Hidden away from the world by his mother, the powerful sorceress Heloise Oliver, Pierce has grown up working in her restaurant in Desolation Point. One day, unexpectedly, strangers pass through town on the way to the legendary capital city. “Look for us,” they tell Pierce, “if you come to Severluna. You might find a place for yourself in King Arden’s court.”
Lured by a future far away from the bleak northern coast, Pierce makes his choice. Heloise, bereft and furious, tells her son the truth: about his father, a knight in King Arden’s court; about an older brother he never knew existed; about his father’s destructive love for King Arden’s queen, and Heloise’s decision to raise her younger son alone.
As Pierce journeys to Severluna, his path twists and turns through other lives and mysteries: an inn where ancient rites are celebrated, though no one will speak of them; a legendary local chef whose delicacies leave diners slowly withering from hunger; his mysterious wife, who steals Pierce’s heart; a young woman whose need to escape is even greater than Pierce’s; and finally, in Severluna, King Arden's youngest son, who is urged by strange and lovely forces to sacrifice his father’s kingdom.
Things are changing in that kingdom. Oldmagic is on the rise. The immensely powerful artifact of an ancient god has come to light, and the king is gathering his knights to quest for this profound mystery, which may restore the kingdom to its former glory—or destroy it...
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Penguin Group|
|File size:||623 KB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Ace Books by Patricia A. McKillip
PART ONE: CHIMERA
PART TWO: WYVERNBOURNE
PART THREE: KINGFISHER
Pierce Oliver was pulling crab rings out of the water off the end of the dock at Desolation Point when he saw the knights.
They were throwing doors open, clambering out of a black touring car half as long as the dock, it looked, and inset with strange devices depicting animals so rarely seen most were presumed extinct. Three young men, sleek and muscular, adjusting their black leathers and quilted silks, heads turning this way and that as they surveyed the tiny harbor, caused Pierce to forget what he was doing. The line went slack in his hands. The tiered, circular frames of the net he had hauled up, dripping and writhing with crabs, slumped into one another. A fourth door opened; another head rose out of the driver’s side, black-capped and masked with sunglasses. His voice queried something lost in a sudden squall of screeching gulls. The three shook their heads, turning from him toward the dock.
They were all, Pierce realized abruptly, staring back at him.
A crab hit his shoe, skittered over it. He glanced down hastily, pulled the rings taut again, knelt to shake crabs back into the net and bat the smaller escapees back into the sea. He felt the tremor of footsteps along the dock. Boots, black, supple, and glistening like nacre, came to a halt under his nose.
“Sorry to interrupt your work there, but could you tell us where in Severen’s name we are?”
Pierce, the crab net rope in one hand, a lime-green plastic measure in the other, opened his mouth. Nothing came out. The shadow stretching out from the boots on the dock seemed to have grown wings. They expanded darkly across the wood, rising to catch the wind. The boots under Pierce’s transfixed gaze refused to levitate, ignoring the wings.
Then the broad, shadowy wings were gone, and he could lift his head finally, look helplessly up at the speaker, who had hair like cropped lamb’s wool and eyes like a balmy afternoon sky in some other part of the world. The eyes were beginning to look more bemused than tranquil at Pierce’s silence.
“He doesn’t know either,” the dark-haired man with a green jewel in one ear the color of his eyes guessed with a laugh. The third, a golden-haired giant as solidly massive as a slab of oak, flared suddenly, flames licking out all around him. Pierce jumped, dropping the crab measure.
“Cape Mistbegotten,” he gabbled hastily, not wanting to rile them into further displays of weirdness.
A gull landed on the dock beside him with a sudden, fierce cry. After the crabs, he thought, but it stayed very still then, raking the strangers with its yellow-eyed glare. He retrieved the crab measure, stood up shakily, and realized that he had forgotten to take his apron off. It hung limply around his neck, untied and grubby from the kitchen, the trellis of green beans on it like some stained mimicry of a heraldic device. Another crab was snarled in his shoelace, trying to untie his ancient, cracked trainer.
“Desolation Point,” he repeated more clearly, though his mouth was still dry. The dark-haired man’s shadow seemed to have grown a barbed tail; it lashed sinuously, soundlessly, as though to sweep the crabs off the dock. It stilled finally. Pierce closed his eyes tightly, opened them and his mouth again. “It’s the only town on the cape. The sign got blown into the ocean during a winter storm. It’s still a little early in the season for tourists; we haven’t bothered to replace it yet.”
They were gazing at him with varying degrees of incredulity. “People come here?” the fire-giant said dubiously. “On purpose?”
Pierce shook the crab off his shoe; it landed on its back, legs waving at him furiously. “Like I said, it’s the only town on Cape Mistbegotten.”
“Then why isn’t it on the map?” the blond with the temperate eyes asked reasonably. “Our driver couldn’t even find it on paper.”
Pierce grunted, puzzled. Something in the gull’s grim eye, its oddly motionless stance, enlightened him. “Oh, that was probably my mother. Sometimes she hides things and forgets.”
“Your mother.” The burly giant’s face flattened suddenly, all expression gone. “Hides. An entire cape.” He had shifted suddenly very close to Pierce, forcing Pierce’s head to angle upward. “Are you mocking us? Do you have any idea who we are?”
Pierce, caught helplessly in the hazel-eyed smolder, finally registered the odd crunch in the giant’s wake. “Not a clue,” he said breathlessly. “But you just squashed a perfectly good dinner crab.”
The giant looked down at his boots, raised one slowly, grimacing at the legs dangling from the sole. The fair man with the wings dropped a hand on his shoulder, shook him lightly, fearlessly.
“Temper, Bayley,” he murmured. His eyes, on Pierce’s face, widened in sudden comprehension. “We must have wandered off the map into the realm of a sorceress.”
“Or a lunatic,” the giant muttered, shaking crab off his boot.
“No.” The intense gaze fixed Pierce, held him motionless. “He is the sorceress’s son. That’s why you couldn’t speak. Isn’t it? You saw something in us. Tell me what you saw.”
“I saw—” Pierce whispered, losing his voice again, “I saw your shadow. Your wings. And I saw your fire,” he added to the giant, then to the dark knight, “I saw your barbed tail.”
Suddenly, they were all smiling.
“No wonder you lost your tongue,” the giant marveled. “We’ve been up north, hunting our ancestors.” He held up his brawny arm; Pierce saw the fine embroidered medallion on the black sleeve: a white bear outlined in flames. “I am Sir Bayley Reeve. My ancestors took the Fire Bear. I’m not sure how,” he added with wonder. “She’s huge. She topped even me by a head.”
“And mine took the wyvern,” said the man with the sea-green eyes. “I am Roarke Wyvernbourne.”
Pierce swallowed, speech swollen like a lump in his throat. Even Desolation Point, the outermost stretch of isolated land along the coast of Wyvernhold, got a newspaper now and then.
“And mine the great Winter King of the north,” the pale-haired man said. “The Winter Merlin, who taught the ancient mage of the first Wyvernbourne king. Back when there were a dozen petty kingdoms and as many kings. That’s what you saw in me: the falcon’s wings. I am Sir Gareth May.”
They waited, gazing at Pierce expectantly, until he found his wits again. “Oh. Pierce Oliver.” He started to hold out his hand, felt the crab net rope still in it.
“Oliver,” the Wyvernbourne prince murmured. “Wasn’t there something . . .” He shook his head, shrugging. “Well.”
“Did you— Ah— Did you actually— I mean, with weapons? I thought they were already pretty much extinct?”
The knights were silent for a breath; Pierce saw the memories, complex and mysterious, in their faces.
“We came as close as we could,” Gareth May said slowly. “They leave a track. They leave a rumor. I climbed into the high forests, found the ancient nesting places of the Winter Merlins. I heard their voices in the wind. Maybe I saw one. Maybe it was a cloud. Maybe it was both.”
“I searched in fire,” Bayley said. “At night. Fire licking wood as the Fire Bear licks her newborn to turn them into flesh and blood; she swallows their fire, their immortality. Maybe I did that.”
“I found the caves where the wyverns raised their young,” the Wyvernbourne prince said. “I saw their high nests, hollows of stone where they laid their eggs, said to make a noise like thunder when they cracked.”
“What we hunted, what we took, is what you saw,” Gareth said simply. “That you saw it so quickly, so easily—that’s the wonder. We were searching for what we found. You weren’t looking for anything at all.”
Again they were silent, consulting one another with their eyes. Pierce watched, fascinated by their closeness, their fellowship. The motionless gull, which he had forgotten, gave such a sudden, piercing cry that he nearly leaped off the dock. It sounded, he thought as he caught his breath, like a curse.
He glanced down, saw more crabs wobbling to the edge of the rings, toppling onto the dock. He bent to pluck a couple of likely-looking dinners up, toss them back into the net.
“Look for us,” he heard, “if you come to Severluna. You might find a place for yourself in King Arden’s court.”
He straightened again, blinking at the thought. They were smiling at him again, welcoming him to their world, making him, for a moment that melted his heart, one of them. The moment passed; he was himself again, in all his awkwardness, his isolation, his inexperience: a young, tangle-haired man wearing a filthy apron at the end of a dock at the edge of the world, chasing after crabs instead of wyverns.
“I’ve always lived here,” he explained. “It’s home.”
Bayley glanced bewilderedly at the tiny town lining the main street, doors facing the setting sun. The others refrained from looking. “Oh. Well,” the giant said gruffly, and added, “Sorry about your dinner. Luckily there are more in your net.”
“They’re for my mother.”
“She owns the best restaurant on the cape. I was working in the kitchen earlier; that’s why I’m wearing this ridiculous apron. Most of these are too small to keep.”
“What about that one?” the prince asked of the one Pierce had just thrown back into the net.
“Let’s see . . .” He pulled it out again, turned it over. “Nope. It’s female.”
They gazed at it. Bayley broke the silence.
“Hell can you tell?”
Pierce tapped the band on the underside of the shell. “It’s wider on the females.” He let it fall into the water; the young men watched the splash.
“I could eat,” Bayley murmured wistfully.
“Her restaurant’s open. It’s called Haricot. There’s crab on the lunch menu. Follow the street the direction you were going; it’s just past the Wander Inn.” He watched them query one another again. “A motel,” he explained. “If you keep going the same direction out of town, the road will loop around the cape and take you back to the highway.”
“Thank you.” They stirred then, stepped toward the waiting car, thoughts shifting away from Pierce, back to their journey. “We appreciate the help.”
“We’ll tell them at Haricot that you sent us,” the dark prince said with his father’s charming smile.
You won’t have to, Pierce thought as the dock swayed under their receding steps, and the gull finally flew off. She knows.
The knights were long gone by the time he pulled up the rings in the late afternoon and carried them and a bucket full of squirming crabs to the Haricot kitchen.
His tall mother, nibbling a strawberry, glanced at him past the ear of Cape Mistbegotten’s only sheriff. Her eyes, a rich blue-green, narrowed, questioning. Pierce took off the apron and scrubbed his hands at the sink, hearing her voice through the falling water.
“Well, I can look, Arn. But it’s been a while since I’ve done anything like that. I’ve been retired for years; cooking is my magic now.”
Ha, Pierce thought, and felt her gaze between his shoulder blades.
“Thanks, Heloise,” the sheriff said. “It’s the third time those interpretive signs and telescopes on the point have been vandalized, and I still haven’t got a clue. If you could just—Well, keep an eye on them now and then, when you have a moment.”
“I’ll try to remember.”
There was a short silence. Pierce, drying his hands, heard what Arn Brisket was not saying, what he’d not been saying since the third time Heloise had told him no. Not for the first time, Pierce wondered why. Arn was decent, honest, with maybe more shoreline on his head since the first time she had said it, but his chestnut mustache was still bold and thick as a squirrel’s tail. And it would be a timely solution. Pierce froze then, at that unexpected thought, staring at the towel in his hands with its little edging of green beans.
He looked up dazedly. Arn had gone; his mother, trying to retie her apron without tangling her long red braid in the strings, nodded in the direction of her office. Pierce went to her, took the ties out of her fingers. They seemed oddly chilly. He swallowed something hard in his throat.
“I’ll just get the crab pot on to boil first.”
She nodded again, briefly, left him without looking at him, her backbone straight and rigid as a flagpole.
Staff chattered again, voices muted, as he filled the huge pot with water. Arn, they talked about softly, and his stubborn, persistent longing, since his wife’s death a decade ago, for the sorceress turned cook and gardener. Pierce heaved the pot onto the stove. His thoughts drifted to the strangers who had gotten so completely lost they had managed to find Desolation Point, the westernmost thrust of land on the entire Wyvernhold coast. So did everyone else’s thoughts, then. The knights might have come and gone from Haricot, but they had left behind them vivid impressions. Pierce responded absently to the questions and comments as he lingered beside the crab bucket. The strange idea in his head took on clarity, dimension. He nudged an escaping crab back into the bucket and felt his mother’s eyes again. But she wasn’t visible; she was in her office, checking the evening menu or balancing accounts while she waited for him.
Or maybe sitting motionlessly, watching him out of a borrowed pair of eyes.
He left the crabs to the staff, went out the back door through her rambling, burgeoning kitchen garden, and drove home.
Home was on the outermost cliff on the cape, where it jutted into the wild sea amid the shards and wreckage of time and the raw, irresistible forces of nature. Shreds of morning mist still hung from the high branches of the ancient trees around the pile of stone and wood that had been Pierce’s father’s house. And his father’s before him, and his father’s father’s, back to some distant past long before the watchtower that had guarded the headlands had been torn down to add a wing to the family hall.
“This house is yours,” his mother had told him years earlier, when he was too young to understand what she wasn’t telling him. “Your father gave it to me before he left us. Now I’m giving it to you, so that you’ll have something from him. So that you’ll always have a home here with me and the trees and the sea.”
Even then he had felt the twist of bitterness that this place was all he knew of a father: no voice, no expressions, no touch, only these huge, silent rooms full of heavy, ornate furniture and paintings of the dead who had lived in them. There was no picture of his father. As Pierce grew, so did his questions. But his own mother seemed to know little more than he did about his father. He was gone, she only told him. He had left the house to her, and now it was Pierce’s to keep forever. At any request for even the simplest of answers, she flung up a mist of silence, or sorrow, or absentmindedness, and disappeared into it. Pierce had no idea if his father was alive or dead. Nothing, anywhere in the vast house, including his mother, indicated that he even had a name. Pierce asked the housekeepers and gardeners, many of whom had grown up in Desolation Point, what they knew; he flung questions at random through the rest of the town. Everyone, wearing the same slightly uneasy expression, gave him the same answer.
“Ask your mother.”
He veered his small, weathered Metro away from the rutted, overgrown drive to the house, parked instead on a paved overlook at the cliff’s edge. Crenellated stonework marked the edge of safety. Beyond it, waves heaved and hammered at gigantic slabs of stone that had been, at some lost point in time, determined to burrow beneath the edge of the earth. The cliff bore signs of that ancient struggle. Layered and veined with changing eons, it had been twisted upward by the power of the collision. Jagged, broken edges of land reared out of the water like the prows of a ghostly fleet of ships. Time had laid a thin layer of dirt and decaying things on the top of the cliff. The house, the trees, stood on that fragile ground while the battle, frozen but not forgotten, bided its time beneath.
Pierce got out of the car and wandered to his favorite corner of the wall, where tides in their raging broke high above the land, where the cliff swallows nested, gulls rode the wind below him, sea lions and whales slid through the waves as easily as he moved through air. That afternoon sea was calm, idling between tides. Waves gathered around the rocks, broke indolently against them, creating brief, lovely waterfalls of foamy white that flowed over the dark, wet stone and drained back into the sea.
His thoughts were anything but calm. Old questions surfaced urgently, obsessively, along with new. Who was his father? What was he like? What had he done? Had he ever left Cape Mistbegotten to follow the long road south to Severluna? Had he known such as those formidably trained, confident, trusted young knights?
Had he been one?
Was he alive or dead? If dead, how had he died?
If not, where was he?
There were no answers, Pierce realized finally, in this place where he had been born. Wind, sea, the ancient house, even his mother all told him nothing. Sitting on the wall, staring at the fog bank rolling across the horizon told him nothing either. He stood, backed a step or two away from the land’s edge, perplexed by an impulse growing in him, as mindless and undefined as the forces under his feet. It was not until he finally turned, got back into the car and started it, that he understood what he would do.
He went as far, then, as the end of the drive. He turned the engine off again and was gazing at the closed door of the garage when his mother stepped into view through the driver’s side window. She bent to look at him as he jumped. Her eyes were wide, her red-gold hair loose and roiling in the wind. It dawned on him, as they both fumbled to open the door, that she had been waiting for him. She had known what he was thinking before he did.
“Pierce?” she said, as he got out. Her husky voice, oddly tremulous, the pallor in the lovely face, the green rainbow of letters spelling Haricot arching over the embroidered bean vine on the apron she had neglected to take off, amazed him. He had never seen her afraid before. He was going to do this thing, he realized, astonished anew. He was actually going to leave home.
“It’s okay,” he told her. “Mom. Really.”
“It was those knights,” she said bitterly. She was trembling, her hands tucked under her arms as though she were cold. “Their fault.”
“They just got lost.” He put an arm over her shoulder, turned her toward the house. “Let’s go inside. Don’t worry. It’s just something I have to do.”
“No. I need you to stay here, help me at Haricot. You can’t leave. You need to know so much more than you do. So much that I haven’t taught you yet.”
He pushed the heavy front door open. The great hall, a shadowy, drafty remnant of a bygone age, held as many cobwebs as there were oddments to hang them on. The full body armor of some long-dead knight stood on one side of the huge fireplace so rarely lit that the pile of logs and driftwood in it probably housed any number of creatures. The knight’s helm, a beaky thing with slits for vision, seemed to stare speculatively at Pierce.
He asked impulsively, “Was my father a knight?”
Heloise sank into one of the worn couches scattered around the room. She eyed the cold hearth expressionlessly; Pierce thought that, as ever, she would maneuver around an answer. Her face crumpled abruptly. She tossed a streak of fire at the dry wood with one hand, and with the other, brought the hem of the apron to her eyes. The pile flamed amid explosions of resin, cracklings, and keening that, to Pierce’s ears, might not have entirely been the voices of wood.
“Yes,” she snapped. “Yes. And he still is.”
Pierce’s breath stopped. Everything stopped; his thoughts, his blood, even the fierce, hungry ravages of the fire froze in a moment of absolute silence. He sat down abruptly on the couch beside his mother. He took a breath, another, staring at her, then heard the fire again, and his own breathing, as ragged as though he had been running.
“He’s alive?” He felt the blood push into his face, the sting of what might have been brine behind his eyes; he seemed, weirdly enough, on the verge of crying for the man who had not died. “What—where?”
Her full lips pinched; her own face had flushed brightly, furiously. If he had touched her cheek, she might have burned him. Her lips parted finally, gave him the word, a hard, dry nugget of sound.
“Severluna.” He didn’t move, just let his eyes draw at her, asking, asking, until she finally spoke again. “He has been, since before he was your age, a knight in King Arden’s court. We met there—”
She held up a hand; he waited. More words fell: flint; fossils; hard, cold diamonds. “We met and married there.” His throat closed; he swallowed what felt like fire. “I had a child. A son.”
His mouth opened; no words came. He felt the wave break again behind his eyes, the ache of salt and blood.
“The year your father took my small son to King Arden’s court to be trained and educated was the year I knew, beyond all doubt, that he had never loved me. He loved the queen. Only her. Always her. Before, during, and even now.
“So I ran.” Her own eyes glittered. Pierce watched one tear fall, saw her catch it in her palm, her fingers close over it, so rare it was, so powerful. “I took you with me. I didn’t—I didn’t know that then. I came here, to the place we chose, during the first year of our marriage, to be alone together. I thought we were alone. I had not realized then that he had brought her with us; even then he carried her everywhere in his heart.” His lips parted to ask; she opened her empty hand to stop him. “No one lived here; it was his inheritance. He came looking for me. Once. To ask me back to Severluna. I told him no. Never again.
“By then I knew about you. I didn’t tell him. I kept you here, after you were born, so far from king and court that you would know nothing of your father’s life. Down there, no one gives a thought to the distant, isolated margins of the world. I wanted to raise you so far from Severluna that anything you heard or read about it would seem as unreal as a fairy tale.”
Pierce, motionless, staring at her, felt the world change shape under his feet. No longer bounded by the sea, by the little, ancient town, the dark, endless forest, the narrow road that circled the cape, it expanded to immeasurable lengths, grew complex, noisy, mysterious, shocking.
He opened his mouth, realized with wonder, as no hand came up, that she was waiting now for him to ask.
“Who is he?”
Her eyes grew luminous under tears she would not let fall; in that moment, he thought she would answer. Then she stood up so fast she pulled the next breath he drew into her wake. “Enough!” she told him fiercely, pacing in front of the roaring fire, rumpling the hearthrug. Her hand, searching for something to worry—beads, the restaurant key on a chain—found the apron front. She glanced down at it with surprise, then untied it impatiently and tossed it on the floor. Pierce, watching her, had a sudden, wrenching glimpse of the young woman she had been in Severluna, married to an illusion and fleeing in pain and fury to this difficult place, where memories rooted themselves more implacably than anything she could coax out of the miserly soil.
“Who?” he pleaded again, his voice grating; she only shook her head.
“Find your own answers,” she said harshly. “I’ve been trying since I came here to forget all this.” Then she halted, midwhirl in her pacing, to stare at him. “No. Don’t. Don’t leave me, Pierce. There’s nothing you need in Severluna. Your father does not even know you exist, and even if you find him or your brother, what can they do for you? You’re not trained to the ways of the court. I have no family there to take you in. You’ll be alone in a city full of strangers—what will you do with yourself?”
He gazed at her, wondering that she could show him such things—a father, a brother, a world not governed by wind and tide and how many crabs came up in the net, but by wealth, power, knowledge, and the sources of the strange magic she knew—and expect him not to want what she herself had wanted.
He stirred, beginning to think. “What I do here,” he answered slowly. “I work for you. I’ll find another restaurant.”
“But how will you find your way? You can barely read a map.”
He shrugged. “People do. Find their ways. Even people as ignorant as I am of anything beyond Cape Mistbegotten. I’ll put one mile behind me, then another, until I get where I’m going.”
“And what,” she asked helplessly, “will I do without you? Without the sound of your voice in this rambling old house? Without the sweet face I’ve known all of your life? Here everyone knows your name. You have a place here, everything you need. How will you know even how to look for a bed in Severluna?”
“Mom.” He leaned forward, caught one of the long, graceful hands working anxiously around the other. He tugged at her gently until she dropped beside him again on the couch. “What I don’t know by now, it’s time I learned. Stop worrying. The road runs both ways. If I get into trouble over my head, I can find my way back. Anyway. When in my life have you not known where I am?”
She was silent at that; she sat tensely looking into the fire, fingers kneading the sofa cushions. “Yes,” she said finally. Her grip loosened slowly; she met his eyes again, her own no longer angry, grieving, but calmer and beginning to calculate. “Yes. Come and work with me for one more evening. Please,” she begged, as he stirred in protest. “I’ll be understaffed without you. And I need you under this roof one last time, while I get used to the idea that you are leaving me. At Haricot tonight, I can teach you a little sorcery, some arcane methods that will be useful to know in a strange kitchen. All right?”
He nodded absently, hearing only every other word of kitchens, sorcery, cooking, as he conjured up the knights again in memory. They might remember him, he thought: the young man who had seen the legendary shadows of their ancestors.
“In the morning, if you still want to leave, we can make proper plans. Yes?”
“Yes,” he said absently, and realized then that he was already gone, on his way, the roof over his head, his bed, now only his first temporary stop, and her advice among the possessions he might take or leave behind when he continued his journey.
Merle was chanting again. Carrie heard his voice coming out of the old rowboat hauled to dry dock under a hemlock. Keys in hand, she paused beside the pickup door, listening. She couldn’t make out a word of it. The old crow perched on the wind-bowed crown of the hemlock burst into sudden, raucous song. Carrie wondered if Merle and bird understood each other. It seemed as likely as anything else about her impossible father.
She tossed the keys onto the driver’s seat, walked into the long grasses under the shadow of the forest. She and Merle lived at the southern edge of Proffit Slough, high and back far enough so that the daily ebb and flow of tidewater pushing into sweet water didn’t find its way into their house even in the most violent weather. Several other houses, old, patched, painted long ago in muted colors, stood peacefully among the silent pines. They were relics of a past when farmers had drained the land and built the only road that ran between the fields and up to the highway. Farmers and crops and cows were long gone; the land had been repossessed by streams and tidal channels, the labyrinthine sea nursery regulated by tides and seasons and the ancient rhythms of the moon. Only farmhouses remained, inhabited by the artistic, the eccentric, the reclusive.
And Merle, who, Carrie’s mother said for years before she left them, was just plain demented.
The chanting from the boat was getting eerie, high and reedy, like some ritual litany that should have been accompanied by gourd rattles and drums. Carrie looked down into the boat. Merle stopped his chanting abruptly and stared at her with such astonishment and wonder that she felt like something he had been trying, with no real hope, to summon. Well, here I am, she told him silently. As suddenly, he recognized her. He smiled. He was lying on his back beneath the broken seat planks, his head cushioned on a monstrous dandelion blooming through a hole in the boat bottom.
“Are you drunk?” Carrie asked.
He considered the question. “Not this morning.”
“Do you want some help up?”
“No, thanks. I’m good.”
“There’s a thought,” he answered, but showed no other signs of interest.
“Well, what exactly are you doing?”
“For what?” she demanded bewilderedly. “A bus?”
“For an answer.”
He’d been out all night, she guessed, as often happened on tranquil spring nights. He watched the reflection of the moon in the slough streams, or swapped tales with some transient beside a fire in the backwoods. Fish stories, hunting stories, war stories: Carrie had overheard some of those earnest, drunken conversations, when neither listened to the other, and whatever events they spoke of seemed to have happened in different countries, maybe even in different millennia.
“I have to go to work, Dad. You sure you don’t want a hand up?”
Merle murmured something inaudible. Then he said more clearly, “I’m working.”
Carrie glanced at the sky, saw a flock of geese in a ragged V flying the wrong direction for spring. “You’d be more comfortable out of here.”
“I can see better down here.”
“How about that cup of coffee?”
“You’d shudder, your blood would roar, your hair would stiffen tendril by tendril like quills upon the fretful porpentine if you could see, if you could see.”
Carrie gave up. “Okay. I guess that would be no.”
Her father’s eyes lost their vacant passion; he smiled at her again.
“Don’t forget that Mom’s in town for the night. She wants to meet you for lunch. Call her?”
“I won’t forget,” he promised.
“You have a good day, Dad.” She hesitated. “You won’t forget, but will you do it?”
“Whatever you say, Sweet.”
“I have got to get out of Chimera Bay,” she said fiercely to the saint dangling on the rearview mirror of the pickup. Her father had found the medallion on his rambles, hung it in the truck because it protected travelers. How her father, who shied like a vampire at the shadow of a church spire in his path, knew one saint from another, Carrie hadn’t a clue.
She and the truck rattled across the old farmers’ road, then up the steep, rocky, rutted grade that joined a paved road at the top of the hill. In the mirror, before she turned, she could see the north end of the slough, the distant estuary waters broadening between the low, coastal hills to meet the tide. The paved road wound for a few miles along the crest of the hills before it dipped down to follow the sea, where it flowed around the headlands and into Chimera Bay.
The Kingfisher Inn stood at the edge of the broad bay, looking out over the deep shipping channel and the calm waters beyond it that ebbed twice a day into shallows and mudflats. From the highest curve, Carrie could see all of the inn at once, the huge central building with the two round turrets at its back corners, and the wide, graceful, four-storied wings that once overlooked lawn, rose gardens, and the docks where guests who sailed in on their yachts would tie up for the night.
It had all been a wonder: so the old photos, letters, and yellowed reviews, framed and hanging behind glass along the walls, told her. And what had happened to it all? Something had happened. She was uncertain what; everything had changed before she was born. For all the vagueness in everyone’s eyes when she asked, the good fortune might have vanished a century before. Not even her father could come up with a coherent explanation, and he had been there, she knew, beside the much younger Hal Fisher in a tuxedo under the blazing chandelier, his golden hair clipped, his mustache wild and thick, bracketing his confident smile, lord of all he surveyed, including Merle at his elbow, wearing a dress suit, of all things, and looking, in the old sepia photo, oddly watchful, as though from very far away he saw the something coming.
The glimpse of the earlier inn vanished in a turn as the road wound down into town. Now the inn was peeling paint, shuttered windows, walls hidden under scaffolding, its proud turrets piebald where slats had blown off. Carrie parked in front, where lawns stretching the entire length of the inn had vanished under tar and gravel. She recognized the half dozen cars already there, the usual bar dwellers.
She found her way under the plyboard tunnels beneath the scaffolding to the front door of the restaurant and let herself in. No one was there yet but Ella; Carrie came early to help her prep. Walking through the kitchen doors, she blinked at the morning light streaming in from the back wall of windows overlooking the bay. Around her in the kitchen, things burped, bubbled, steamed. She smelled oil, rosemary, yeast. For a moment she thought she was alone among the cupboards and counters, the wheeled chopping blocks, the stoves, refrigerators, dishwashers, everything that still could, in the mix of antique and modern, making noises at once like an orchestra tuning up.
Then she saw the tiny woman with her head in one of the refrigerators, rummaging through the shelves. She straightened abruptly and turned, her arms full of eggs, two kinds of cheese, mustard, pickle relish. She smiled at Carrie. Her hair was a mass of white curls, her face pale and seamed like a piece of old diner crockery, the only color in it her periwinkle eyes. The corner of the egg box slid. Salad dressings and sauces, Carrie guessed, and went to help her.
“Do you want me to make them?”
“No. I want you to start on the crab bisque. But take the note up first.”
She was, everyone swore, Hal and Tye’s mother. Carrie didn’t believe it. Nobody could be that old and move the way Ella did, everywhere at once, it seemed, even during the most chaotic of All-You-Can-Eat Nites. And she was elfin; how could she have come out with those tall, big-boned sons, themselves at least half the age of the inn? Whoever and however old she was, she knew everything about everything, though she could be half a heaping tablespoon short of explaining, even, for instance, the why of the note Carrie picked up off the countertop to take upstairs.
She went the quickest way, through the back door of the kitchen, down a battered wooden walkway to the only staircase, of the four built to give guests access from every floor to the grounds, that didn’t threaten to pitch her back down through a rotting tread. Lilith Fisher lived in one of the turret suites that once overlooked the lovely gardens and the yachts at the docks. Now it overlooked a weedy lawn and a couple of fishing boats. She was said to be writing a book about the history, the celebrities, the gossip surrounding the inn during its glory. Carrie had never seen her actually working at the big desk cluttered with books, papers, and old photos in the turret. Hal, it seemed to her, was the one doing the writing: every morning a note, elegantly hand-penned in real ink on heavy, deckle-edged paper tucked into a matching envelope with his wife’s name on it, asking her to join him that evening for dinner.
Lilith opened the door when Carrie knocked, then flowed away, scarf ends, sleeves, trouser hems fluttering as she said into her cell phone, “No. No! Really? He really did that?” She reached the far wall and flowed back, seeing Carrie this time, tossing her a preoccupied smile. “I can’t believe it. After all you did to protect him.”
Like Hal, Lilith was long-boned, tall, still willowy despite her ivory-white hair. She wore it coiled on top of her head, an untidy cinnamon bun held in place by a couple of colored pencils. Her eyes, behind half-moon glasses, were big, sunken, luminous, the creamy green the sea sometimes turned during a nasty storm.
Carrie held out the note. Lilith took it on an ebb turn and surged again. “No. Yes. I will.” Carrie backed a step toward the door; Lilith whirled abruptly, midroom, swirled back to her. “Of course, Heloise. The mourning doves. They can watch for him from my turret.”
She dropped the phone in a pocket and finally stood still. “Thank you, Carrie.” She opened the envelope; her eyes flicked over the note, then at Carrie again, some memory surfacing in them as frigid as an iceberg in a northern sea. “Please tell Ella that I will take my dinner alone tonight.”
And that was that for the lovely, old-fashioned note.
“Okay,” Carrie said, confused as always, wanting to ask why? What did he? Couldn’t they at least talk about it over dinner even though that might mean a few broken plates? Lilith’s eyes flashed at her again, this time without the chill, reading her expression, Carrie guessed, or maybe, in some nebulous way, her thoughts.
Lilith pushed her glasses up toward the cinnamon bun, worked a pencil back into place. She turned, gazed down at the bay through the turret’s curved windows, where Hal and his brother Tye, tiny figures in a small, rocking boat, sank lines into the shipping channel to see what they could lure up from the deep.
“We have no more plates to throw,” Carrie heard her murmur. “We broke them all long ago.”
“What?” Carrie’s voice came out in a whisper.
Lilith dropped her glasses back down onto her nose and peered more closely at the boat. “Ask Ella to send Hal’s jeans up with my dinner. I’ll mend that back pocket. How’s your father this morning?”
Carrie, staring incredulously at the tiny nail-paring-sized blur that was Hal’s jeans, answered absently, “He was lying on his back in a broken rowboat talking to a crow about fearsome porpentines.”
“Really? He said porpentines?”
“He did. Dead sober.”
“And the pickup? Did you get the brakes fixed?”
Carrie nodded, sighing. “I had to use some of my creel money, though.”
A smile flickered through Lilith’s delicately lined face. “Works for me,” she said. “The less you squirrel away in that old creel, the longer you’ll stay with us.”
But I need to leave, Carrie cried silently, her whole body tense with desperation, and Lilith nodded.
Carrie went back down an inner stairway that took her through the great dining room behind the reception hall. It was an empty, silent, beautiful place in which the backwash of the past, layers of memory, had accumulated. Huge windows overlooked the water, each framed with stained-glass panels depicting wild waves, cormorants and albatrosses, the frolicking whales and mermaids of the deep. The old glass was bubbled and wavery; passing boats and birds grew distorted in it. Sometimes, Carrie glimpsed odd things in the shipping channel through those windows: small ships with rounded hulls and too many sails, or leaner vessels with ribbed sails raked at an angle that might have crossed over from exotic seas where fish flew and whales had horns like unicorns just to visit Chimera Bay. The round mahogany and rosewood tables still filled the room, circled by their chairs. Waiting, maybe, for the doors to open at last, the guests in their glittering evening clothes to enter and feast. But the silver sconces and candelabra had grown black with age; the fireplace, its mantel carved from a single slab of myrtle wood, had been cold for decades.
In the kitchen, she gave Ella Lilith’s message and got to work on the bisque.
Bek and Marjorie came in at eleven to serve. Purple-haired Jayne brought in a couple of lunch orders from the bar while they were putting on their aprons. After that, things got hectic. Ella worked the grill, flipping burgers, tuna melts, fillets of salmon and halibut; Carrie kept an eye on the two pots of soup—crab bisque and chicken-veg—while she lowered into bubbling oil anything that could possibly be deep-fried. At odd moments, between orders, she experimented. She fried croquettes of chopped salmon, sour cream, onions rolled into a web of uncooked hash browns. She added one or two to a plate, flagged them with toothpicks, beside the usual skewer of orange slice and pickled crab apple. They were pretty much successful; only the toothpicks came back. Her deep-fried minced eggplant, green olive, and feta croquettes mostly came back with a set of tooth marks at one end. The implacable Marjorie, who had worked in restaurants for a quarter of a century, eased her plump body and her tray like a dancer through the kitchen, nibbling Carrie’s experiments as she passed. Angular Bek, who wore nothing but black and was waiting on tables while he made up his mind what to do with his life, always looked on the verge of dropping his tray as he tossed a croquette in his mouth. Somehow, his sharp elbows avoided the soup pots and doorposts; he threatened but never achieved a head-on collision with the hanging copper pans.
Jayne called in another bar order, then saw Carrie’s little pile of experiments and crossed the kitchen to grab one. Carrie watched her eyes, lined and shadowed with black and purple, widen, then close. For a moment, her young, cynical face grew ethereal.
“Eggplant,” she breathed. “Everyone is so afraid of it. I adore it. I color my hair eggplant. I wear eggplant. I inhale eggplant. Make more.”
Marjorie and Bek began to argue about something. Carrie heard snatches of it whenever they passed each other.
“It was,” Bek said.
“Couldn’t have been,” Marjorie answered adamantly. “No way. Not here.”
Marjorie called for the dessert tray. Carrie added another of her experiments to the slices of pound cake, pots of dark chocolate mousse, strawberry tarts. Marjorie looked dubious. “Nobody here eats pears for dessert.”
“Not even poached with vanilla and black peppercorns, and drizzled with warm salted caramel and grated lemon peel?”
“Try some ice cream on it.”
Carrie grinned. “I’ll eat it if it comes back.”
The dessert tray returned without it.
“It was her,” Bek insisted to Marjorie as he came in under a precarious load of dirty plates. “She ate Carrie’s pear.”
“No way,” Marjorie said tersely. “Must have been a tourist.”
“I worked for him for five days, once. I know it’s her.”
“Only five days?” Carrie echoed, replenishing the dessert tray. “Five days where?” Then she asked, “Who?”
“Got another pear?” Bek asked.
“No,” Ella said quickly from the grill. “I want the other half of that.”
“She ate the croquettes, too. Even the eggplant ones.”
“Who are you talking about?” Carrie asked again, pulling the soup pots to back burners to wait for supper.
In the sudden, odd silence, Ella slapped her spatula down on a burger and pushed it flat until it hissed. For the first time, Carrie saw her angry.
“What on earth would Stillwater’s wife be doing here?” Marjorie demanded of Bek.
“Spying,” Ella answered succinctly. They stared at her; she added darkly, “There’s something here Stillwater wants. Maybe a cook, maybe a server. Maybe just a taste of something he hasn’t thought up himself. In a week, you’ll find Carrie’s croquettes on his menu.”
“I really doubt it was her,” Marjorie said soothingly, though she sounded unconvinced. Carrie had never met Stillwater, but she knew enough about him to doubt that the owner of the classiest restaurant in Chimera Bay would ask his wife to eat in a place that offered fried-chicken nibbles for lunch.
Ella, still upset, brooded at the burger, flipped it to reveal the blackened underside, and upended it into the trash.
“I’ve known Stillwater on the prowl before,” she said, reaching for fresh meat. “I’ve seen what he can do when he wants something.”
Carrie felt her arms prickle into goose bumps, despite the heat in the kitchen. “What did he do that time? And why,” she added puzzledly, “didn’t he come himself?”
Ella started to answer, then closed her mouth and shook her head at some unspeakable, unholy tangle of memory. “It’s complicated,” she said grimly, and left it there, in the place where every other inexplicable event at the inn ended up.
Carrie stayed late to help Ella clean the kitchen after supper; they lingered in the weird, soothing rhythms of the dishwashers, eating crab bisque and Ella’s olive and black pepper biscuits at the kitchen counter. It was late when Carrie drove home, but as she climbed out of the truck, she heard Merle still chanting. She couldn’t see him. The only light in the slough came from the moon, and from the little flashlight on her keychain. She paused beside the truck, wondering if she should check on him. His voice sounded hale, if a little hoarse, and he seemed to be moving away from her, deeper into the wood. She went indoors, crawled into bed instead.
Her father’s voice, or the memory of it, drifted in and out of her dreams until she wove it into a rich night-language that almost made sense, that almost made her see what it was conjuring.
Then the moon set, and the wild chanting stopped.
Somewhere south of Cape Mistbegotten, a sign in one of the little towns along the coast highway caused the traveling Pierce Oliver to veer impulsively off the road.
ALL YOU CAN EAT FRIDAY NITE FISH FRY the sign said. His sudden, overwhelming hunger drove the car to a halt beneath it.
He got out. It took a moment to find the door, hidden within a makeshift tunnel beneath scaffolding that went up and up, higher than he would have expected from such ramshackle beginnings. Part of a turret, a cone of white, jutted incongruously from behind a plywood wall covering the face of the building. There were no windows in sight. The sign was scrawled in chalk on a large board hooked to the scaffolding. It clattered and swung in the gusty wind blowing in from the west, or from the south, or from anywhere, according to the tipsy weather vane on top of the turret, which squealed crankily as it spun.
Odors wafted through the door as Pierce pulled it open. He smelled citrus, garlic, onions, and felt his empty stomach flop like a fish out of water. The vast cavern beyond the door was shadowy; he stood blinking, aware of a bar at his right, stretching off into the dimness, ghostly glasses floating upside down above it, a body or two on the stools, the dull gleam of amber and silver and gold from the bottles lined behind it. Other things were scattered among them: weird paintings, masks, street signs, totems that had drifted into the place through the years and clung. A mobile of porcelain Fools’ heads hanging from the gloom above the bar swung slowly, glint-eyed and grinning, as though his entrance and the wind that pushed in behind him had disturbed them.
“Hello?” he called. He couldn’t remember when he had last eaten. That morning? The evening before? Time blurred in his head like the light and shadow blurred in this twilight place where, in the depths of the cavern, near the ceiling, a star blazed suddenly with light.
“Up here,” a voice said briskly from above. “What can I do you for?”
“I saw your All-You-Can-Eat sign?”
“Ah. Dinner will be along anytime now as soon as my brother gets the crab traps in. Crab cakes tonight—your lucky night. You can wait in the restaurant through that door, or in here.”