the emporium

We literally drove from the moment we got to the car on Tuesday night all the way until Thursday morning. It was… somewhat harrowing. The otters didn’t particularly like being trapped in the back of the car it turns out, and those little suckers can make a ruckus when they want to.

They tuckered themselves out at around ten the next morning, but come 4 in the afternoon they were up again and were ready to make their needs known. They desired freedom and they would NOT be ignored. They managed to scramble over the back seat and directly onto Julian despite my efforts to block them like some kind of car contortionist otter goalie.

Not to mention — and I don’t say this to complain because these otters are the only thing I’ve ever truly loved — but it’s not like they’re exactly potty trained, or leash trained for that matter. So between that, the fish, and the three of us because it’s not like we stopped to bathe on this long ass drive, the car smelled pretty rank by the time we finally pulled off the winding country road, between the tall hedges, through the wrought iron gate and onto what can only be described as an estate.

It took another ten minutes once we were on a private road, driving through a tunnel of oak trees before the house — mansion — came into view.

I’ve never seen a house like that in real life. It was enormous, white, with a grand entry and great doric columns and marble stairs. It was an enormous departure from our usual diet of awful hotel rooms and cat baths in gas station sinks.

The drive in front of the house was a round road with a big fountain in the middle so we parked with the marble staircase to our right and a fountain to the left. In the back the otters were chattering and cooing. All three of us stank.

“What do we do?” I asked, and Julian pointed across me out my window, where the doors were already opening. A portly, middle aged man in tweed emerged from the great house and hurried down the stairs.

“Come on,” Neal sighed, climbing out of the car.

“Oh, my dears,” he said, spreading his arms wide. “You’ve made it. I hope the drive wasn’t too awful.” He didn’t wait for us to respond before he was asking, “Where are these treasures you’ve brought me?”

Within moments he was pressing his face to our filthy trunk window and cooing at the contents.

I glanced uncertainly at Julian, but he just gestured up the stairs where three more people — all wearing practical khaki working clothes with lots of pockets — were already joining us.

“Shiloh this is Paul Rivers, Mr. Meinmarre’s partner,” Neal said.

“Husband,” corrected the woman on her way past. “Hi boys.” She clapped my shoulder. “Hi Shiloh, I’m April.”

“Husband!” Julian said. “Congratulations.”

“It was a courthouse affair, or you’d have been invited,” Paul said. He was maybe in his 40s with sandy, sun-streaked hair that was receding elegantly and delicate features despite deeply tanned and freckled skin. “Beau, please step back from the car, you know they’re bound to be a bit frantic, they don’t need your great snout bearing down on them.”

It was all a bit of a whirlwind. Their were five of them and they were all very competent as they got the otters out of the back of the car and into crates.

Mr. Meinmarre — everyone called him Beau — hovered around, trying to get a better look at the otters. I half expected them to take the otters and send us on our way, but instead April gave our keys to a pair of the kids and sent the car down towards the barn buildings for a scrub.

“And you three should probably go on upstairs as well,” she said. “I can smell you.”

The house was so beautiful and enormous I didn’t want to touch anything. We were given a whole suite with three bedrooms and my own bathroom with big claw foot bathtub. That first day I pretty much showered and napped in the high featherbed and by the time I was through with that it was time for dinner.

I was expecting a grand dining hall and fancy clothes, but instead we ate outside in the back garden and I wore just a big silky house robe because every article of clothing I owned (not many) was whisked away for laundering while I was in the shower.

The Emporium house was a merry crew, hilariously at odds with their beautiful surroundings. With the exception of Beau, who came to dinner in a beautiful linen suit, everyone was dressed more or less like Indiana Jones and not a single polite dinner convention was followed. Paul and Beau were both fervently interested in what the Hawthornes had seen and done in the months since they’d last met.

“We got the Corn Wolves you sent us,” Beau gushed. “Beautiful creatures, I’ve never seen any so lively.”

“They’re all set up in their own enclosure for now,” Paul added, more reserved. “Not the size I’d like them to have, but they’re not able to share with anyone safely. We’re taking it very slow. We haven’t had carnivores so active here in some years, so it’s been a been a bit of a process.”

“Oh don’t sell yourself short darling, you’ve done wonderfully with them,” Beau said. “We’re transforming one of the back pastures into a whole corn field for them. They way they run — beautiful, absolutely beautiful.”

Paul sighed. “Yes, running is just what I’m hoping they’ll be able to do more of soon,” he sighed. “Don’t let him fool you, we’ve been able to get them out into open fields only a couple times a week. And they haven’t taken to any of the enrichment we usually try to do with them, I fear they’re dreadfully bored.”

“They’re highly intelligent hunters,” Beau said, mouth full of wine. “Tell them about how they tried to trick April.”

“I nearly died,” April said, spooning a third helping of potatoes au gratin onto my plate.

On and on. Neal indulged Beau’s curiosity, making fun stories even out of the hunts that haven’t been particularly fun. The siren was of special interest to Beau.

“Oh, we perhaps we should make a proper aquarium,” he said. “I’ve been saying it for years, haven’t I? We should just do it.”

“Beau we already have the lake,” Paul reminded him.

“Yes, but she’s a salt water being, isn’t she? And she’d be so lonely in a lake. And there’s the matter of transporting her of course. How do aquariums do it? We should do research.” And then before Paul finish explaining how aquariums transport fish, Beau added, “But of course sirens speak their own sign language, don’t they? Do you boys speak sirenic? I tried to convince Louis to teach me, but I’ve no mind for languages.”

“Beau loves it when hunters come,” April said to me while they went on and on at the head of the table. “He gets all excited and starts making plans to expand facilities, and then Paul gets all frantic because he’s the one who actually has to make it work.”

Indeed, Paul was beginning to look a bit overwhelmed already.

It was a genuinely wonderful night. When they asked me about my bruises I didn’t know how to answer, so Neal told the story, and coming out of his mouth it sounded so bad ass. Catastrophically stupid of course, but like… super bad ass. And he didn’t tell it like I was making a terrible mistake, he told it like it was an epic hunter story and I realized like… maybe that’s what being a hunter is. Maybe you’re just a dumb idiot who does what they do, and then if you win, you’re a hero and if you fail… you’re dead.

Idk if I’ll get used to that. But I could probably get used to listening to Neal telling a group of monster zookeepers how cool I am.

Then this morning I had a sleepy breakfast with the Hawthornes because the rest of the crew was already up and busy. Beau showed up half way through my second helping of French toast to take me on a tour of the facilities. He was so excited he even drove the golf cart around himself.

It was the most magical place I’ve ever been. I can’t even explain what I saw. I expected a zoo, but it wasn’t really like that. I mean there were more classic style enclosures, with crates and fencing and wires and the like, but Beau explained that those were just for when creatures were sick or needed special care, or were in transition for some reason. The permanent enclosures are maintained by natural boarders — artificial food deserts, for example — and magic for hard boundaries.

“We have covens from all over the world that lend their magic to making this place run smoothly,” Beau said with barely contained enthusiasm. “We don’t have the land we need to provide every individual animal with the territory they would ordinarily get, but with some magical assistance and a lot of hard work we give these animals the best life we can.”

I saw the coolest shit. The Corn Wolves for starters. They weren’t settled into permanent enclosures yet, so I got a nice close look at them. The otters were already in the process of being introduced to the idyllic little river scene enclosure, which was already inhabited by deer with near-human faces. There were so many strange birds I can’t even begin to explain.

Honestly I could stay here. It’s as much a sanctuary for the employees as it is for the animals, I think. They work hard, but April says everyone is well compensated and Beau pretty much pays for anything his employees ever need. She has a PhD in animal sciences. It’s like paradise. I got to meet gigantic moose-sized… mountain goats? Sorta? that Paul has trained to be RIDDEN. I got to RIDE a big ass mountain goat. It’s weird horse girl paradise. Part of me is hoping it takes a while to find a case.

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