not going?” Terra asked Erin and Kota as he paced across the floor, watching the group walk away through the windows.
“I, um…” Erin hesitated and glanced at Kota, who was sticking close to the kitchen door, out of the sunlight.
“I can stay here and watch the inn,” Kota said, and Erin nodded. It gave him an excuse to stay behind, indoors. “Are you going, Terra?”
“I could walk Erin there,” he said quickly. He stopped his pacing and added, “You know, since you don’t like the forest and all.”
“Thank you,” Erin said, able to tell that more than one person needed an excuse. “I’ll tell you what happens later, Kota, okay?”
Kota nodded and watched them leave, noting that whatever Terra thought of the tamer’s abilities, he did grab his bow and arrows as he left. The moment they were far enough away, Kota bolted out the back door. It meant going far out of the way to the north and back around to come at the group from the side of the forest, in the shape of the wolf no less, but he had no intention of waiting around to see what Lani had planned.
By the time he came close enough to the group to hear what was going on without being spotted in the brush under the trees, Lani had already started into some grandiose speech, full of words designed to keep an audience guessing. Tamers, besides their own natural talent, were born and bred to thrill a crowd.
Just as she reached the point where the first of the guests would start to get antsy, Lani said, “Now for the summoning. I advise you to step back, as there is no guarantee what or how many fell-beasts may come.”
Even the most skeptical of the people took a step back at this, leaving a wide ring around the tamer as she raised her golden flute to her lips and began to play.
In the forest, Kota’s mind erupted into an explosion of noise and agony, in the process losing all control over what happened next.