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Chapter Seven

Seven

Thursday, April 20

Low Tide 10:39 a.m.

Sunrise 5:51 a.m. EDT

The sun was bright and busy about melting away the last of the morning mist when I strolled across Fountain Circle at a few minutes shy of a quarter 'til eight. I'd slept twelve hours straight through, which was somewhere between an oddity and a miracle, and was decidedly the better for it.

Someone had gotten it together to run the American, Maine, and Canadian flags up the triple flagpoles at the center of the circle, and they were snapping smartly in a brisk off-shore breeze. Seagulls swung in a complicated doseydoe overhead, their shadows flashing across the cobblestones.

Inside Fun Country, the storm gate was open at Tony Lee's Kitchen, and the breeze brought me the scent of fresh-frying egg rolls. My stomach grumbled like I hadn't fed it perfectly good scrambled eggs and toast not twenty minutes before. I bribed it with a sip of coffee from the commuter mug I carried -- good coffee, the last of my morning pot, not any of Bob's paint remover -- and bore left.

A shadow clung to the carousel's storm gates, thin and tremulous. It moved before I could get worried, resolving into Nancy Vois.

"You're early," I said, as she came forward to meet me, hands tucked into the pockets of her jeans.

She smiled slightly, the lines around her pale gold eyes deepening.

"Want to make a good impression," she said in her raspy voice, "my first day on the job."

"I'm impressed," I assured her, and she nodded like she'd expected it to be so.

I opened the hatch and shouldered it wide, releasing a gust of ice-cold air. Nancy slipped by me and used the toe of her work boot to shove the door-stop brick into position.

The shadows retreated a mite from the rectangle of sunlight, and I gave Nancy an approving nod before going across to the fuse box and hitting the switch.

Electric light flared, and the shadows retreated further.

Or so I told myself.

I had a sip of coffee and set the cup down next to the post. When I turned around, Nancy was standing quietly just outside the tattered wards, hands in pockets, gimme hat shoved back off her forehead, considering the animals with that kind of bland indifference that makes you think somebody's seen something they'd rather not have, and are trying very hard to pretend they weren't ever going to see anything like it again.

"When I worked for your gran," she said, not looking at me, oh, no, not at all. "Couple Seasons back. She had me to bring the mechanicals up to spec, polish the brass, and see to the organ. Herself, she did what was needful for the critters." She slide a pale gold glance in my direction. "I'm agreeable to a similar arrangement. But you ought to know right off, I'm no hand with them animals."

As if anybody but a powerful trenvay, or a mage of note -- or, in Gran's case, an extremely powerful trenvay who also had some small skill in magery -- could handle the animals. I nodded to show I understood her position.

"I'll need you to do exactly what you did for Gran," I said. "I'll take care of the menagerie."

She was quiet a a beat too long, her eyes still on the animals. "That's all right then," she said finally, and shifted her shoulders.

"Saw the one with the batwings take a nip out of a fella come down to talk with your gran," she said abruptly. "Plain fact. Your gran, she didn't much care for him, that's how I read it." A sigh, another shift of thin shoulders under the shapeless sweater. "Bill collector, he looked like to me." She shook herself and turned to face me. "I'll need to get into the tool locker."

"That'll be the next stop for both of us," I agreed, leading the way around to the metal shed against the permanent wall that stood between the carousel and Summer's Wheel.

The door shrieked when I opened it, and of course I jumped a foot, gasping like a fish out of water, and damn' near knocked Nancy over.

"Sorry," I muttered, and skinned inside, barking my shins on something, and reached up to turn the light bulb in its socket. Tools and brushes were illuminated, hung on pegboard along two sides of the interior; solvents, lubricants, and paint cans sorted by color sat on the shelves beneath. All nice and orderly, just like Gran always kept things. In the center, right at shin-barking height, stood two wooden sawhorses, a paint-spattered tarp folded neatly across the pair of them. Nancy helped me shift them out onto the concrete, then went back inside for a can of WD-40, which she used liberally on the metal door hinges.

"That'll keep 'er quiet," she said with satisfaction, moving the door back and forth to show off the silence. I gave her a smile.

"'preciate it," I said, and carried the tarp out to the utility pole, where I rescued my mug and drank what was left of the tepid coffee, considering the task at hand.

Of the twenty-three creatures on the carousel, seventeen are ordinary tupelo wood carvings, much in need of repainting. Not an easy job, but doable, stipulating I started doing pretty quick.

The remaining six -- those being the seahorse, unicorn, goat, wolf, the armored charger, and the dainty batwinged gray -- were something else entirely. Specifically, they're criminals in their homelands, exiled by order of the Wise, who seemed to think rustication would do them good.

There are, as you might imagine, a couple of problems about that.

The first is that the climate hereabouts is terribly hard on the bindings that tie the wrongdoers to the carousel creatures. Which means that, at the end of every Season the bindings are renewed, and the extra protection of industrial-grade wards and warn-aways are put in place.

At the beginning of the Season, the bindings are strengthened, though obviously you don't want to ward a public amusement. Most people aren't sensitive enough to notice the bindings, or that some of animals are a little. . .strange. Still, it's a risky enterprise, with the potential for being Extremely Unhealthy for the average man on the midway. Not that the Wise care. Given to odd notions, the Wise, and with lots of firepower to back them up.

It was just such an odd notion that fixed on the carousel as the perfect instrument of incarceration. According to Gran, they figured the local climate would eventually work beneficial changes on their criminals.

The operative word being 'eventually.'

Second problem is that the nature of the criminals and their jail more-or-less requires constant oversight by a skilled magic-worker. If that sort of supervision isn't on-tap, the whole operation goes from risky to stupendously dangerous.

I sighed. As far as I could see -- which, let's be honest, was somewhere just shy of the end of my nose -- the bindings on the creatures were still strong. The wards fraying was -- troubling, but not critical. Hell, it was even theoretically possible that I could use some the remaining energy in the wards to craft new bindings.

Unfortunately, all I had was theory, though I supposed I'd have to put it to the test if a better answer didn't present itself. The optimum solution being that Gran showed up within the next fifteen minutes and took a hand.

Failing that, I could at least start with the re-painting.

One thing at a time.

#

We'd left the hatch propped open, letting in the noise of the day to disturb the deep silence inside the storm gates. Nancy was down deep in the workings, making a good bit of noise herself.

But up on the carousel, inside the wards, it was as quiet and breathless as the ocean air just before a nor'easter.

I cleaned and repainted the broad work on the chariot first, leaving it to dry before I went back with a fine brush for the scrolls, then cleaned the Indian pony and spread the tarp around the base, paints open and brushes to hand. The work demanded concentration; more than it should have, really. I started at the ears and moved down, trying to work fast, but careful. Trying to take simple pleasure in the simple work.

My hand shook at first, but eventually I settled into the rhythm, and by the time I'd gotten 'round to brightening the feathers braided into the wild mane, I was actually beginning to enjoy myself.

Which is when something nipped me, sharp and secret, and I jumped, smudging yellow into black.

What have we here? A wounded soldier at the front? The voice was oily and insincere and the instant I heard it, I wanted it out of my head.

It laughed, not nicely, and I recognized it now -- the batwing horse.

Halt, lame, blind, and failing. But not deaf yet, eh? Where is the old one? Rotted at last and leaving only you between Is and Ending?

I took a breath, used the rag on the smudge, and touched up the feather edge, pleased to see my hand so steady.

"You'll get your chance," I said, and my voice was steady, too.

Indeed. I am quite looking forward to it. Don't tarry too long at your mundane tasks, halfing. It wouldn't do for you to die before the challenge. There was a blast of wind, bitter and edgy, rocking my brain in its holdings -- and I was alone again inside my head.

I put the brush in the turpentine jar, and sat back on my heels, shaking all over. Which was bad, very bad. If they thought I was too weak to stand against an attack. . .

I took a breath, tasting turpentine, and wobbled to my feet.

It was definitely time for a break.

I stepped off the deck, and crossed the floor on rubbery legs, the wards so much white noise against my senses. When I broke through, it was like coming into clear air after a long dive, lungs burning, eyes tearing, muscles shivering with effort.

My ears cleared first, filling up with metallic clanks, the distant scream of a seagull, men's voices, the spit of hot oil. . .

I gulped a mouthful of air, blinked my eyes clear -- and blinked again.

He had one shoulder against the pole supporting the fuse box, sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup emblazoned with the proud scarlet legend, "Bob's Diner, East Grand Avenue, Archers Beach, Maine. Where the Stars Come to Dine."

"Afternoon," he said comfortably. "We met yesterday morning, over at the Pier -- you might remember it."

I took a breath and gave him a nod. "Borgan."

He smiled and raised the cup in salute. "Always nice when a pretty lady remembers my name," he said and had a sip from his cup. "Hope it's all right that I'm here."

It was slightly worrisome that he was here, frankly, though I'd told him right out straight who I was. I didn't need a stalker -- especially one twice as big as I was, in all directions. On the other hand, I also didn't need an enemy.

So I shrugged. "It's a public amusement," I said, and pointedly didn't ask him why he had come.

It wasn't much of a conversation starter, but he didn't seem to be the sort who was bothered by silence. He stayed in his comfortable lean, cup in his left hand, right tucked into the pocket of his jacket, and considered me out of deep-set black eyes in a way that reminded me uncomfortably of the batwing horse.

I sighed, shoved the sleeves of my sweatshirt down, and tucked my hands into my back pockets, meeting those deep ironic eyes square, determined to wait him out.

Borgan's mouth twitched, but the nod he gave me was as bland as a Mainer could want it. "You're looking well," he said, in that polite tone people use when they trot out a pleasantry that wasn't exactly true.

"You don't look bad, yourself," I replied in the same tone, which was downright niggardly. I don't usually cotton to big men, but Borgan had an air of placid competence about him that was damned attractive. Not that I was about to tell him that. I pressed my lips together and waited.

More silence, during which the racket Nancy had been orchestrating came to an abrupt, unharmonious end, followed by muttering, and approaching footsteps. I turned my head, breaking Borgan's gaze, as my help came 'round the carousel, cap set at an irritable angle.

She checked when she saw him, just a tiny hesitation between one step and the next, then picked up her stride again, giving him an off-handed nod. "Cap'n Borgan."

"Nancy," he answered easily. "How are ya today?"

"Doin' well, sir. Thank you for askin'." She moved her attention to me. "Need some solvent and a quarter inch socket wrench," she said. "I'll go on up to the hardware and put 'em 'gainst the tab."

I nodded. "Anything else?"

"Nothin' apparent," she said. "You want anything while I'm goin'?"

"I'm good," I told her, which was nowhere near the truth, and, give her credit, Nancy didn't fall for it.

"You're looking a bit peckish, if you don't mind my saying. It's coming on to noon. Why don't I fetch you along a sandwich?"

Noon? My stomach bunched up again. I'd been inside the wards for four hours? That wasn't --

Nancy was waiting. So, unfortunately, was Borgan. I gave her a half-smile and a head shake. "I'll step over to Tony's in a few and get myself an egg roll," I said. "You take some time for lunch while you're out."

She hesitated, then nodded. "Right, then. Back in a shake." She moved off, giving Borgan a glance and a nod. "Cap'n."

"Nancy," he said again, and the two of us reposed in silence until her shadow was gone from the hatch.

"Nancy's sound," Borgan commented. He gave me a grin. "Despite she doesn't like me."

This was disturbing news. "Why not?"

He lifted a shoulder. "I'm fishing her mother's boat, like I said. Somebody's got to do it since Hum went and got himself killed. Only thing he had to leave Mary and the girl was the boat."

"But Mary gets her piece, right?" I asked. He nodded.

"So what's Nancy's beef?"

"Mary's piece is sixty-five percent, and I'll tell you it took some clever tacking to settle it there with her believing the whole thing to be her idea. Nancy was a mite less distracted, though, and she's not one to take charity."

"Oh." I sighed. Charity was what you did for others, not, no never, what you took. And sixty-five percent of the haul, owner or not --

"Maybe Nancy wonders how you can live on thirty-five percent of the take."

"I don't have many expenses," he said. "Own my own place, and all."

There wasn't much to say to that, and I didn't. Borgan was starting to wear out his welcome, and it was on the tip of my tongue to ask him why the hell he was --

"Before I forget," he said, straightening out of his lean with easy, boneless grace. He reached into his jacket, came two steps forward and held out a broad hand. "Nerazi sends these to you."

I started, barely sparing a glance at what he held, looking hard at his face, at the leather jacket, at the thin beaded braid snaking over his shoulder. . .

"You're trenvay," I managed, after a moment, and my voice sounded accusatory in my own ears.

Borgan raised a lazy eyebrow. "You say that like it's a bad thing."

I glared at him. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"Didn't come up," he said, reasonably enough. "You want these or should I take 'em back to Nerazi with a no-thank-'ee?"

"These" being a pair of old work gauntlets, stained, scored and battered; the wide cuffs were blue, badly faded, the palms and fingers a mottled pinkish-red. I blinked, then threw back my head and laughed. Gloves according to my station, indeed.

Borgan waited, patiently, gloves extended, until I'd gotten it out of my system.

Slightly out of breath, I did some fast calculations.

Taking a gift from a trenvay is always a risky proposition. There's no such thing as a free lunch in their worldview, where everything given requires a thing given in return, sooner or later, and usually at the worst possible time. It was just better all around not to go there, and while you were at it, to never invite one into your house or guarded space.

All that being so, it wasn't in me to refuse a gift from Nerazi -- for one thing, it would offend her, and I couldn't afford that. And for another, Nerazi was Gran's oldest friend.

I stepped forward and took the gloves out of Borgan's hand.

They were warm from their nestle inside his jacket. I took a steadying breath and retreated the two steps I'd advanced, hands dropping to my side, gloves fisted in the right.

"So," I said nastily. "You're Nerazi's errand boy?"

He shrugged, taking no visible offense; coffee cup held negligently in his left hand. "Nerazi knew I'd be looking for you, and asked me to bear them along."

My chest tightened. "Why would you be looking for me?" I snapped.

"Why not?" he returned, and lifted his empty hand, fingers spread wide. "Look, Kate. Why don't you let me buy you a cup of coffee?"

I gasped, startled into a laugh.

"No, thanks," I said, shortly. "I've got work to do."

His mouth tightened; then he gave me a brief nod. "Right. Dinner then. I'll pick you up at eight." With that, he was gone, moving quick and quiet, across the room and out the hatch, leaving me blinking stupidly at the place he'd been standing, the battered work gloves clenched warm and forgotten in my hand.

* * *

Carousel Tides copyright 2010 by Sharon Lee

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