Sorry for the delay on this one. The balance of life is off-kilter lately and the real world must take precedence over the creation of the fantastical one. Hope this was worth the wait. It kinda wound up having some shades of Apocalypse Now…
The headquarters of the Bureau Central Royale pour l’Enregistrement et la Réglementation des Questions Surnaturelles, or, “Bureau Centrale” for those who could not bring themselves to utter its feared full name, was an ugly building marring the center of a city renowned worldwide for its striking architecture. The fanciful flourishes and artistic embellishments of the surrounding churches, hotels, even the supposedly illegal casinos, were utterly absent from the squat, squarish and functional concrete block lurching up from the north side of the otherwise picturesque Chemin des Fougères. It was a building that no one walked by unless they had absolutely no choice, and the dour armed guards posted at the main doors atop eighteen flat gray steps certainly did not encourage the approach of visitors. Despite its forbidding facade, every citizen was grateful that the Bureau, this gangrenous tumor jutting out from a thriving, inviting cityscape, was there. It was the unyielding wall between their safe, happy and boring lives, and the looming chaos and anarchy the witches sought to wreak. The solemn duty of protection could brook no indulgences for taste or style.
Etienne remembered the first time he’d taken his walk up the eighteen steps, recruited as a fresh and bright graduate of College de Calerre eager to begin serving his country. He had paused upon reaching the top to contemplate the Bureau’s motto, etched in stone over the doors: Pas de pitié, pour vous doit avoir aucun. No mercy, for you shall have none. A simple statement that codified the Bureau’s very reason for being, an ethos that had guided Etienne’s actions in the twelve years he had devoted himself to its cause. And had been disproven that night outside Montagnes-les-grands. The witch had allowed him and his men to live, when she had been more than capable – and some might have argued had the right – to kill them all without hesitation. What was he to take from that? The Bureau had driven it into him and every person who worked for it that their enemy was an implacable evil determined to see them dead and the entire country brought to heel. Witches captured by the Bureau left its custody in one of two ways: forever forsaking their abilities and condemned to make lifelong reparations to the Crown, or, as headless corpses. So stubborn were most of them that the former was an option rarely selected. There was, admittedly, a degree of insanity about it that Etienne had been content to overlook, until now.
Pas de pitié, pour vous doit avoir aucun. As the guards opened the doors for him this morning, Etienne, hungover and bruised and feeling terribly aged from the young man of so many years past, wondered if he was to find himself finally on the receiving end of that notorious threat. Even the presence of Corporal Valnier at his side did little to quell his nerves. He tongued the scab that had formed on his split lip, an unwelcome souvenir from the previous evening’s escapade at the Splendide. The neck of his dress uniform felt tighter today, like a hand ever at his throat.
The lobby was always so damned quiet, nothing but boot heels squeaking and tapping on polished granite tile. The air smelled of paper, stale ink and dust. The starched, uniformed, axe-faced woman who manned (not a sexist term in her case) the reception desk, looked up, did not smile and spoke without a trace of pleasantry. “De Navarre,” she said, purposely omitting his title. “Salle 1401. You are expected.”
Etienne attempted to tame his obvious discomfort. 1401 was used only for disciplinary hearings. If you were to be expelled from the Bureau, or worse, 1401 was where it would occur. Etienne suspected that the Directeurs derived some perverse enjoyment from forcing their subjects to pay homage by climbing the long flights of stairs and arriving before the tribunal breathless and unable to defend themselves. It was also high enough from the ground that the adjacent windows offered a convenient fourteen-floor route to oblivion for those who could not bear the shame. But Valnier had said they were giving him an assignment, so why they had summoned him to 1401 was a mystery.
By floor six his legs had begun to ache. By floor nine sweat had flooded his skin, and finally, by floor twelve his mindset had evolved from trepidation to a resigned sense of getting things over with no matter what they turned out to be. He was panting by the time they reached the fourteenth, but Etienne swallowed his heavy breaths and willed his heart to slow its loud thumps against his ribs. As he and Valnier crossed towards the carved mahogany double doors of 1401, Etienne eyed the ornate lead-lined windows at the end of the hall. He permitted himself a smirk. After the wearying ascent, out there did not seem such a bad way to make the return trip.
Depending, naturally, on what was said inside.
An oddly welcoming scent of rich, roasted café caressed his sinuses as the doors cracked apart. Despite the humidity baking the streets outside, the room was cold and dry. It was sparsely furnished and decorated of course, in keeping with the strict non-aesthetic aesthetic of the building. The walls were bare and painted in a distinctly unmemorable shade of bureaucratic taupe. But the ceiling was high and vaulted, magnifying whispers and squeaks into shouts and roars, and in entering, supplicants were forced to step down into a recessed floor, position themselves at a tiny podium and look up with deference to the raised, varnished oak table at which those presiding over the meeting were privileged to sit, flanked on either side by flags bearing respectively the ensign of the Bureau and the royal standard. Etienne understood the architectural trickery at work, that the room appeared more imposing than it actually was thanks to clever use of forced perspective, but knowing that was irrelevant; the illusion had its desired emotional impact, and all the café in the Lower Continent would not assuage the diminishment he felt, particularly in the presence of the three men waiting for him.
A formal meeting with a Directeur was standard duty for a Commissionaire, if infrequent, perhaps only four or five times yearly. Meeting with two Directeurs could be hoped for once every other year, or perhaps by happenstance at a social gathering. Stepping into a room and seeing all three of them, the triumvirate of executive power that commanded the behemoth that was the Bureau Centrale, was not only unprecedented, it ran contrary to the safety protocols embedded in the Bureau’s very constitution. For security’s sake, no more than two Directeurs were permitted to be in the same physical location at the same time, the conceit being that should two of them be killed the third could serve to operate the Bureau alone while successors were swiftly recruited and installed – a sort of pre-emptive defense against the notion that you could kill the body of a serpent by cutting off its head. Just ensure the serpent had three heads and keep them each a good distance from the axe.
On the left was the elderly Directeur Theniard Preulx, the last, lingering bastion of the old guard and the old ways. One might say he wrote the book on the Bureau, but given his age it would be more accurate to say he must have painted it on cave walls. It was customary for a Directeur to stand down once they reached a certain plateau of years of service, but Directeur Preulx had made his name by defying custom, and it was expected that natural causes would claim him long before the thought of resignation would dare cross what was suspected (by Etienne at least, and not an insubstantial number of others) to be a mind teetering ever nearer the threshold of dementia. He was relied upon now more for matters of counsel rather than day-to-day operational decisions. Those fell to the younger men sitting with him, Directeurs Michel Ste-Selin and Kadier Duforteste. Ste-Selin was Etienne’s chief contact for his assignments; it was he who had ordered Etienne to Montagnes-les-grands and had personally screamed at him and suspended his rank following the disastrous outcome. The Directeur had also made the mistake of revealing to Etienne in less heated, more liquored moments that he considered Preulx a senile old cretin and Duforteste a paragon of incompetence, and that the Bureau would function better with a single source of authority – himself, of course. Etienne did not know Kadier Duforteste well enough to make any judgement as to Ste-Selin’s opinion of the man; he supervised the more lawless, backwoods, southwestern portions of the country where Etienne had little experience and even less reason to wish to visit.
Opposite the presiding table, and behind where Etienne was presumably meant to stand, small carrels accommodated the clerks and recording secretaries – that is, if there had been any present. The Bureau was humorless about its note-keeping; at least three floors were devoted exclusively to the storage of records, where, if one had a few decades to spare, one could browse a copious written reconstruction of every action taken by its personnel since the Bureau’s inception, details stopping short only of the amount of time each man spent in the lavatory. Every meeting was minuted by at least three secretaries keeping independent accounts, every sou expended or accrued was audited and re-audited on a clockwork schedule. Even actions considered highly confidential were documented to the last inflection of the last syllable spoken in the room, just in case someone, somewhere, sometime, should need to know. Clearly, no one beyond himself, the three Directeurs and Corporal Valnier was to know anything of what was about to transpire.
“Etienne,” said Directeur Ste-Selin matter-of-factly as he hoisted a porcelain cup of café. “Entrez.” He gestured to the podium in the sunken portion of the floor. “Corporal, fermez les portes, s’il-vous plait.” Valnier did so as Etienne took a few tentative steps towards his assigned position. He paused to wonder, as he stood behind the podium, how many of his predecessors had seen their careers evaporate on this very spot, how many once-proud and respected Commissionaires had been reduced to nothing with a few words and signatures scrawled upon executive decrees. Abruptly Etienne did not know what to do with his hands. They needed to go somewhere, but balancing himself on the podium would make him look weak, in his pockets would make him look sheepish, and at his sides would make him look like he didn’t know where to put his hands. Etienne opted to clasp them tightly behind his back. He straightened his spine and kept his gaze steady. The damned uniform would not stop choking him.
“Merci for joining us today,” Ste-Selin said. “Been making the most of your time away, I trust?” The Directeur nodded at the bluish jaundice of the bruise mottling Etienne’s jaw.
“Somewhat,” Etienne replied simply. The scab on his lip itched, and he wrestled down the impulse to tongue it again. Behind his back, he gripped his hands tighter in silent reaction against Ste-Selin’s superiority and hypocrisy rather than rise to the obvious challenge.
Ste-Selin affected an air of disappointment that he did not. “Well then,” he began again, “in those fleeting moments of sobriety I’m certain you have been pondering the outcome of our deliberations regarding your status. I need not remind you, monsieur, that this is not a matter the leadership of the Bureau takes at all in light vein. Out there the Commissionaire is more than just himself, more than merely a man: he is the living embodiment of the integrity of our institution, and just as the building cannot withstand a crack in its foundation, neither can the institution suffer the slightest failing in its most prominent representatives. We do not live in a time when errors can be easily forgiven, nor are we pitted against an enemy who will overlook them in the name of good sportsmanship. Would you not agree?”
“Of course, monsieur le Directeur,” said Etienne. Ste-Selin’s words always rang a touch clumsy in Etienne’s ears, as if the man did not fully understand the meanings of the polysyllabic vocabulary and metaphors he peppered his syntax with in the hopes of appearing smarter than he actually was. It was a revealing sign of insecurity and vulnerability on the Directeur’s part. Of course, whether one was being condemned by a genius or an idiot, the outcome remained the same.
“You should understand that the purpose of today’s meeting is not to discuss your case,” added Ste-Selin. “Our judgment has not changed. The invalidation of your rank and your suspension from the Bureau shall continue indefinitely.”
“Thank you, monsieur le Directeur.” Rien à faire.
“We’ve been looking over your last report and comparing it with our own findings,” said Directeur Duforteste. A much more casual, disinterested tone from him, blended with his distinct regional accent. He had his own fiefdom in the south stretching from Delprice to Ville-des-Cinq-Lacs, and the goings-on in a northern flyspeck like Montagnes-les-grands, to him, would be the apex of tedium. “If you would indulge us, we’d like to hear more about the subject responsible for the attack on your caravan.” Never witch. Always subject. Standard Bureau terminology. “Your official filing is a bit vague on that portion.”
Etienne drew a long breath. What would you wish me to say, Monsieur le Directeur? That she was the most beautiful and most enticingly powerful woman I’ve ever encountered, and that not a minute has passed since then, in sleep or in waking, that I have not found myself thinking of her? “The subject represents an imminent and significant threat to our civil order,” he said instead.
“We agree,” said Duforteste. He gestured toward Etienne’s podium. Only then did Etienne notice the file folder tucked on the lower shelf. It was black – a color he had never seen assigned – and bulged with at least a hundred pages of different stocks of paper and parchment, suggesting a collation of years’ worth of reports and other data. A drop of red wax embossed with the Bureau’s ensign barred further perusal. “Go ahead and open it,” advised the Directeur. Etienne did so, breaking the seal and lifting the folder with fingertips, as though it was made of glass. The top page bore the Bureau’s letterhead, the warning “HIGHLY CLASSIFIED,” and a single, puzzling word.
“Nightingale,” said Ste-Selin.
Etienne looked up.
“What you have there before you,” Ste-Selin explained, “is a complete history of the subject under discussion, whom we have been aware of for over two years, and who was generally conceived to be a myth until she accosted your company outside Montagnes-les-grands.”
Duforteste picked up the narrative. “For some time now we’ve seen an alarming drop in the rate of apprehension of subjects and their secure delivery into custody. They have been able to defeat our usual methods and escape beyond our jurisdiction. Subjects who, logically, should be the easiest to catch… old women, young girls, even those whose threat level–” meaning the extent of their magic, more official Bureau terminology “–is admittedly negligible. We’ve established, from interrogation of those subjects we have taken in, a patchwork of compelling evidence pointing to the existence of a single, highly empowered individual who has been responsible for the liberation of these enemies of the Crown. Her official Bureau designation is ‘Nightingale.’ We believe this is the subject you encountered.”
Etienne’s eyes fell to the file again as the Directeurs talked on. He turned pages, browsing through what in the incident reports and correspondence he might once have dismissed as wild flights of fancy, but was instead instantly familiar: tales of potent magic, bizarre flashes of violet light, trained soldiers rendered as helpless as kittens in a matter of seconds. What he did not see in the reports, however, was any description of the witch herself; only half-remembered, half-formed swirls of shadow indiscernible from the dark. But that meant…
“As you have no doubt divined,” said Ste-Selin, nodding to the file in Etienne’s hands, “you are the first person to have encountered this Nightingale in the flesh.”
Etienne closed the file folder. The Directeur made it sound like such an ordinary meeting, as if they had brushed shoulders on a busy street. Etienne wondered if any words could capture with the faintest hint of accuracy the experience of being wrapped in an impossibly seductive presence, with magic wreathing itself about him like exotic perfume, and nearly losing himself to it; of being a garden for a seed of longing and obsession that had taken root and grown unimpeded ever since, despite his efforts to drown it in wine and gambling and a general disregard for his own safety. Nightingale. The moniker was suitably poetic for her: a mysterious bird singing beneath the moonlight. He wondered if it was at all close to her real name.
“I am uncertain as to what Messieurs les Directeurs wish of me,” he said.
Ste-Selin and Duforteste shared a look. Preulx seemed half-asleep. “From your description,” said Ste-Selin, “and those in the other incident reports, it is clear that Nightingale possesses powers that might very well succeed in undermining the order this Bureau has worked to maintain for so many years. Worse still, she is becoming a symbol for others of her kind that the Bureau Centrale can be defied with impunity. You will agree that such a dangerous subject cannot be allowed to roam free. The security of this very nation and the lives of all its people are at momentous risk.”
“Of course,” Etienne said.
“We believe, however,” said Duforteste, “that we have an opportunity to reclaim the advantage. Nightingale has kept her existence secret from all. She has defeated three other Commissionaires who never knew what hit them. Yet for whatever reason she chose to reveal herself to you. This, combined with your current status, puts you in a unique position.”
Etienne’s throat filled with sand, and he swallowed. “Unique?”
Ste-Selin frowned. “We grow concerned that Nightingale may have compromised the Bureau itself, that she may have an informant or multiple informants within these walls sharing with her our movements and tactics, and that we are seeing only the beginnings of a targeted campaign against us, and against the Crown. A disgraced Commissionaire, for all intents and purposes operating outside the Bureau’s purview and without its official sanction, will be better equipped to root out the corruption and locate the traitors within our midst.” The Directeur shuffled the papers in front of him. “Corporal Valnier shall accompany you as usual, and we will assign you a fresh detachment of men. We shall also provide you with new weapons that should better balance the odds against Nightingale’s powers. But as you can see by the absence of secretaries in this room, this mission will exist in no records, and will be disavowed by us should any inquiries be made. You shall be as a rogue, operating on your own, with no support from the Bureau.”
“And what, unofficially,” Etienne asked, “is the mission?”
“Kill Nightingale,” barked Directeur Theniard Preulx, springing to creaking, doddering life. The creased, tooth-spare mouth spat out the name with a venom that seemed to ooze up from the depths of a hate-wracked soul. “Better yet, bring her to us, broken, so that she might be re-educated.” Yellowed, foggy eyes gleamed over the last word with an unnerving sense of mirth.
Pas de pitié, pour vous doit avoir aucun.
Etienne looked down as he stifled a laugh. “And my incentive for taking this assignment from the Bureau that has labeled me a disgrace?”
“I have had a long and storied career,” said Preulx, “and the flesh willing, I would carry it on until the last witch and the last traces of magic are purged from this world. Time, however, shows as little mercy as does our Bureau. I can think of no prouder legacy than to be succeeded by the man who defeats this evil sorceress and restores the Bureau’s good name.” Ste-Selin and Duforteste both nodded agreement.
Directeur Etienne de Navarre. Quite a carrot to be dangled before him.
He knew, as did they, likely before he had even walked into the room, that he would say yes. The alternative was to retreat to the tables of the Splendide and watch his money evaporate into the caisses of the barmen and the beautiful croupiers. They were offering Etienne the chance to redeem himself and advance to one of the most prestigious and most handsomely-rewarded positions in the Kingdom. To secure for himself his entire future, and all he had to do was what he did best – find and catch a witch. Catch Nightingale. There was, he foresaw, only one problem with the entire scenario.
He was fairly certain that he was in love with her.
* * *
Part Seven coming soon…