Erin fumed as she went around the inn, slamming chairs into place only to move them back a minute later, or picking up the broom just to put it somewhere else when she realized that she would rather swing it at Kota’s head than sweep the floor.
He had tossed her out of the room without a single explanation, not one! Well, politely asked her to leave and stood around awkwardly until she stormed out, but the intent was still the same. To admit that he had once been so angry that he lost control, and then not tell her anything else? It was…It was…
Well, it was suspicious, Erin thought to herself once she had calmed down enough for rational thought. Had he done something he was ashamed of? Something terrible?
Those remarks Miles and Lani kept making about how well she knew Kota chose this moment to replay through her head, and she wondered why she had never pressed him for answers. She knew Kota would just dodge the question like he always did, but maybe that should have been a warning in itself. What did he have to hide?
Terra left the inn as soon as he saw what kind of mood Erin was in, and Lani had disappeared again. Erin considered storming back upstairs and demanding an explanation from Kota, for everything, while there was no one else around to overhear, but it was the fact that she was alone that stopped her, in the end. With no possible witnesses to see him change, there was nothing to stop Kota from just running away again. That, and a small part of Erin thought that if he had done something once, then maybe she should have someone around, just in case. She didn’t like thinking it, but the thought kept nagging her: how well did she know Kota, really?
Late that night, long after they could expect any more guests to arrive, Kota emerged from his room and slunk down the stairs without meeting anyone’s eyes, least of all Erin’s. Before she could get to him, Lani popped up from among a group of strangers from the east lakes and intercepted the young man.
Placing a hand on his arm, she asked, “Would you please step outside with me, just for a moment please?”
Kota hesitated and then nodded, casting a pleading look at Erin as the tamer pulled him out the door among a few catcalls from one or two guys who had been deep in their drinks. Erin scowled and wondered why she should help him, but she went out through the kitchen’s back door all the same.
Outside her breath came out in thin wisps and she pulled her jacket closer. The little light shining out of the inn’s windows caught something swirling in the air, and the ground was already covered in a light dusting of snow, the first of the year for the town. She shivered and grinned in spite of herself before she remembered the others, and followed the sound of Lani’s voice around the inn.
She stopped at the corner and looked around to see the tamer move her hand up Kota’s arm to brush the hair out of his face as she said, “How does it work?”
“It’s a curse,” Kota said, pushing her hand away with more impatience than Erin thought he could muster. “What do you want?”
“You heard me tell Terra, didn’t you?” Lani’s teeth flashed as she smiled, even in the dark. “I came here to tame the wolf, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
“Well, if you haven’t noticed yet, I’m not a wolf,” Kota said. “And I think I would have heard if tamer magic worked on humans.”
“We can fix that, can’t we? Tell you what, Kota, I’ll give you a choice: come with me, or I do my thing with the wolf and you lose any choice at all in the matter.”
Kota crossed his arms. “And just where do you want to go?”
“Here, there, everywhere,” Lani said with a shrug. “I was just hired to get you away from the town. After that, the good mayor doesn’t care, and I think we could put on quite the show anywhere in the empire.”
“Ah, a freakshow.”
“More like trained animals. Of course, that’s just on the side. You would be surprised, how many people call me around so they can study Arlo and Junta, or to bring in a beast they just can be bothered to hunt down themselves.” Lani put out a hand toward Kota again, and he stepped back this time. “More than one wizard would like to learn more about that curse, I bet. And that wolf would be handy in hunting too, hm?”
Kota shook his head, and it took him a long minute to answer. “To name one problem with your little plan, you need to get at the wolf to make me do anything, and that is not going to happen. Now if you don’t mind, I need to go inside and wash the dishes before the food sticks.”
Lani stepped in his path and made a gesture with her hand. A pile of dirt out in the inn’s yard took on the bulky form of Junta, the mud badger, and a scarlet band drifting through the sky overhead was no doubt Arlo, circling around until Lani gave the next signal. Wherever the phoenix flew, it seemed to drizzle as the snow turned to rain. “So that is your choice?”
Around the corner of the inn, Erin’s hands tightened into fists, but she stopped herself from moving. Surely Lani wouldn’t actually try to hurt Kota? But if she tried anything with her pets, Erin could get more help than she needed out of the inn in seconds, with enough witnesses to prove the girl was crazy and unstable.
Kota did not seem any more worried than her. He just tilted his head and said, “That won’t get you the wolf, you know.”
“Oh, I know.” Lani reached to her belt and pulled off the flute tied there. She raised it to her lips and began to play the same song from earlier, the fierce, complicated tune that raced away into the night while her eyes remained trained on Kota.
Erin smiled, thinking that the tamer clearly had no idea how the curse worked. Her smile quickly faded when Kota clapped his hands to the side of his head and dropped to his knees, his forehead almost touching the ground. She could not hear the long string of words he was saying, but she did hear the sound that rumbled behind them, growing louder every second: a long, low growl that did not match Kota’s voice.
His body twisted and jerked in spasms as it changed, but this change was different than the one brought on by the sun. It was slower, and obviously more painful judging by the barely human sounds coming from the young man as he tried to fight it off.
Erin raced around the corner and tackled Lani as she cried, “Stop it!”
The music jerked to a stop as the two fought over the flute, but Kota continued to writhe on the ground. After a short struggle, Erin yanked the flute out of Lani’s hands and snapped it clean in half before tossing the pieces on the ground.
Overhead, the phoenix Arlo gave a long, heartfelt cry before flying away, and Junta disappeared in a spray of dirt, leaving only a large hole in her place.
Lani whirled on Erin and snarled, “What did you do?”
“Something I wish she would have done earlier,” said the man kneeling on the ground next to the shaking wolf, whose eyes were clenched shut. Both Lani and Erin stared at him, neither of them having noticed his arrival amid the fight. The man, or rather vampire, looked up at them and Miles asked, “Would you like to try to explain, or just get a running start?”