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Chapter Eight

Eight

Thursday, April 20

Low Tide 10:52 p.m.

Sunset 7:31 p.m. EDT

I held the bottle with both hands, so as not to spill wine on the counter; my hands were shaking that bad. Also, somebody had a jackhammer going inside my right temple, and my peripheral vision was filled with a haze of spangled pastels.

Other than that, though, I was cool.

A brief tussle got the cork back where it belonged and the bottle into the door of the fridge. I got a two-handed grip on the glass and had a healthy slug, wishing I'd thought to buy something with a higher alcohol content.

Second shift inside the wards had been -- nightmarish, even for somebody with a high threshold for horror. The batwing didn't speak again, but as the afternoon wore on, the others wakened and begin to test their limits. Metaphorically speaking, I'd been pushed, pinched, slapped, cut and burned all afternoon, to the increasingly cruel and raucous laughter of those who had no reason to love me or mine, and every reason to oppose us, heart and will.

Well.

I gulped some more wine, got my eyes open and my feet under me and went over to check the answering machine I'd gotten at Gregor's yesterday. Henry still hadn't returned my call. It was too late to catch him in the office, but I dialed the number anyway, and had another swallow of wine while his machine picked up and ran through its recorded message.

At the tone, I cleared my throat. "Henry, it's Kate," I said, my voice a creaky whisper. "I'm wondering how it went with Nemeier's lawyer. I'll be at the carousel tomorrow, or you can call and leave a message on my machine. Bye."

That minor chore taken care of, I went to the fridge, topped off my glass, and wandered out into the great room. My laptop was sitting on the coffee table where I'd left it last night, lid up and ready-light glowing, cell phone charging beside it. My books -- what few I still owned -- were in the case, hobnobbing like old buds with Gran's collection. My clothes were taking up about half the available space in the closet upstairs; my jacket and keys hung ready on the hook by the door, next to Gran's old brown sweater.

It was. . .a relief. . .to see how little impact I had on my surroundings. Pretty soon, the process would be complete and I wouldn't take up any room at all. Before that, though, I had to get Gran back on the case, and clean out such stuff as I did have, so as not to leave a mess.

I had another sip of wine and thought about going to bed, but I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep with the echo of the batwing's voice still caught inside my head.

Instead, I moved over to the fireplace. Wood was laid in, newspaper and matches to hand, the grate swept clean. The winter I came to live with Gran, the fireplace had been my best friend. I spent hours kneeling on the brick hearth, watching stories unfold in the flames, telling them out loud, not once looking over at Gran, or at Mr. Ignatious, who'd been there more often than not, where they sat quiet over book or handwork, and never let on that they were paying any mind.

The stories I told the flames were hardly happy. I told how my grandfather had contested with Ramendysis of the Storm and fallen, his power and his property forfeit. I told how Ramendysis drank my father's power, and that of all our House, until they were but dust blowing upon the scented breeze. All gone, except my mother and myself. I whispered to the flames the story of my shame, and how my mother had bargained for my freedom with her soul.

It must've been beyond creepy, the hoarse little-girl voice reciting the atrocities of another time and place. I remember thinking at the time -- believing -- that the fire took the stories as I said them, and unmade them, so the histories I recited had never . . .really. . .happened.

It's a wonderful thing to be a child, and to believe in fairy tales.

I moved my gaze from the cold firestones -- up to the crowded mantelpiece.

On the far left, wedged between a clam shell full of sand dollars and a smooth gray beach stone, framed in shiny red plastic, was a group shot -- the end-of-Season blow-out at Bob's, when all the townies get together and drink to the absence of tourists. Front and center was Gran, tidy and cool in canvas slacks and a flowered shirt, hair wrapped 'round her head in that complicated knot she favors, a beer in one square, capable hand and the other on the shoulder of a gremlin, dark hair hanging in witches locks, eyes as giving as peridot in a surly pointed face, oversized Black Sabbath t-shirt emphasizing her thinness. Nerazi stood on the other side of the gremlin, elegant in a yellow sun dress.

Behind Gran was Mr. Ignatious, smiling his sweet, absent smile; then Brand Carver, who owned Summer's Wheel, Jelly Lee of the Oriental Funhouse, Millie Bouchard of Dodge City, and Skip Davies, who ran the games of skill and chance spotted around Fun Country. Back behind was Bob, his arm around a washed-out looking woman -- Lillian, that would have been, right before she died -- and various of the street artists, bit players, roadies and hangers-on who appeared at need every May and faded away again in September, like the shoemaker's elves, only with a longer term contract.

I sipped some more wine, moving on to the next picture -- slim and lithe, light brown curls tossed by the breeze, a smile on her face to melt stone -- Gran's daughter, Nessa. My mother.

Next came another picture of the same girl, dressed in drifty white lace, one hand up, pinning the wide-brimmed hat to her head, the other held in a death-grip by a black-haired gremlin of a fellow, wild hair tamed by a liberal application of pomade, dark eyes feral in a pale, pointed face -- my father, Nathan Archer.

Not for the first time I wondered how Gran could tolerate that picture, considering everything that happened, later. Gran, though -- Gran never spoke a word of anger or criticism of my father, not in my hearing, not ever. And if she held it against me that I'd survived while her Nessa had not, she'd kept that to herself, too.

Turning away from the mantle, I wandered across the room to the French doors, and stood watching the smooth, glassy roll of the waves.

"I am," I confided to the room at large, "so cooked."

If I took a lesson from today's adventures it was that I was long past the point of being able to bind the prisoners.

Trenvay who are separated from their land waste and die. That's what happened to Lillian, dead of the toxins that had leached into her pond.

I wasn't trenvay, but I'd given myself and all that I was to the land. Cutting that bond had wounded me. It had taken some while, given who and what I was, but I was dying of it. I no longer had access to the land's -- oh, hell, call it magic. Everybody else does. And while I could still draw on my inborn power -- witness the death of Joe Nemeier's pretty grass -- the cost was. . .steep.

Problem being that there's magic -- and magic. The trees up on Heath Hill, aware, awake, and interested -- that's magic, all right. Mouse magic. Homey magic.

The carousel, the geas set upon the prisoners, and that which I had been born into -- that was magic of a very different order.

The High Magic, if you like it that way -- that's predicated on jikinap, which is -- roughly -- personal power. The more jikinap a particular mage possesses, the greater her ability to manipulate High Magic. Every magical encounter has the potential of leaving the winning magic-worker higher on the food chain. Given that High Magic is intoxicating and addictive, this leads to a certain competitiveness, not to say the wholesale destruction of entire Houses. The more power a mage acquires, the more dangerous it -- and they -- are. It's unfortunately not uncommon to learn that a particularly ambitious mage's power has eaten him.

Ozali. That's what you call a master mage. Aeronymous, my grandfather, had been Ozali, much good it'd done him.

There are a few who've managed to stay sensible and not accumulate so much jikinap that it turns on them. Those beings are called the Wise, and in council they stand as the ultimate magical authority across the Six Worlds.

Those who don't care for the acquiring of jikinap, or who, for one reason or another, choose not to exercise their power -- they're nobody.

Like me.

I leaned my forehead against the window, the glass cold against my skin. Outside, the sea rolled, pastel pink beneath the setting sun, keeping its counsel close.

#

I towel-dried my hair, pulled on my oldest pair of jeans and a denim shirt, and mooched sock-foot down the hall, headed for a grilled cheese sandwich, and yet another glass of wine, on the admittedly shaky theory that if I drank enough, I'd be able to sleep.

Not bothering with the light, I put my hand on the fridge -- and jumped a foot straight up when the doorbell gave tongue.

Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrriiiiinnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnng!

I hate that damn' doorbell. Always have. The first time I heard it, I thought it sounded like a hunting Hound, and the years haven't altered my opinion any, or the ice-creep down my spine.

Grounded again, I turned -- and the bell gave tongue a second time. I leapt into the hall and yanked the door open before the third offense, ready to gut whoever'd --

"Good evening, Kate," Borgan said. "We made a date for dinner."

He'd dressed for it, too -- black jeans, open-collar white shirt under the leather jacket, and a nacre stud in his right ear. He looked clean, calm, competent, and -- beautiful.

Of course, he was also trenvay and could make himself seem any damn' way he cared to.

I took a hard breath. "You made a date for dinner," I snapped. "I didn't agree to go anywhere with you. And I hate that doorbell!"

He tipped his head, and settled into a half-sit against the railing, hands in his pockets.

"Didn't know that," he said. "Now that I do, I won't use it again."

Like he was going to be stopping by as a regular thing. The cool assumption left me momentarily speechless.

"You like Italian?" Borgan asked. "There's a new place up on Two that might --"

"I'm not going to dinner with you," I said, as clearly and calmly as I could manage. "I am not going to let you give me a cup of coffee -- or anything else. I am not inviting you into this house, or into any other place that's mine. I might look like a blind, blithering idiot, but that doesn't mean I'm going to make it easy for you."

His mouth twitched; not quite a smile. "Believe me, I never once thought you were gonna make it easy for me," he said, a shade too seriously. He pulled his hands out of his pockets and turned them up, showing me broad palms calloused with work and weather, and empty of any overt threat.

"Kate. I want to talk, that's all." He turned his head to look out over the sand and the sea, then back to me. "Take a walk with me."

"Am I not getting through to you, here? I said --"

"Just down the beach a way," he interrupted, and shook his head, rueful, as I read it. "I'm not such a fool as to mischief Bonny Pepperidge's granddaughter, y'know. For one thing, Nerazi'd gut me, and for another your Gran'd break a board over my head."

I stared at him. He waited.

I broke first.

"What do you want to talk about?" I asked, with scant grace.

"Things in town you might not know about, being gone so long."

Well, that certainly sounded innocent enough; light years better than being alone with my thoughts. And the beach was neutral territory.

More or less.

"All right," I said, stepping back inside. "I'll be out in a minute." I closed the door.

Two minutes later, shod, jacket on, pockets a-bulge with the old work gloves, I stepped out onto the landing, pulling the door closed behind me.

Borgan was still in his lean against the railing, face turned to the sea, the breeze toying with his braid like a lover.

He looked 'round and came to his feet, hands out in plain sight, and the ghost of a smile on his lips.

My chest constricted; not the long-familiar pain, but something. . .else. I took a deep breath. I knew trenvay glamor when I felt it. So much for Borgan's assurances of good behavior.

I looked up at him, and jerked my chin toward the stairway.

"After you," I said, shortly.

* * *

Carousel Tides copyright 2010 by Sharon Lee

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