Wolf in the Wind
by Sharon Lee
I never could figure out how I’d come to be on The Committee. That’s the Fun Country Leaseback Committee to you, and according to Jess Robard, I was on it because I was the owner-operator of one of the Named Rides, and therefore some kind of carny royalty. I didn’t buy it, and said so, several times, loudly–but here I was, anyway–committee fodder.
God, I hated committees.
According to Jess, that was a feature.
“Keep everybody on point and focused, that’s what,” she’d told me, after the first meeting. “Service to the community, that’s what you are, Kate Archer.”
Yeah, some service. On the other hand, it wasn’t like I was new to being of service to the community, being the Guardian of the Land known as Archers Beach. Not that the community, most of ’em, knew it–just those who happened to be tied to odd little bits of land, water, marsh, or to this or that tree, or enterprise. The trenvay, those folks were called–minor magic users, and general Others. The rest of the community of Archers Beach–plain human people–didn’t much believe in magic, which was their protection, if not their guarantee of safety.
So, I’d gone to the meeting, and now I was walking back home from the library, where the body of the committee barely fit into the public meeting room, and pretty much overwhelmed the little window air conditioner.
It was warm day for late September, clear blue skies and bright sun. The overnight would be crisp enough to require a sweatshirt or long-sleeved sweater for an evening walk through town, and something a little more for the beach. The Atlantic Ocean was still warm, but the breeze was remembering winter.
Despite the weather, there weren’t many people in town. Fun Country had closed for the season, and Management, down in New Jersey, had refused to consider staying open ’til Columbus Day, not even just on weekends. Which was completely in character for Management, and not one of owner-operators in the park ought to have been shocked, horrified, or pissed off, but–they were. Some of them, myself not included. I hadn’t thought it worth asking, truly, but the rest had been riding high on the victory of having bought the park and saved it from being condofied. Given that they’d already pulled off one miracle, why not shoot for two?
I hit the corner of Archer Avenue, waved to Lisa, who was serving up pizza to three teenage boys with skateboards under their arms, and turned right, toward the ocean.
There were maybe dozen people in Fountain Circle, some occupying tables, some sitting on the wide stone edge of the fountain, chatting, or just taking in the day. Overhead, the flags fluttered a little in the landside breeze.
To my right, there was Fun Country, gate locked; rides, games, and food counters all wrapped up and sealed for the winter. Just inside, to the left, the first ride everybody saw when they came through the open gate, was the Fantasy Menagerie Carousel, the oldest ride in the park, Kate Archer, owner-operator.
I walked up to the gate and wrapped my fingers around a warm metal bar, leaning in to look down Baxter Avenue. To my left, just behind the carousel, Summer’s Wheel was naked metal spokes; the gondolas had been removed, wrapped in blue tarp, and lined up beneath. Down a little further, the Samurai was swathed in the same blue weatherproofing, the doors to the Oriental Funhouse boarded up. The game kiosks down the center of the avenue were shuttered, just like the fortunetelling booth, the t-shirt shop, and Tony Lee’s Chinese Food.
A breeze came up, smelling wistfully of egg rolls, and half-heartedly lifted a handful of dust into a swirl. The edge of the tarp covering the Samurai flapped in complaint, and the breeze died, leaving the dust scattered across the tarmac.
I sighed and turned away, my eyes going with a kind of involuntary dread to the commotion across the Circle.
In the recent past–by which I mean, the Season that had ended on Labor Day–there had been a midway across the Circle, full of games of skill and chance, a climbing wall, food vendors, henna artists, and all that sort of thing. It had been noisy, it had been crowded, it had made money for Management down in Jersey. . .
. . .but not enough money.
Management had to protect its bottom line; that’s what Management does, after all.
So, long story short, Management sold the midway to the highest bidder, which happened to be a new-made Boston-based LLC with condos in its eye, and it wasn’t letting the smallest blade of grass get between its toes.
The midway had barely closed for the Season when the first crews arrived and began taking down the games, the booths, and the climbing wall. Two days after, the big equipment arrived on the backs of haulers, and they’d commenced in to digging.
Now, where the games and concessions had been, there was, well, a hole. Not much of a hole, yet, but at the rate those machines were working, it wouldn’t be long before we’d be helping Chinamen climb up over the lip.
I shook my head, turned aside and went past the carousel, following the fence to the sidewalk’s end, and on some more, over dry sand to wet, down to the very edge of the ocean.
I stood for a minute, looking out over the water. Tide was coming in, the waves harried by a chilly breeze. I took a deep breath, tasting brine, and sighed it out. To my right was the Pier. I could hear a sound check going on inside of Neptune’s, there at the very end of the boardwalk. Being a locally owned bar and dance club, Neptune’s was taking advantage of every nice day and evening that September delivered, though it, too, would be closed by mid-October, when the tourists stopped coming in, and the townie traffic wasn’t enough to keep the lights on.
Well. I smiled at the ocean, turned and walked under the Pier, along the water line, heading north, up the beach toward the old house on Dube Street, the waves crashing companionably on my right hand.
I emerged from the shadow of the Pier into the late afternoon sunshine, thinking about the hole in the ground where the midway used to be. Change . . . well, sure it was change. They don’t call us the Changing Land for nothing. It’s our greatest strength–and our greatest weakness.
Even though it was a necessary part of how the world operated–I didn’t always care for change.
Up ahead, the waves charged the shore, foam flying like the manes of fey horses, each crash merging with the other, until there was one, continuous sound of the sea meeting the land, and–
A wave flew toward the shore directly in front of me, longer and taller than its comrades, striking with a boom that was all its own, engulfing me, then lifting me up, into arms that were solid, strong, and warm.
“Hey!” I shouted, part indignation, part laughter, and looked down into a big, brown face, black eyes bright as a moonlit night under black brows; broad nose, and a generous mouth, just now grinning in mischief.
“Hey, yourself,” he answered. “Gotta be careful, walking the water’s edge with the tide comin’ in.”
“Or else what?” I asked him, resting my hands on warm, broad shoulders.
“Else you’ll get wet.”
I was not, I noticed, wet. Nor was Borgan.
“I’m fairly warned,” I said. “You gonna put me down or not?”
His face turned thoughtful.
“I could go either way,” he said, “though I’m thinking you’ll want to be set down.”
The truth of the matter was that I wasn’t all that eager to be set down. All things in their time, as they say, and given that, I hadn’t given the man his proper welcome after our long separation of, oh–call it eight hours.
I bent my head to kiss him – one of my new favorite pastimes is kissing Borgan, right enough, but after that, it was bending down to kiss Borgan, which is only possible if I’m standing three steps up and he’s on the sidewalk, or–
He was holding me against his shoulder, my feet ‘way off the ground.
It was a thorough kiss, appropriate to the occasion of our reunion. It ended naturally; I sighed, and Borgan did, and I touched his cheek softly.
“Dinner and dancing at my place?” I asked.
“Sounds good,” he answered, and bent to set me on my feet.
Cael was sitting on the front steps when we got to the house on Dube Street. He was barefoot, wearing a pair of khaki cargo shorts and a bright red shirt with a large gold foil design on the front, that might’ve equally been a flower or a bird. Oscar’s head was on his knee, the dog’s expression one of uncomplicated bliss, as Cael stroked his nose and head.
They both looked up as we approached, and Cael bowed his head, which I could not break him of, though he had finally managed to overcome his good up-bringing and–mostly– address me as “Kate,” rather than “my lady.”
By Cael’s lights, Borgan was my consort, but not his lord, so the only thing he’d needed to be weaned from there was “sir.”
“Good evening,” he said now. “Kate. Borgan.”
“Evening,” I answered, and Borgan did, too, just like neither of us was concerned that Cael’s presence would alter our pleasant evening plans.
Cael lived in the former rental unit at my back, just half-a-dozen steps from the bottom of the stairs. That particular arrangement was a compromise. I thought Cael and Oscar should have their own place, and Cael thought that his lady’s Master of Hounds ought to be near to her hand, as she had no others to serve her. Even pointing out that I had the entire Land of Archers Beach to serve me, not to mention the Lord of the Gulf of Maine holding an interest, had managed to shake him loose of the concept that no one could serve Lady Aeronymous–that being how I was styled in the land of my birth.
So, Cael lived in the studio, and had access to the house; and I lived in the house where I’d grown up, free to entertain my consort whenever and however I liked. Not that Cael was judgmental–he left that to Breccia,.
“What can I do for you?” I asked now, because there was no use putting the thing off.
“I would like to speak to the Lady Breccia,” Cael answered. “I hope that she will assist me in unknotting a vexatious difficulty with one of her own.”
Breccia’s own being feline. I shrugged.
“Sure,” I said. “Come on up and we’ll see if her ladyship’s receiving.”
Breccia liked Cael, despite the whole cat/dog thing, so it wasn’t a big surprise to find her strolling across the kitchen toward us when we came through the door.
Cael glanced at Oscar, who recused himself, wandering over to the French doors overlooking the sparkling Atlantic Ocean, and sprawling in a splash of sun.
Cael dropped to one knee, and bowed his head, squinting his eyes in a cat smile.
“My lady,” he said softly. “You honor me with your radiant presence.”
Breccia continued forward, stropped herself along his knee, and sat facing him. She squinted her eyes.
“Everything that is gracious,” Cael murmured.
Borgan at my back, I walked lightly around both of them and the kitchen table to reach the fridge.
“Ale?” I murmured.
“Sounds fine,” he answered, and took the bottle I handed out to him. I got my own bottle, and leaned next to him against the kitchen counter, prepared to witness the negotiations.
“I bring news of one of my lady’s kindred. It is not for me to judge such a one, but I feel that her behavior is . . . unworthy.” Cael paused and shrugged lightly. “This may of course be because my understanding of things feline is . . . at fault.”
Breccia squinted her eyes again, ceding the point and inviting him to go on.
“There is one who allows herself to be known as Pretty Boots. She maintains a modest establishment on Burdette Street, supported by an elderly and devoted servant. As a young lady, she would betimes leave the house to walk up and down the town. Since attaining a certain age and grace, she became less likely to exercise her rights in this way–until recently.”
He paused, head bowed slightly, apparently awaiting whatever question the lady might have.
I had a sip from my bottle. Borgan adjusted his lean against the counter so that his hip touched mine.
Breccia flicked an ear.
“Yes,” Cael said. “Recently Pretty Boots has taken to letting herself out of the house and climbing the tree adjacent to her residence. Her servant has begged her to recall her station, to no avail. In my duty as Animal Control Officer, I have five times been called to physically extract her from the tree and return her to the care of her servant, who has been more distressed in each succeeding instance. Today, I took it upon myself to remonstrate with Pretty Boots, whereupon she attempted to scratch me.”
Another ear-flick. Cael sighed.
“I am aware that it was unsubtle, but I am concerned for the servant, who is, as I have said, elderly, and daily made distraught by what seems to me, a most fallible wolf, her liege’s willful neglect of her duty.”
He paused for a breath, and continued without waiting for a sign from Breccia.
“The situation has been made more desperate, as my supervisor today announced a new order to my duties: If I am called to succor Pretty Boots, I answer that call last. And, if the events of the day conspire so that I do not reach the last item before it is time for me to give over duty for the night, then I am to ignore the call entirely.”
Breccia’s tail snapped–to the right, to the left. And stopped, laid out on the floor behind her as straight as a ruler, and as stiff.
I drank off my ale and put the empty on the counter behind me.
Breccia still hadn’t moved, and I was getting the idea that she wasn’t half pissed off.
Cael must’ve thought so, too, because he dropped his head, keeping his eyes aimed at the floor.
“Lady Breccia, I am afraid for the old servant. Her heart may break beneath this disregard from one she has served so long. But more, I fear for Pretty Boots, that she has become lost to honor, and to all knowledge of her obligations.”
I realized I was holding my breath, and held it some more. Next to me, Borgan was doing the same.
Breccia looked like she was made out of the same rock as her chosen name.
Just when I felt like the choice was between breathing and fainting, Breccia stood. She stretched high, back humping, tail rising to describe a question mark. She strolled to the front door, and looked over her shoulder at Cael.
“Of course, my lady,” Cael murmured, and came lightly to his feet. “Oscar will accompany us,” he added, but Breccia had already turned her head away, such petty arrangements being beneath her.
“Why not we all go?” said Borgan; his voice a rumble against my side. I turned my head around and looked up into his face.
“Sure, why not?” I said. “It’s a nice night for a walk.”
* * *
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