Wednesday, April 19
High Tide 3:17 a.m.
Sunrise 5:53 a.m. EDT
It was dark when I woke, feeling considerably more rested than usual, and rolled over, squinting at the alarm clock’s palely illuminated face. Twelve-fifteen. Perfect. If I didn’t dawdle, I could catch Nerazi at the usual place, assuming it was still the usual place, and that Nerazi bothered to come to the mainland anymore.
I pushed the blankets back and went determinedly down the stairs, surefooted in the dark. Snapping on the bathroom light, I slipped past the washer-dryer unit hulking in the corner, pausing long enough to skin out of sweat pants and tee-shirt before hitting the shower.
Twenty minutes later, hair blast-dried and sticking on end, in clean jeans and a Google sweatshirt, I let myself out into the night.
On the porch, I paused, looking over the ocean as I shrugged into my jacket and buttoned it. The waning moon was high; the stars bright and brash. The waves showed lace at the leading edges, and a light mist was rising, softening the blare of starlight. The tide had turned and the wind was off the ocean, heavy with the scents of salt and sand and fish.
Out and east, a sword of brilliance leapt from Wood Island Light, slicing through the mist.
I took a deep breath — and another — before going down the steps and across the dunes, keeping scrupulously to the marked path until I reached the beach. There, I paused again, hands in pockets and face against the wind, tasting, tasting. . .salt. And sand. And nothing else.
“Good,” I whispered, and turned up the collar of my jacket. Putting my back to the town, I headed up coast, toward Surfside, angling across dry sand to wet, and more certain footing. Out beyond the lacy break of waves, I could see patches of subtle blue and green riding just below the surface of the water. From ahead, the no-nonsense sweep of Cape Elizabeth Light illuminated waves and rock.
At the little notch in the beach that marks the beginning of Surfside, there’s a rock. Not much of a rock, by the rugged standards of the Maine coast, and not nearly as impressive as Googin Rock, ‘way down to the south of town. Still, it’s big enough to serve as a landmark, as well as a boundary stone. From the sand to its flat pinnacle, it stands twice as high as I do, and measures considerably wider, side to side. At low tide, it wears a skirt of shiny sea grass; and its pockets are numerous, some secret, some not. Below the sand, its roots are deep and wide. So wide, I’ve heard it said, that the hidden portion of the rock is as much on Surfside’s portion of beach as on ours.
That might be true. The one I heard that from liked to spin a tale or three, and I can’t think how she might have gained the knowledge. Still, it’s true that no violence comes near this rock, unlike its brother to the south, and a sliver worn ’round the neck, or carried in a pocket, is rumored to be a powerful ward.
I paused a few steps out, listening to the waves and to the wind singing in the wires; watching the mist rise up to cocoon the stars. In an hour, the sea would be lapping at the base of the rock; in two hours, it would be mostly submerged. I flexed my fingers inside the pockets of my jacket and wished I’d remembered to bring gloves. The wind gusted off the waves, yanking my hair with something more than playfulness.
And a hat, I thought.
“Good morning, Princess.” The voice was low, and slightly sibilant; possibly, she meant to surprise me. If so, she was disappointed.
“Morning already?” I asked, not arguing with princess. Might as well argue with the tide, as with Nerazi.
“Courtesy,” she told the singing wind as I mooched toward the rock. “Gentle courtesy is as rare a commodity upon the mainland as ever it was, I apprehend.”
I felt my lips twitch and straightened them with an effort.
“Good morning, fair Nerazi,” I said, moving closer across the sand.
“Nay, nay, keep your sweet words close, my lady, and be niggardly in their spending! For when those are gone, there will be no more, I warrant.”
“You’re probably right,” I said, coming around to the lee side of the rock. Cross-legged and quite naked, Nerazi sat with her back against the rock’s rustling grass skirt, her rump cozy and warm on a sealskin blanket, braiding her silver hair.
I braced my own rump against a thin, low ledge, which put the rock between me and the wind, and sighed.
“You should wear gloves, my lady; the wind has teeth.”
“Every time I wear gloves, I ruin them,” I told her, truthfully.
“And thus your wisdom teaches you that it is better to ruin your hands.” She turned her head and looked up at me from wide eyes that reflected the moonlight greenly, her hands moving along her hair. “I shall provide you with gauntlets suitable to your station.”
“I don’t think –”
“Now, that has ever been the case,” she said with asperity, and I laughed. The rock thrummed with the rhythm of the waves.
Nerazi gave me a small, secret smile from behind her hair before her gaze moved, looking across the line and up coast.
“Quiet, is it not?” she said softly. “Protected and peaceful. Men sleep soundly in their beds, unworried by the wind or the rattle of water across beach stones. And if a selkie were to come out of the sea and walk their streets for an hour, observing what she might of mortal ways, none would see her — nor, seeing, believe.”
“Normal folks see what they want to see,” I agreed. “And we’re lucky that they do.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps. Though surely some see what they would rather not, else your father’s mother would not have pledged herself to an Ozali and followed him to the Land of the Flowers.”
“Special case,” I said, keeping my voice matter-of-fact with an effort. “Guardians get to see — and do — all kinds of things they’d rather not.” And die of them, more often than not, as Lydia Archer had.
“Privilege has its price, surely.” Nerazi’s hands paused among the long strands of her hair, and I felt the whole of her regard suddenly upon me.
“Are you quite well, Princess?”
I took a breath, gauging the ache in my chest. “Not dead yet,” I answered, shifting against the rock. “Nerazi, where’s my grandmother?”
“I do not know.”
That was a little more straightforward than I’d been hoping for — okay, it was a lot more straightforward than I’d been hoping for. Nerazi could parse a twisty sentence with the best of ’em; most trenvay — that would be earth spirit, to you — could, and did. Relating facts in ways that made nothing seem less likely was kind of a hobby of the breed. I’d’ve been relieved if Nerazi had spun me an improbable yarn; it would have meant that Gran was — safe. That unadorned denial, though. . .
I shivered, and adjusted my lean against the rock, fists shoved deep into my pockets.
“She must have told you something,” I said, and was horrified to hear the naked pleading in my voice. At least it was Nerazi, who was, or had been. . .kindly disposed toward me. In general.
“In truth, Princess,” she said, more gently than she was wont. “I am as uninformed as you appear to be. She told me that she would be absent for a time, and to look for her at the turning of the year.” There was a pause, filled by the sound of the waves against the shore. “More than that she would not say.”
When Gran doesn’t want to say, there’s no power here or there that can force her. I know. Nerazi’s formidable, but Gran’s stubborn. And yet —
“The year turned,” I pointed out, mild as I was able. “And she didn’t come back.”
“One year turned,” Nerazi agreed. “There are others.”
Right. I sighed. “I’m thinking it was the calendar year she had in mind,” I said, still sticking with mild. “She left me a letter, which is considerably less informative than it could be, and a handful of legal papers, putting the house, the carousel, and her land all in my name.”
“In your name alone?” That came out right sharp; I’d surprised her.
“Well,” said Nerazi, and after a bit she said it again: “Well.”
Back in the days before I’d repudiated the land and left Archers Beach forever, I’d seen Nerazi flummoxed exactly once. Seeing it again wasn’t nearly as much fun as I might’ve imagined it would be. So, I waited while she finished up her braid, put a knot in the end, flipped it over one smooth, plump shoulder — and waited some more while she just sat there on her sealskin, staring off into the night. . .
“You will wish to inspect your landhold,” she said finally, and with that she rose, bringing the sealskin with her, and turned away.
“Nerazi –” I said, coming away from the rock so fast my foot skidded in the sand. “Hey!”
“Keep you well, Princess,” she said, not even bothering to look at me over her shoulder, which is a hell of a way to treat royalty. “I will send the gift I promised.”
She passed beyond the rock. I got my feet coordinated and went after her, but she was already at the surf line, the sealskin wrapped around her shoulders and snapping in the wind.
I watched her walk into the lacy waves. When she reached the shelf, she simply dove in, the skin still caught about her shoulders.
The waves came in and the waves went out. Beyond them, a seal rolled in dark water — and vanished.
* * *
Carousel Tides copyright 2010 by Sharon Lee