It’s been a while! For those who are wondering where Part Eighteen is, you didn’t miss it, it’s just not here. If you’ve been following the story up to this point, you’ve been following the evolution of the relationship between the two leads, and it came to a point where there was a certain inevitable destination. That involved a bit of raciness that I think I handled rather maturely and tastefully, but at the same time I understand there are those who follow my site but don’t do it to be confronted with that sort of thing. So Part Eighteen is only over at the Wattpad site. (You can still leave comments on this post for it, if you like.) In the meantime, here is the next chapter.
Warm night breezes and the lulling crash of surf nudged him awake. The sky was without a moon, but it was more stars than dark, spilling a rich sheen of cobalt over the world, to whatever private corner of it she had whisked them away. A cool satin sheet beneath them reflected the starlight and shielded bare bodies from the grit of the sand. Etienne lifted his head and saw her pressed against him, one leg interlocked with his, propping her head on a bent elbow and tracing a gentle line down the center of his chest with her fingertips. She was smiling, but her eyes were narrow, intense, full of purpose.
“You’re mine now,” Nightingale breathed, in a hue that was peculiarly sinister, belittling and foreboding. “Completely… and utterly.”
A snap of cold split Etienne’s spine. He shivered. “W-what?”
She stopped and inched closer. A flash of purple energy lined her irises.
Suddenly she corpsed and burst into a giddy, girlish laugh. “Oh, goodness me, of course not. You should see your face.”
Nightingale’s long hair danced in the delicate wind as she shook her head. “Are you worried the evil temptress enslaved your immortal soul with her mystical sex powers?”
“Oh, please. Aren’t Commissionaires supposed to be experts on witches? Do you know who came up with ridiculous notions like that? Very lonely men on very cold nights.” She crawled in next to him and invited him to wrap his arm around her. “Silly, silly boy.”
An embarrassed blush tinged his cheeks. “It’s not cold here,” he said, absently.
“This is my favorite place,” Nightingale replied. “Serene. Worlds away from the world.”
“Thank you for sharing it with me.”
“You’re welcome.” She closed her eyes.
Etienne held her and let thoughts wander with her gentle breathing and the waves lapping at the shore. It was so strange. He could remember little of what intimacy with Nightingale had felt like. The precise recollections of kissing her and tasting her and having her, the sheer rapture that had been so fiery was blurred by the gray fog of old dreams from a thousand years ago, beyond his capacity for clear description as though he was a journeyman challenged to reproduce a masterpiece seen in a fleeting glimpse. He felt smaller. For an instant he had brushed against a fragment of greatness – something that perhaps was never truly meant for him – and now he was watching it drift up and away from his reach. Even as he lay on her beach with her soft body warming his, even as he lost his eyes in the canopy of a million stars, he could sense this biting truth cementing itself in his mind.
The boy fleeing from his dying father’s bedside wanted to rant and rave and scream that it wasn’t fair. The man on a distant island shore reflecting on what had transpired and what was to come understood it could not be anything else, that illusions of fairness were just that.
“Will you ever tell me your name?” he asked her quietly, afraid of disturbing her if she had fallen asleep.
The witch stirred. “I’ve grown rather fond of ‘Nightingale,’” she said. “There’s an old saying about making an enemy’s label into a statement of agency for yourself.” Nightingale climbed on top of him and paraded her fingers along his skin. “The nightingale is mysterious, soulful, romantic, a muse to the poets. Why wouldn’t I embrace something so beautiful?”
“It does suit you. To be honest, I can’t imagine calling you anything else.” He slid his hands over the small of her back. “Is it who you really are?”
“Who am I to you, Etienne? Does anything else matter?”
He nodded. “It does.”
“You want to hear that story. The story of the little girl with the special gifts who was beaten by her mother and touched by her father, before she ran away to escape a nightmare of a life that seemed determined to crush her. Who discovered that she could shatter the limits the small-minded had shackled her with and create a new person out of the bones of the broken child. Who learned to take ownership of herself and of the magic that had scared everyone so, and in so doing became more powerful than she ever could have dreamed. Who dedicated herself to preventing any other little girls from enduring what she did.” She spoke of these things without any hesitation in her voice. “You should know that who we really are is not something that can be captured in a name, a title, or in a word, particularly one applied by somebody else. We define who we are in the choices we make.” Nightingale scooped a handful of sand and let it sift grain by grain through her fingers onto his chest. She infused it with wisps of magic so that each fragment glowed violet as it tumbled and collected in a tiny pile. “We build ourselves from moment to moment, collecting our own truths, and for a time we exist as the sum of our experiences, growing a little more each day.”
“I have this idea of a future with you,” Etienne said. “We are standing arm in arm, watching the Bureau Centrale collapsing in massive flames that singe the clouds. Then a huge celebration erupts throughout Calerre. Statues fall, voices sing and wine flows, and thousands of women emerge from the shadows they’ve hidden in their entire lives, because for the first time, they have the promise of tomorrow. They are looking to someone to thank, and they look for us, but we’re gone. No one sees us ever again. We find a place like this one, lush and full of bounty, and we build a house, or rather, I watch as you spin it into existence with your spells, because I never learned how to use a hammer. We breakfast with the sunrise and dine as the sky turns red, and in between we walk on the beach and climb trees and laugh and dance and make love. It’s not all bliss, of course; sometimes we fight, sometimes I storm out and slam the door, sometimes you vanish in a flash of light, but we always forgive each other. One day you tell me that you are expecting, and eventually we have three daughters. Robin, Raven and Whooping Crane.”
She groaned and gave his cheek a mock slap.
He smiled and went on. “They are beautiful, like their mother, and like their mother they have the most wondrous powers. I watch you teach them how to use them with confidence and wisdom. We scold them when the eldest turns the youngest into a toad, and we smile with pride when one heals the other’s scraped knee. We watch them grow into formidable young women. We say goodbye as they head out into the world, and we hold each other and weep after they’ve gone. After a long while we realize that I’ve grown terribly old, and you are still as young as you are now, and one night I go to sleep in your arms, listening to the song of my nightingale for the last time. That’s what I dream about. And here with you now, closer than I’ll ever be, I still dream that it might be possible. Because it isn’t.”
Nightingale’s smile waned, but she did not correct him. “The sum of my experiences,” Etienne continued, “are memories and events I wish I could sweep away. But there are too many. Too many faces.” He looked away from her and to the stars. “Too many tiny lights snuffed out, because of me, because of the choices I made, of my own free will. There are some sins that cleave too deeply into the heart. Old wounds that will always ache and bleed. Someone like me does not deserve the romantic ending that I would want to have. Someone like me needs to be forgotten, his particular page in history torn clean from the book and crumpled like a draft full of amateur errors.” Etienne turned his eyes to hers again. “The cruel joke of it is that after all this time, I think I finally understand the truth of what it is to love someone. To love in its purest, most incorruptible form, and to know you will carry that love to the last of your brief fragments of mortal time. Even if she doesn’t and shouldn’t love you in return.”
Etienne reached up to caress her cheek, knowing that although she might care for him in some way, it was not and would never be the equal of what he felt for her. “I do love you, Nightingale. Not because you cast that spell on me. I realized after you left that day that yes, you took away the magic, but it doesn’t matter what happens to the match after the fire begins to burn. You saved me from a dark noose I couldn’t see closing in on my own throat. You haunt me, infuriate me, captivate me. You are the most fascinating, complicated, and genuine woman I have ever known, and there are things I have to do now, and I want them to be for you, only for you. Once they are done…” He pressed his lips together and blew, and her little pile of luminous purple sand scattered into the wind.
Nightingale leaned in and kissed him. “Not forgotten,” she whispered, and invited him to sit up and look out with her. The individual grains of sand she had enchanted had spread across the beach and lent their light to the others. Now a blanket of warm and lush amethyst rose to meet the star-pierced sky. Etienne smiled, recognizing what she was trying to show him. It only affirmed what he had said to her, and what he felt for her. However, laced into it was a note of melancholy, of accepting that despite his carefully crafted dream of their future, this would be their only night together.
“Come swim with me,” Nightingale said.
He grinned. “Are you going to freeze the water on me like you did the first time?”
She bit her lip. “Ice is the furthest thing from my mind.”
The witch rose and pulled Etienne to his feet. Laughing, she led him to the water’s edge and flung herself in, vanishing beneath the bubbling crests of the waves turning one at a time onto the flat, cool sand of the shore. Etienne followed and leaped into the soothing embrace of deep, cool water, and of the woman who waited for him there, watched over only by the stars.
His goddess. His Nightingale.
The first and last woman he would ever love.
Harsh dawn came in an eon or two with an unheralded and unnoticed return to the very worldly confines of St. Iliane and an insistent banging against a flaking door. Etienne scratched at the irritation from the straw bed, dragged on a basic decency’s worth of clothing and tucked the old wool blanket tighter against the witch sleeping next to him. He brushed a long strand of hair away from her face and sat there in quiet contemplation until the door rattled again.
“Tête de cul! Ouvrir cette putain de porte!” No question as to who that was. Etienne left Nightingale in the back room and meandered his way to the front of the hut. Le Taureau nearly smashed the door in as Etienne began to turn the handle. Corporal Valnier was behind him, and stepped inside with considerably more respect and patience in his stride. “Pardonnez-moi, monsieur, am I disturbing your maudit beauty rest?” barked the behemoth.
Etienne noted the peculiar configuration his hair had assumed courtesy of the misshapen pillow on which it had been lying. “That wouldn’t be the worst thing for you to try sometime,” he replied.
“I’ve earned every scar on this face. And the men who gave them to me look a lot less pretty than I do now.”
“What is it you want?”
“This arrived for you. Just now.” Le Taureau slammed a folded piece of paper against Etienne’s chest, and since the man did not do anything by half-measure, Etienne winced and tried not to gasp.
He turned the paper over in his hand. It bore the red seal of the Bureau Centrale, which in itself was not that remarkable, as such things could easily be faked with a candle and some patience. But the series of digits scrawled across the back confirmed to him that the message was genuine, and that it originated with the Directeurs. He fought an abrupt trembling in his fingers as he moved to open it. The seal split and wax shards tumbled to the floor. Etienne scanned the note quickly; it was brief, as expected. He folded it again and nodded. “Well?” Le Taureau demanded.
“How soon can you be ready to go?” Etienne asked.
“How soon?” barked the giant. “This instant! J’en ai ral le cul with all this lolling around!”
Etienne looked to his faithful corporal. “Valnier?” He received the sparsest of nods. Sometimes even two words was too much for Valnier.
“One problem,” Le Taureau said. “Have you forgotten the missing element of this scheme?”
“No, he hasn’t,” announced Nightingale’s voice. The men spun about as one to see her emerge from the back hallway of the hut. She was clad in the same sleeveless black gown in which she had greeted Etienne upon her sudden return, and her long hair fell neatly to one side. Yet the flurry of cold that usually preceded her arrivals was absent. Perhaps she no longer saw the need for the dramatic flourish. It did not, in any way, Etienne thought, diminish the impact of her appearance in a room, though he could admit he was fairly biased. Love tended to do that.
“Déesse!” cried Le Taureau. That was not hyperbole; he really did look on the edge of tears, and happy enough to see her that he ignored the potentially troubling fact of her emergence from the same bedroom as that from which Etienne had presented himself just a few moments ago. Valnier, for his part, eyed her with an unreadable cast to his face, a man as unperturbed by the presence of a beautiful woman as he would be by a particularly beautiful piece of furniture. He and Etienne had undertaken so many missions to apprehend women just like her, and yet they were about to go into battle with this remarkable witch at their side. If Valnier had doubts, he was not sharing them. He was obeying orders as he always did. Without question and without hesitation. That was his code, and the only law that mattered to him.
Nightingale smiled at Le Taureau, and her acknowledgement of Corporal Valnier was emotionless. “It’s time?” she asked Etienne.
“First light tomorrow,” he replied. “You’re ready?”
“For longer than you can have imagined,” she said.
“If I might say something,” interrupted Le Taureau, “before we embark on this misbegotten campaign of mass suicide? I don’t know what peculiar turning of fate has brought together a bureaucrat, his mute servant and a true déesse together with the magnificence that is myself, but I would like to hope that it is not simply to break against the rocks. And while I would not go so far as to call the lot of you honorable, I will allow that you have more courage than your pampered exteriors would suggest. So if I have to die in service of a cause, then I am not completely horrified at the notion that it will be the same cause to which you have also pledged yourself.”
The other three were somewhat taken aback by Le Taureau’s sudden display of eloquence. “That was almost poetic,” Etienne said for them. “And you didn’t swear.”
“Casse-toi, branleur dégéneré,” Le Taureau snapped. “Avale mes couilles.”
“That’s more like it.”
Le Taureau shook his head and departed, followed in short order by Valnier, who had remained silent throughout the entire conversation. He had an almost theatrical sensibility in understanding entrance and exit cues, knowing instinctively when his master wanted moments alone. Etienne promptly forgot about them both. “I’ll have to give you the details of the plan,” he told Nightingale.
She shook her head. “I know them.” He did not need to ask how. “May I see the note?”
He handed it over, carefully, as one might lend another flaming branch. Nightingale drew a fingernail over the words as she read them, as if trying to scrape them away. Etienne saw her swallow. Despite the scope of her powers, she was still vulnerable to a very real fear. “First light?” she said.
“We should make the most of our time until then, don’t you think?”
The note fell from her hands, and they left it behind, wedged between the dusty timbers of the floor. Had anyone else stopped by and picked it up, they would have been perplexed by the message, unfamiliar as they would have been with the code established by the Bureau with Etienne before he had departed on his assignment. But the mere four words were enough, to the informed reader, to set in motion the last act of this particular drama, though none of the performers could be certain as to where, in the end, the playwright was directing them.
NEST FEATHERED. HAWKS HUNGRY.
* * *