Vintage, Part Ten

vintagetitle

No intro this time.  You’ve waited long enough.  Just on with the story.

The old joke was that Charmanoix was the only town in the entire country where you could get seasick in your own bed.  It had been constructed entirely on an uncountable array of wooden pillars to span the mouth of the lethargic Sept Frères River, as the miles of marshland on its banks had a tendency to swallow buildings whole.  It was, in fact, a rather remarkable feat of engineering, comprising an intricate mazework of canals and bridges connecting a thriving community of over three thousand across a quarter-mile span.  The locals had learned to tolerate the swaying of their homes and shops when the river awoke and tickled the aging pillars, but visitors would still find themselves scrambling for the nearest lavatory, or, failing that, a convenient railing over which they could discharge the contents of an upended stomach.

After two full days of hard riding, Etienne and the rump of his detachment trotted into Charmanoix by the only viable road through the marsh, just after sunset.  Determined to call as little attention to themselves as possible, Etienne led them to a small inn and bartered a pair of rooms in exchange for a livre and a sample of their dwindling supplies.  He was grateful for the meager comfort of a dry straw bed and hard pillow behind a locked door after too many consecutive nights left at the mercy of the elements, but he did not sleep.  Instead he relived his encounter with Nightingale over and over again, running the words in his head like an actor learning his lines.  In a way, the comparison was apt, in that he found himself cast for the first time into a role he did not instinctively know how to perform:  friend of the enemy.

As he stared at the ceiling and tried to ignore the rumbling from Valnier’s bed across the way – even the man’s snoring was limited to two harrumphs at a time – Etienne thought on the choice Nightingale had offered him.  Yes, he had done as she had asked and come to Charmanoix, but he had not yet fully committed to her and to her cause.  He had not done anything to compromise or sabotage his longtime employers.  He still had the option to walk away, and a small lingering part of him apparently immune to seduction was prodding at the rest to remain true to what he knew and what he valued.  The larger, more persuasive part was recalling his admittedly syrupy confession to her back there at the frozen lake and still finding it impossible to regret a single word.  He could not deny that what he felt for her was deeper and more intense than anything any other woman had managed to stir in him, including those with whom he had carried on extended physical relationships.  He had always been able to keep his heart closed, but Nightingale had batted those defenses aside with the flick of a magic-wreathed finger.  As nonsensical as that would have sounded to anyone on the outside of it, to him it was agonizing truth.  The fact that he had not carried out any deeds that might officially be deemed traitorous was irrelevant – the betrayal that mattered had already occurred.  The former Commissionaire remained, irrevocably, in love with a witch; with Nightingale.

How he longed to know her real name, and to hear her whisper his again.

Etienne rolled onto his side, his eyelids increasingly untouched by even inklings of slumber.  You owe those vile men nothing, she had said.  That had been hard to reconcile, even with the revelation of the Bureau’s use of magic in the construction of their weapons.  He understood the need to be able to battle one’s opponent on an equal or superior footing, but what did it say about the Bureau’s endless pronouncements on the mortal dangers of magic and the urgency to stamp it out?  Was it a case of do as we say, not as we do?  The rank stench of duplicity and hypocrisy churned the acid in Etienne’s gut.

His father had not been long in Etienne’s life, but Reynand de Navarre had been a staunch believer in remaining truthful to one’s ideals and morals no matter how challenging the circumstance.  He had also hated the Bureau with robust vitriol, so it was probably for the best that he had died of excessive drink long before he would see his son walk up those horrible steps for the first time.  In the void left by his father’s death, Etienne had craved clarity of purpose, and the Bureau had offered it to him.  For many years the arrangement had been mutually beneficial.  The problem, Etienne reasoned, was that he, like so many of his countrymen, had devoured and regurgitated on command the bromide that the Bureau was infallible, that it knew best, that its cause was just, no matter how many lives, innocent or guilty, that cause claimed.  But if the cause could not be followed to its end without betraying its founding principles, how could it be just?  How could one defend it?

You have much to atone for, Etienne…

Fingers of light pried apart the cracks in the walls, and Etienne realized that the night had gone and he had not once closed his eyes.  He had not had a proper rest ever since meeting Nightingale on the road outside Montagnes-les-grands.  Love, it seemed, made no allowances for sleep, nor did crises of conscience.  He sighed, stretched the stiffness from his arms, threw off his blankets and swung his feet to the floor, taking care not to generate any noises that might alert the fairly comatose yet annoyingly vigilant Corporal Valnier.  Etienne donned his clothes in silence, laced his boots and turned the latch in the door, always watching the corporal for any sign that he’d noticed him.  Seeing none, Etienne stepped out through the halls of the inn onto one of a thousand ponts in Charmanoix and waited for the sun to offer a proper greeting to the day.

Sticky heat spread its tentacles through the air as the merciless yellow menace hauled itself into the sky, and the salt-and-seaweed-flavored breezes rising from the river were no balm.  Sweat had become a most tedious companion as the drought lingered on, month after punishing month.  Etienne grimaced as he felt the first beads of the day pooling on his brow.  Head low, he ambled without direction, ducking around buildings and crossing bridges, listening to the rhythms of the locals.  Eventually, he found a quiet bridge and a railing on which he could lean and stare out into the world to watch it wake up.  Beneath him, a navy’s worth of longboats, barges and canoes bulging with wares and fellow wanderers navigated the canals, stopping at creaking jetties to heave out their passengers and cargo.  Children splashed in the shallows and old women with gnarled hands wringed out their laundry, and hollered at the children getting their clothes all wet.  Gulls circled overhead screaming out their hunger.  Men argued, ladies gossiped and everyone carried on with a perfectly ordinary little day, no different than the thousands that had preceded it and the thousands more that would follow after this one had been lost amidst more interesting memories.

The ordinariness of life was what Etienne had joined the Bureau Centrale to help protect.  The freedom to wash one’s clothes in the river or to sail a little boat along it on a sunny morning without fear of the dark powers of the witches tearing everything asunder.  As he cast his gaze along the canal at the scores of strangers crowding its edge, he paid particular attention to the women:  the elderly, the young, the comely, the plain, and he knew, instinctively, that at least a few, if not more of them down there, would have an unusual ability.  Perhaps that one lingering quietly behind the chatty fishmonger knew what others around her were thinking.  Perhaps the moods of the girl chasing her brother past the cloth vendors could disturb the weather.  Perhaps the woman sweeping off the doorstep of the tea house could see flashes of the future, or perhaps she was unusually lucky in gambling and in love.  Perhaps, to a certain degree, they were all witches.

It was an unspoken admission among the higher echelons of the Bureau that magic was far more widespread than they would care to admit to the general public, though it was not always as potent and theatrical as a radical exception like Nightingale made it seem.  Consequently, even with its unlimited financing from the Crown, the Bureau could not hope to capture every single woman out there who exhibited some minor sign of supernatural awareness.  Instead, efforts and attention had to focus on the “subjects” whose abilities presented the greatest and most immediate dangers, and it was left to fear to intimidate the remainder into denying their powers and remaining good, docile citizens, lest they be the next to be taken away.  What the Bureau Centrale dreaded the most, what would render it toothless, was the idea of magic becoming accepted, and ordinary.

A most un-ordinary ruckus clattered over the boards to his right as a passing girl stumbled on a twisted plank and spilled her enormous, overloaded basket of vegetables.  “Oh no!” she cried, struggling to race after the carrots and turnips rolling away from her.  Etienne turned and planted his foot in the path of a turnip as it tumbled toward the edge of the bridge.  Twisting and stomping about in what from a distance probably resembled a drunkard’s imitation of a provincial folk dance, he blocked vegetable after vegetable until the entire collection had come to a halt.  He bent to scoop up the escapees and return them to their warden, who was kneeling and loading them slowly back into her basket, trying to quell flustered cheeks.  “Thank you,” she whispered.

“Not at all,” said Etienne.  “Are you all right?”

She shrugged.  “I suppose.  Serves me right for trying to do it all in one trip.”  She was young and flaxen-haired, with not a line to be found in her pleasant, perfectly oval face.  Her hands were tiny, scarcely able to stretch the fingers around some of the larger turnips, and she was so slight of build Etienne was amazed she had been able to lift her burden.

“Might I be of some help?” he asked.  It was not as though he had any pressing plans.  Nightingale had told him that Commissionaire Meservey would be arriving tomorrow, so he had all today to wander wherever the winds saw fit to carry him.

“Oh no, it’s all right, I couldn’t, I–”

“It’s no inconvenience, I assure you,” Etienne said.  He did not wait for permission to place the last of the carrots back in the basket and hoist it under his arm.

The girl smiled as she stood and shook out the folds in her long skirts.  “Well, thank you very much,” she said, and offered him a brief, country curtsy.  “I’m Adelyra.”

He debated giving her a false name, but thought better of it.  “Etienne.”

“Very nice to meet you.  It’s not far, just beyond the Pont d’Eglise.”  A blank expression betrayed his unfamiliarity with the town’s byways.  “I didn’t think I recognized you,” Adelyra said with a smile.  “You’re visiting?”

“Just passing through.”

“How’s your stomach?”

“Better than your balance, I think.”

She laughed.  “Oh, you’re cheeky!”

“I’ve been called worse,” he admitted.  “Shall we?”

Carrying her basket of vegetables, Etienne fell in behind Adelyra and kept to her brisk pace across bridges and walkways and up and down stairs, a course he struggled to keep track of, knowing he’d eventually have to find his way back to the inn.  Their conversation was innocuous and irrelevant, characterized by the usual banter about the weather with a few tips from the cheerful girl on scenic spots throughout Charmanoix he should take the time to visit before moving on – apparently the sunsets on the Pont des Amants were the stuff of poetry.  He smirked at that, allowing himself to fantasize about experiencing such a setting with Nightingale at his side.  Though Adelyra’s verbosity grew a bit wearying, Etienne did appreciate the opportunity to converse with a stranger without preconceptions about the arrival of a Commissionaire tainting the exchange.  It felt human.

The Pont d’Eglise, which they reached after a good fifteen minutes’ walk, delivered them as its name suggested to a great church of carved stone walls and sculpted plaster finishes scraping at the sky.  Morning services were underway, and from behind closed and rather unwelcoming lacquered wooden doors drifted the choral monotone of a congregation united in prayers.  Etienne and Adelyra marched onward, the girl finally suspending her stream of chatter, out of deference, perhaps.  Past the church, buildings grew smaller and modest until they reached a decrepit row of stacked tenements – home, no doubt, to the poorest families of Charmanoix.

Stains and peeling paint marred sagging and crumbling walls.  Windows were boarded up or smashed, and the persistent salt scent of the river was overcome by a general whiff of decay.  An outside staircase pitted with rot connected the first level to the top, and Adelyra gestured to Etienne to follow her up.  For the majority of his life, Etienne’s experience of poverty had been confined to mere glimpses, from the lofty perch of one secure enough to know he would never be touched by it himself.  His visits to slum towns had always been blissfully temporary, with Calerre’s welcoming gilded edges never more than a few days’ ride back.  He knew, at least in theory, that places like what he was stepping into had to exist, though the idea of him ever setting foot in one had always been risible.  As Adelyra opened the door for him, he was struck in the face with a most distressing fusion of cold, of hopelessness, and of death.  It coiled itself around him like a serpent and squeezed.

What had once been a long attic shared by the narrow homes beneath had been converted to house two rows of single beds, each draped with a white blanket so that the lot resembled gapped teeth hanging apart in a final, desperate cry for breath.  The occupants of those teeth were men and women withered by more than their share of decades, confined here now as their ability to look after themselves had long since been stolen by their years.  Some of them slept, others moaned, a few kept up fervent dialogues with invisible friends.  The room smelled of sick and linen.  Sunlight flooding in from a large window on the rear wall did little to alleviate the dour and gray, providing only a suffocating warmth.  There was a sense of inevitability here, that the inhabitants of those beds entered them understanding they would never leave.

The only sign of anything resembling life was the much younger woman stamping towards Etienne and his new acquaintance, her eyebrows wrenched downward with dismay.  She was of a broader build than the wisp-slight Adelyra, and perhaps an inch or two shorter, but possessed of the same flaxen hair, tied back in a severe, strangled braid.  She parked herself before them and spat interrogation into Adelyra’s face.  “Where the hell have you been?”

“Gathering ingredients for the broth,” Adelyra said.  “I told you I would–”

“And who is this?”  The other woman tilted her head at Etienne but did not shift her eyes.  “What are you doing bringing him here?”

“This is Etienne.  He was helping me.”  Adelyra smiled.  “Etienne, this is Kathaline, my sis–”

Kathaline stomped on the last word.  “It’s Monsieur Hurland,” she said.  “It’s time.”

The cheer tumbled from Adelyra’s countenance like a painting falling from a loose nail.  “Wait here, please,” she mumbled to Etienne, and hurried to follow her sister to the last bed on the left side of the room.  Etienne set the basket of carrots and turnips on the floor.  Common decency demanded that he excuse himself without additional fuss and be on his way, but if there was a single adjective most unsuited to characterizing Etienne de Navarre, it was “common.”

Besides, the sisters were ignoring him, saving the balance of their attentions for the elderly man shivering in the tiny bed, his embers beginning to go out.  Etienne did not recall the last time he had seen a face so sad.  Even at first glance, he could tell that Monsieur Hurland was a pitiable old man ruing a misspent existence and innumerable wasted chances to change.  His skin was crumpled by regrets long unresolved, and his eyes needed to cry a thousand more tears.  Adelyra and Kathaline sat on either side of him, saying nothing, simply providing him the courtesy of not having to die alone.

Etienne remembered his father Reynand lying in a different bed, staining its blankets dark red with lumpy blood coughed from a stomach shredded by regular doses of whiskey and gin.  A greasy gurgling would rumble in his throat before uncontrollable spasms would send up another salvo, and though Reynand would try to cover his mouth there was just too much of it, his body quite literally devouring itself and expelling the digested pieces.  Etienne recalled few of his father’s last words to him, but he could not forget that terrible wet sound, a requiem for a small man undone by his failings.

Monsieur Hurland remained coherent enough to form words, though the effort was becoming too much for him.  “Where is my boy?  Where is Jacquot?” he pleaded.

“Jacquot is with you,” Adelyra said.

“Liar!” screamed Monsieur Hurland, flailing at a dwindling reserve of strength.  “Oh, mon petit fils.  Do you know where he’s gone?  He needs to wear his belt.  He always forgets to wear his belt.  The other boys, they pull down his trousers.  They want to shame him in front of the girls.”  He broke down into sobs.  “I couldn’t save you, mon fils.  I couldn’t stop the sickness.  I’m so sorry.  Jacquot, I’m so sorry.”  More words bubbled out, but they devolved into slurred, incomprehensible wails.  Those too began to lose volume and falter, and soon Monsieur Hurland could only move his jaw and try to force out confessions that now would go forever unheard.  Etienne’s mouth dried up.  Death had slipped inside the walls and would not depart without claiming what it craved most.

He had not been present when his father hacked out his last breath.  Etienne had been unable to bear the stench of a man’s flesh rotting away while his heart still beat.  He had run until his legs gave out, down to the harbor where he’d once held his father’s hand and watched the ships come in, secreted himself in an alley in a tight ball of young boy and cried.  As an adult, Etienne had seen the lives of hundreds of men be snuffed in an instant, at the point of a sword blade or the edge of an executioner’s axe.  So many had been on his order.  He had grown indifferent to watching death when it was quick.  When it was drawn out like this, when one could see life departing the body one spark at a time, the beautiful and tragic fragility of existence became a cold reminder of one’s own limits, and the utter helplessness of men in the face of fate.

Etienne wondered if Nightingale, with her magic, her incredible capacity to bend reality to whatever shape she desired, felt the same.

Adelyra and Kathaline shared a knowing look with each other.  They reached across the bed to clasp hands.  Eyes closed, and where their fingers intersected, a warm white glow began to shimmer.  It grew and spread over the form of Monsieur Hurland, the gentle lap of a calm tide brushing the shore, urging those straying in the shallows to journey with it now into its depths.  As the light traveled up his withered body, his shivering stopped, and as it touched the crown of his head the agony vanished from his face, those thousand unshed tears forgotten.  He stopped trying to speak, stopped scratching at the last seconds of his life, and turned his gaze upwards.  Etienne felt himself leaning in closer, searching dimming eyes for the absolution the old man must have longed for, and realizing that a part of him wanted this total stranger to find it.  Ignored was his training, the proper procedure of gathering his men and returning in force to haul these two sister witches off in chains for re-education.  Instead he stood with them, keeping silent, respectful vigil.

Monsieur Hurland seemed to focus on something beyond the ceiling, far beyond the perception of those bearing witness.  He looked as though he was embarrassed to have never noticed it before.  The white light embraced him completely now.  Serenity danced across his face, and he smiled.  Fear had become courage, regret anticipation.  “My word,” he breathed.  A joyful schoolboy’s giggle fell from quivering lips.  “It’s so…”

And he was gone.

The white light swept Monsieur Hurland’s body away with it, leaving behind an empty bed with the sisters still sitting on it.  They released their hands and Adelyra dabbed a tear from her eye.

Silence fell heavy on Etienne.

Such unspeakable evil, Nightingale had said, mocking his comfortable, indoctrinated prejudices.  Was there evil in helping a sad, dying man pass with peace and promise?  How would the Bureau Centrale have treated Monsieur Hurland?  To what fate would they have condemned him?

He did not notice Kathaline standing in front of him, fists balled on her hips.  “What are you still doing here?” she demanded.

Etienne understood now why Nightingale had sent him here.  It was for far more than just a chat with an old friend.  He had reached that moment he had fretted about all night, the point where he would have to commit to this terrifying course or turn back to the safe and the known.  The Etienne de Navarre of only a few short weeks ago would say nothing and merely walk out of this room, but he was compelled by whatever drove this new Etienne – love for Nightingale, a desire to atone, perhaps at some level a wish for his late father to be proud of him – to remain, and opt for the most honest path available.  Betrayal in the heart would now be matched by a betrayal in action.  He returned Kathaline’s aggressive stance with a composed and even stare.  “You are in danger,” he said.

Adelyra joined them.  “What are you talking about?”

“You need to go,” said Etienne.  “Both of you.  Get out of Charmanoix.  Get far away.  You haven’t much time.”

Kathaline rolled her eyes.  “This is ridiculous,” she said, and shot a glance at her sister.  “Who is this person?”  Adelyra did not respond.  She tugged nervously at her hair instead.

Bells chimed in the distance – low, sonorous, ominous bells.  Etienne pushed past the two young witches, cranked open the large window and looked out over the townscape.  Squinting both at the hot sun and the deafening peal pouring in, his eyes darted over the buildings and canals, hunting for the source of the alarm.  He located it on a bridge not far from here, a procession of men and horses advancing up the main waterside street, unmistakable high-flying black-and-gold banners portending the same story he’d reenacted himself countless times in communities just like this one.  Etienne cursed the signature efficiency under his breath.  “It’s too late,” he said.  “He’s here.”

*  *  *

Part Eleven – sheesh, never thought it would get this far – is in the works.

Vintage, Part Nine

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Happy New Year!  Well, ten days too late I suppose.  Here’s part nine, in which a long-expected meeting finally unfolds.  Take it away… um, me, I guess.

“You’ve caught me with my britches down,” said Etienne.  In any other circumstance, that would have sounded suave – witty even, delivered in the surroundings to which he was habituated – but here, it was like yanking broken words out of the cracking throat of a gangly boy, squirming to conceal his obvious and embarrassing arousal in the presence of an alluring woman.  And he could only squirm from the waist up.

“Britches are hardly your style,” said the witch, her amusement in his predicament as palpable as the ice in the air that preceded her.  “You think them too fey for the menace a Commissionaire is meant to project.”  Nightingale’s boots made no footfalls as she treaded upon the solid block that clenched him below his navel, and her breath remained invisible even in the cold.  She circled him, a predator evaluating its helpless catch, deciding which succulent portions to eat first.

Etienne tried to steel himself against shivers.  His was a strange and not altogether unappreciated state of desire laced with legitimate dread.  At the least, he was afforded more than a fleeting glimpse of her.  He could drink her in, sate himself with the sight of her, devour every fraction of an inch of that hypnotic face.  Hers was a shaming beauty, one that could remind any man how small and unimportant he was, how existence was wasted on the lumpen hodgepodge of body parts that was the male, when it was possible for nature to birth such a divine creature ostensibly from the same raw materials.  There was a slyness to her though, a discernible angle to her features hinting at mischief and mirth, and a raw confidence to her poise suggesting that above all else, she knew how immensely powerful she was, that the world and its men were very much playthings to be toyed with at her will.  Every so often, tiny flashes of purple light would dance about her hands and fingertips like waltzing fireflies, as though mortal flesh could scarcely contain the waves of pure magic coursing within her.

Etienne’s lower half chafed against its imprisonment.  Dizziness swarmed his head.  He had to remind himself of the necessity of breathing.

“Depends on the occasion, I suppose,” he offered, struggling to maintain at least a metaphorical footing against her.  “What have you done to my men?”  He looked to shore, over the bizarre tableau of Corporal Valnier and the other soldiers frozen in time by a fire that itself did not move.

Lacerating eyes remained fixed on him, analyzing him from hair to stomach.  He imagined she was perceptive enough to read all his weaknesses as easily as if he were to spontaneously confess to them.  “Nothing permanent,” she said.  “I’ve merely kept them from interrupting.”

“Considerate of you.”

“Hmm,” said she.  Madness, thought he.  Even mere consonants sounded exotic from her lips.

Etienne twisted his head to keep her within sight as she paced around him.  He could not abide not seeing her, even for a few seconds.  “Might I ask, though, what it is they are not permitted to interrupt?  Presumably the accused has the right to know.”

Nightingale grinned.  “You’re afraid I’m going to transform you into something… slimy?”

“I assume you could, if you so wished.”

She tilted her head, confirming his assumption.  “Crawling the earth for a time might instill in you some much-needed humility,” she said.  “But as entertaining as it might be for some, that is not why I am here.”  The witch came to a graceful halt directly in front of him.  Etienne’s head swam with her subtle perfume.  It was not a floral scent, but one still indelibly of the bounty of the earth, and if its purpose was to lessen her ability to tantalize him, it was failing.

“To what, then, do I owe the pleasure of your visit?” he asked.

“Curiosity.”

“About me?”

“About your type,” said Nightingale.  “About a man who clearly revels in the company of women but has no compunction about condemning hundreds of them in the same breath.”

“I do not condemn women,” Etienne said, as forcefully as he was able.

Nightingale laughed, and though the tone of it was obviously meant to be derisive, she could not bury completely the enchantment inherent in her voice.  “Of course.  A witch is no woman, is she.  Though she has blood, flesh and bone, hopes and cares and dreams and fears, though her heart can know love and weep at its loss, that which is most special about her is what finally denies her a soul.”  She held up a palm, and a flicker of violet light rose from its center like a thin line of smoke from a snuffed candle, coiling itself into curves and spirals that sparkled and reshaped themselves before their eyes.  As it brightened the light began to expand, coalescing into a defined form, a small, round body with wings.  Etienne could not help but smile – it was a nightingale.  The ethereal image sprang to life, chirping a few notes of its unmistakable song into a surprised darkness before flying straight up from the witch’s hand and bursting above their heads into a shower of purple sparks that tumbled gently around them like snow.  “Such unspeakable evil,” she said quietly.

Training, experience, the ethos chiseled into granite in Etienne’s mind were screaming one truth to him while instinct and yearning whispered another, entirely different, and far more enticing.  He knew he could, right now, surrender to whatever the witch wanted of him; abandon whomever Etienne de Navarre had built himself to become in a frenzy brought on by unrequited lust for the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen – and knowing that she would not likely return any affections he might offer to her did not really matter.  Some part of him though, even on an unconscious level, still remembered his assignment, and the carrot dangling within a fingertip’s grasp, the only hurdle the same beautiful woman standing in front of him, enrapturing him further with her display of magic.  Loyalty was stretched to a single taut string beginning to fray, thread by delicate thread.

“A Commissionaire’s duty is to enforce the law,” he said.  He could think of no other response.

“The law is an abomination,” said Nightingale with a spiked venom he could almost taste.  “Written by hypocrites and adhered to by blind cowards too enamored of their own meager power to comprehend the sheer inhumanity of their actions.”

Etienne swallowed broken glass.  “Am I one of those cowards?”

The witch folded her arms and narrowed her gaze.  “Are you?”

“I am in love with you,” Etienne said.

He wanted to catch the words as soon as he heard himself say them, but it seemed futile to belabor the point any longer.  It wasn’t as though he was telling her something she couldn’t already divine from the ample evidence his body was providing.  Indeed, Nightingale was not taken aback, though he thought he perceived a definite shift in her demeanor.  “I’ve thought of nothing and no one else since I first saw you,” Etienne went on.  “My life has fallen to tatters since you entered it.  As I’ve struggled to try and understand why you chose to reveal yourself to me, how you could imprint yourself upon me with nothing more than a blown kiss.  You have ruined me, and at the same time made me grateful to be ruined by you.  If this is only the result of one of your spells, so be it, but I cannot believe that passions this deep and consuming could be anything but genuine.  I will love you, then, whether with you or forever in your absence, and I will dream of an elusive day when you might return what I offer to you now.  I am yours, fair Nightingale… do with me what you will.”

She crouched before him, reached out a hand, and touched the tips of her fingernails gingerly to his cheek.  A charge leaped through him and goosebumps erupted across his skin.  He could not quell the shivers now, even as his heart pumped a gusher of hot blood into his head.  Etienne wanted so desperately to lean forward and taste the amaranthine lips, to lose his hands in the lush tresses spilling around her perfect face.  But she kept a discreet, noticeable distance, and those soft fingertips could just as swiftly erupt with destructive power should he attempt an unwelcome advance.

Yet she had only a smile for him.  “So… there is one part of you that is not cowardly.”

Baring himself had not granted him the relief from the inner torment he had hoped for.  She was correct; who knows how many hundreds of witches like her had gone to their deaths on his order alone?  And he had the gall to expect that this one would see him differently than what he was?  A murderer of women?  Even with her fingers against his cheek he felt more distant and disconnected from her now, sensing that this fiery moment would pass soon into memory and be lost.  He felt small, and meriting absolutely nothing.  “For whatever it may be worth,” he said.

And still, Nightingale retained among her many powers the ability to surprise him.  “Much, perhaps,” she said.  “If you are willing to help me.”

She stood, and Etienne felt the urge to weep as she pulled away.  Nightingale held out her palm again.  A flash of purple light bloomed upon it, this time becoming a shape that was very solid and very real.  “You know what these are,” she said, dangling them from her fingers.  Etienne nodded at the sudden appearance of the Bureau’s standard-issue manacles.  Nightingale rubbed at the untarnished silvered metal with her thumb.  “These trinkets have given your sort quite the advantage against those like me.  Have you ever paused to wonder where they came from?”

Etienne shook his head slowly.  Nightingale grinned.  “This metal was forged with magic.”

Of course.

She tossed the manacles onto the solid surface in front of him.  He reached down to touch the evidence of the Bureau’s complete betrayal of its principles.  The collars that held witches’ abilities in check.  The dagger he had used on Le Taureau, the swords that generated those peculiar blue sparks when they struck.  Every Commissionaire out there and every soldier under his command was waging a war against magic with magical weapons, by order of the very Directeurs who professed to consider magic a plague upon humanity that needed to be cut, violently when necessary, from its body.  Etienne’s stomach twisted on itself.  He thought of those three damnable men sharing decanters of wine and congratulating themselves on their supreme cleverness.  Hypocrites all around.

Who, and what exactly, had he been fighting for all this time?  All these long years?

For the first time tonight, he did not look up as he spoke to Nightingale.  “How?” he asked.

“It is an alloy of silver and iron, bonded by a spell that obstructs magic.  The manacles and the collar restrain a witch who wears them much as an anchor holds a ship.  The swords, no doubt, will pierce any magical defense she might try to create for herself.  Quite ingenious, really.  Your Directeurs should be commended.”

“Liars,” Etienne said.

Nightingale laughed again.  “Is it so difficult to conceive that Michel Ste-Selin might pursue something like this?  Do you not think old Theniard Preulx cannot see an amusing irony in employing the very power he so despises against those he has devoted his life to hunting down?”

Beautiful, and logical to the last.  Etienne had been content to use these same tools for years; there could be no doubt about their effectiveness against the enemy.  Besides, you did not question the Bureau Centrale.  You did your job with the armaments they supplied.  It was never his place to question any of it.  What good would it have done, anyway?  Questions only caused problems.  Do the job, collect the pay, lose it at the casino, go out again and commence the cycle anew.  Such a simple life it had been, and as utterly illusory as any trick a witch could weave.  He smirked at himself at his earlier notion of abandoning who Etienne de Navarre was.  Clearly there was no “Etienne” to abandon.  Everything had been taken from him now.

He looked up, into that impossibly beautiful face.  “What are you asking of me?”

Nightingale crouched in front of him again.  “The Bureau cannot make these weapons on their own.  This is the work of witches.  I need to know where they are being made, and by whom.”

“I don’t know,” said Etienne.  “I’ve never been involved in supply or procurement.”

“But you know someone who has.  Serge Meservey.”

“Serge?  He is another Commissionaire, like me.”  Correction required.  “Like I was.”

“Recruited, purposefully, into the Bureau from the Gendarme Royale, where he served with distinction as engineer of arms,” the witch informed him.  “He is currently on his way to the town of Charmanoix, where he intends to arrest a pair of sister witches who minister to the infirm there.  He will arrive in three days.  If you leave immediately on the morrow, you can be there in two.”

“How do you know this?”  Directeur Ste-Selin’s warning loomed in his mind.  We grow concerned that Nightingale may have compromised the Bureau itself, that she may have an informant or multiple informants within these walls…  Etienne doubted he was the only Bureau man to find Nightingale’s charms so persuasive, to push him now over the brink of treason.

“It doesn’t matter.  I will meet you again once you have spoken to Meservey.”

“Wait, I…” Etienne choked on the words.  “This is very difficult.”

“You are fond of presenting people with a clearly defined choice, so allow me to do the same for you now,” Nightingale told him.  “You can help a witch to tear down an utterly corrupt institution that has the blood of thousands of innocent women on its hands and has seen fit to throw you to the wolves for its own selfish gain, or, you can remain a coward, remain loyal to those who have betrayed you, and continue your fruitless pursuit of the mysterious Nightingale until old age turns your bones to dust.  The only guarantee is that if you choose the second path, you will never see me again.”  She leaned closer, her lips within reach of his.  Dieux, how he wanted them so.  “You have much to atone for, Etienne,” she whispered.  And you owe those vile men nothing.”

“Tell me your name,” Etienne pleaded.

Nightingale only smiled.

A flash of light whited out the scene.  Etienne fell.  Warm water splashed over his chest as he plunged back into the lake, liquid once again.  His arms steadied the rest of him, and his head bobbed on the surface as he looked around for her.  But she was gone, vanished as easily as her magic allowed her.  Beating down a simmering sadness at her absence, he looked to shore, to see the fire crackling as it should and his men milling about as if nothing had ever occurred.  Resigned, Etienne paddled inward, in no great hurry to join them.

“Good swim?” Corporal Valnier asked him after he had reached shore and collected and donned his clothes.  Etienne tossed him a disinterested nod.  He sat away from the men and stared into the fire, thinking of her, wondering if it had been real, if he had become lost in a waking dream.  If his exhausted, sun-stroked mind had conjured the perfect fantasy for him, the stunning, magical woman who was by turns both demure and provocative.  Such a creature could not truly be real.  The compulsion he felt towards her seemed to wane, and his head cleared enough for a modicum of sanity to trickle back inside.  Where did his loyalties ultimately lie?  Should he do as she asked, or should he turn tail back to Calerre?  Whose argument was more compelling – the three Directeurs, or the witch they’d ordered him to bring back in shackles for imprisonment and likely torture?

What did he value more – his career or his soul?

“What’s next?” asked Valnier, interrupting his train of thought.  The others all looked to him for the answer, to provide some purpose to this quest that had been, to date, too costly by far.

“Make sure you have your gear assembled before you turn in.  I don’t want to waste time packing in the morning,” Etienne told them.  “We’ll be heading out at first light.”

Corporal Valnier nodded to the men, who went off to gather up the remnants of the company’s supplies.  “Where to?” he asked.

Etienne waited a long moment before answering.  “Charmanoix,” he said finally.  “I need to go see a friend.”

* * *

And it keeps rolling on… 26K words now, making this the single-longest ongoing blog project I’ve undertaken, bypassing last April’s A to Z challenge.  Well, if it wasn’t fun, I wouldn’t keep doing it…

The Pact – A Short Story Collaboration (Compiled Post)

Graham Milne:

This is the first reblog I’ve ever done, and it’s a privilege: the first time I participated in a joint writing project with a group of folks so talented my head was left spinning at their creativity and the craft inherent in their wordsmithery. All credit due to Nillu Stelter for gathering us together and setting us out on the journey. I can’t wait to work on the sequel!

Originally posted on Nillu Nasser Stelter:

You’ll find the combined three parts of our short story collaboration ‘The Pact’ below, based on the Surrealist game Exquisite Corpse. Thanks, first and foremost, to all the contributing writers. You’ll find their bios and contact details at the end of the post. Thank you especially to Jess West & Jo Blaikie, who lent a supportive hand on the editing. Jess also pulled together the image you see here. Hope you enjoy it.

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Nillu Nasser Stelter

He slept in a room full of colour and familiar objects, but the silence crept under the door and touched his face. A blue-black curtain of darkness still hung in the sky. Unease gripped him. He rolled out of bed to look for his mother.

The door handle spun easily in his hand as he padded out into the hallway. The house was dark and didn’t look much like his house at…

View original 4,435 more words

2014: The Year That Was and Will Never Be Again

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.  Witnesseth henceforth the spoils:

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 18,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 7 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report, if that floats your particular boat.

As many of us seem to live by the credo that an unexamined life is not worth living, December 31st offers us the perfect chance to cast our gazes backward upon feats both accomplished and fallen short.  Insofar as we limit our lens to this blog, it was a year of new roads taken with just as many varying degrees of success.  There are some posts here that I’m very proud of and others that inspire nothing but a shrug.  As always I’m disappointed that I don’t write more.  Sticking to a writing schedule becomes problematic when the priorities of life, work and family have a tendency to push it far down the list.

Still, there was some good work done here this past annum, and I had the honor of receiving the coveted Freshly Pressed award back in February, for a post about Justin Bieber, of all things.  What made it really special for me though was seeing some of the writer friends I’ve made receive the award themselves in due course:  Rachael, Drew, Debbie, Amira and Nillu.  I was incredibly proud of all of them, and one of the things that excites me most about 2015 is getting to continue to read their inspiring and divinely crafted words – along with many others whose Freshly Pressing is undoubtedly a mere matter of time.

I suppose two groups of posts really stand out for me, as concerns my own work.  The first was my participation in April’s A to Z blog challenge, which involved 26 posts in 30 days, and I chose, probably from a bout of temporary madness, to try and find an alphabetical list of songs that had some meaning for me throughout my life upon which I could expound at length.  In some ways it was one of the easiest writing assignments I’ve ever given myself, peeling back the layers to put a little more of my experiences out there for the world to peruse, rather than simply commenting on the course of events affecting others.  And I was delighted to be joined in the challenge by two terrific writers who provided plenty of encouragement along the way, both in their comments on my posts and the imagination showcased in their own:  the amazing Joanne and the irrepressible Gunmetal Geisha.  Thank you for so much.

The second was the little tale that has occupied this blog exclusively for the last four months:  Vintage.  It began with a dream of the image that, ironically, closes the most recent chapter:  a beautiful witch standing over a man she’s frozen in a lake.  From that single still has sprung a sprawling story that has given me a new opportunity to stretch and explore the power of words, and many thanks must go out to you readers who have stuck with me during this radical change of direction.  The new year will see me returning to my usual bailiwick, but Vintage will continue to unfold on a semi-regular basis and once it is finished it will be made available here as a complete PDF you can download and peruse to your heart’s content.

As I write this there are a little over six hours left in 2014, and my observations suggest that few of us will be sad to see it go.  The world really took it in the teeth this year, and the bad guys got away with way too much.  But turning the page on this calendar offers us a chance to regroup and reboot and come at our challenges armed with a fresh infusion of optimism – the world’s most renewable resource.  I’m not sure where I’ll be on December 31, 2015, or what will have transpired between now and then (I’m not very hopeful of the release of hoverboards at this point), but we’re only limited in the realization of dreams by choosing not to go after them at warp speed.  I’ll be turning 40 this coming year, and when you start to accept that there are fewer years ahead than there are behind, your perception shifts.  No one wants to look back on their life with the phrase I should have.

Happy New Year, everyone, and whatever you wish for 2015, may you find the courage to chase it, wisdom to understand it and above all else, joy in the accomplishment.

Vintage, Part Eight

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Hope you’ve had/are having a great holiday!  Here is a belated Christmas present for you.  Enjoy.

Hooves blurred into a thumping drone as they battered the ground beneath him, enough to pierce the ringing in his ears.  Etienne stabbed his fingers into his palms as he clutched onto the reins, certain that to loosen his grip by even a hair meant being dismembered, probably in incremental portions, by the pack of would-be wolfhounds trailing behind him.  Surprisingly uncouth of them to have reacted this adversely to watching their munificent leader be stabbed.  Impoliteness aside, they were damned dogged in their pursuit, and it was by only the most bizarre of happenings that Etienne had managed to extricate himself from their custody in the first place.

He had known, even as he had reached into his vest pocket back in St. Iliane, that he and his men had no chance of escaping that room, let alone the town.  They were surrounded, unarmed, and seated, hardly a prime tactical position.  The best Etienne could have hoped for was a negotiated surrender and exactly what Le Taureau had insisted upon – that they march away half-clothed and humiliated.  Igniting a confrontation under those circumstances was, in a word, idiotic.

But Etienne’s ego had demanded it.  He was already humiliated.  Mortified that men he had dismissed as simpletons had outsmarted him, that his mind was so befuddled by thoughts of Nightingale that he had lost his perception and his ruthlessness.  And, on hearing a crude ruffian like Le Taureau drool over her, inflamed by a sudden and uncontrollable flash of jealousy.  Base emotions that he had long ago learned to master and keep out of his business, driving him once again as if he were a pimply adolescent incensed by the appearance of a rival for a young lady’s affections.

Even now, clinging to this horse’s neck and racing away from St. Iliane and Le Taureau’s men, he had wits enough about him to understand how stupid and shortsighted he’d been, and that he was alive only thanks to chance – thanks to the unique, and frankly, inexplicable properties of the silvered metal from which his dagger had been forged.

Metal made no sound scraping against cotton as Etienne snatched the dagger from its concealed sheath.  But everyone heard the crunch and squish and ensuing scream as he plunged it straight through Le Taureau’s hand.  As the dagger severed the last of the flesh on its downward thrust and cleaved through to embed itself in the wood of the table beneath, a tremendous wave of blunt force had erupted from its tip, expanding instantly in all directions and blasting every nearby soul quite dramatically off his feet.  Le Taureau’s men, encircling the table, had borne the worst of it as they had the misfortune to have walls impeding their trajectory.  They were propelled through the splintering beams and panels of the exploding hall, and left Etienne, Corporal Valnier and the group who’d been sitting a much cleaner path through which to be hurled after them.

He heard nothing; the sound of the world was drowned by the whine in his ears cutting through his skull.  He pushed himself up, looked up at the chunks of debris still raining from the sky through the smoke that hovered just above the ground.  There was a lumpen mass beneath him.  Etienne had come to rest on top of one of Le Taureau’s men, or rather what was left of the man, as this one had gone straight through a particularly thick plank of wood that had, in turn, gone straight through him.  Swallowing retches, Etienne peeled himself off the body and rolled free, arms and legs as flimsy as fabric as he tried to rise.  He could not get a good sense of the scene, of how many of the bodies lying near him were threats, how many were friendly and how many, regardless of allegiance, would simply never move again.  Etienne began to see the other villagers emerge from beyond the smoke, saw stupefied and fearful expressions crest into rage as they spotted him.  To the east, a horse’s cry broke through the fog, and Etienne bolted for it, the angry shouts aimed at him blissfully unheard.  The fence surrounding the horse pen had been blown apart, and Etienne leaped onto the nearest mount, seized the reins and gave it a hard kick in the ribs.  They were clear of the smoke in only a few seconds, and the wreckage of St. Iliane began to fall away.

It had not been long before other survivors had availed themselves of the remaining horses and set out after him.  However, Etienne was not sure where he was leading them, if he could allow himself a spare thought to ponder it.  The pitiless sun was sinking lazily to his right, so he must have been heading south, though the jerking course through the wilderness he and the horse were following could scarcely be called true.  Wherever they turned, ahead seemed only miles and miles of frail, browned scrub and the dry earth from which it sprang.  Direction was not the priority, distance was, and right now he needed much more of it between himself and his pursuers.

Who were those men?  As though, when a man has a blade to your neck, it matters who tailors his clothes.  To Etienne they needed to be nothing more than a faceless monolith, thinking and moving as one giant melding of man and horse, possessed of a single, unchanging, unwavering intent:  him, captured, or dead.  Presented with garnish to Le Taureau and his bleeding, likely gangrenous hand.  Everything else was irrelevant and a distraction, and distractions cost speed.

Etienne risked a glance back over his shoulder, through the curving trail of dust clouds simmering up from where hoofprints had cracked the ground and back toward the receding contours of the hills that concealed St. Iliane on the other side.  He could not see anyone else.  His fingers relaxed their chokehold on the reins as the longed-for sensation of relief dared to trickle its way up from the constant churning in his gut.  He even felt the creeping inklings of a smile at the corners of his lips.  Not a satisfied smile, since that would require a level of delusion about one’s grandeur that even his usual arrogance would not permit, but more the realization that there would indeed be another day for him at the end of this one that had seen him so close to a most final defeat.  The smile was even edging the to threshold of a laugh when the ground quite literally felt out from under him.

Looking aft, Etienne had not noticed the approaching change in terrain, or more precisely the sudden interruption of their path by a downward slope.  The horse handled it well enough, regaining its footing after only one misstep, but Etienne, unprepared, required just that much longer to steady himself, and in that space where time is measured in fractions of breaths, said fractions can mean the difference between remaining seated upon one’s horse and shaking one’s head at the close call, or tumbling sideways out of the saddle and rolling end over end to a bruised stop at the very bottom of the dale.

Etienne wheezed and sat up to watch his deliverance gallop onwards without him.  Despite himself, he let loose with a flurry of oaths casting aspersions upon its parentage, and turned himself to the question of locating a decent place to hide, given that the option of escape had now, well, escaped.

Thirst filled his throat with sandpaper and squeezed blood from blistered lips.  Hunger had long since evolved from a nuisance easily dismissed to a persistent, scraping gnaw.  Exhaustion crept up on him and tied weights to his eyelids, but Etienne willed himself awake and vigilant, secreted behind a wall of rocks, waiting for the veil of night to slip over the landscape.  His ears probed the desolate terrain for the merest squeak of movement, finding only the whistle of hot desert wind.  It had been hours now, but he refused to move until he could be certain of his safety, certain that anyone from St. Iliane and Le Taureau had at the last given up the hunt.

Etienne propped himself up against a cracked boulder and winced as it needled at his back.  Pain was such an unfamiliar sensation to him, the absence of comfort a theft of his sense of himself.  His life was casino tables and gorgeous women and fine wine, not clinging to survival by threads in a forsaken wilderness.  But once he knew that he was safe, what then?  He was alone, without a mount or supplies – or allies for that matter – miles from anywhere resembling the civilization he deserved.  He was beginning to resign himself to the notion that this fate was of his own making.  That he had been foolish to accept this task from the Bureau, regardless of their inducements.  It would not impact them a single iota if he was to fail.  They could write him and his men off with a few flourishes of a quill and simply assign someone else to the pursuit of Nightingale.  Perhaps they had selected him deliberately for a mission of futility for fear of his ambition and status, his unparalleled record of success.  Perhaps the paranoid Directeur Ste-Selin had viewed the Nightingale situation as the perfect opportunity to rid himself of a skilled competitor.  Would it not amuse the man, then, to learn of Etienne’s plight now.  Abandoned, lost, likely dying, all for the obsessive love of a witch whose real name he did not even know.  And for Etienne, the worst part of it still was the notion that he might never see her again.

Her beauty sang across the divide of perception as sleep tried to claim him.  She would be there waiting in his dreams as she always was, every night, every sliver of a nap even.  He only needed to let go, to succumb to the weariness, to her siren call.  He knew, though, that this time he would not wake, and any chance of encountering the real Nightingale would be lost forever.  That kept his eyes open, his mind focused.  He needed to endure, for her.  He dared not depart a world in which she existed.  Pas encore.

The cry of crows shattered the silence.  Etienne shook himself from his haze and peered out from the outcropping of stone, across the valley floor.  Shadows grew long and the sun turned the rouge of an old harlot’s lips as it drifted beyond the hills to the west, but the angry heat continued to sap every last drop of moisture out of the ground and out of Etienne’s body.  Strength in his limbs had become but a memory now.

Dust stirred beneath the dwindling rose petal sky and shot a lingering jolt of alertness through his veins.  Etienne’s vision had grown glassy, but within the panorama of blur he could see shifting blobs of dark, their movements too orderly to be the randomness of nature.  There was a sound to it, too, a crescendo and fade of indistinguishable bursts, their duration shifting from short to long.  Etienne fell back behind the stones, shut his eyes and diverted his attention to his ears.  Perhaps it was nothing?  The world was not inclined to be kind to him this day, however, and the longer he listened, the more those blurred sounds sharpened themselves into the recognizable patois of voices.

Bite du diable.  They had found him.

It would not be much of a last stand.  Etienne could no longer move his legs.  He groped at the ground for something he could use to defend himself:  a rock, a stick, anything with a pointed end, but blistered fingers came away only with mounds of gravel that slipped between them.

The voices were getting closer, and they were shouting, calling out.  The words were still a muddle, buried beneath the din of hooves against earth.  Perhaps now, Etienne wondered, it might be time to let go, to answer Nightingale’s call, to give himself fully to the visions of her.  He saw the beautiful face beaming at him, the slender fingers draped in the violet light of her magic beckoning him to surrender to her, the perfect lips forming the shape of his name.  Etienne.  And it occurred to him that he had no idea what her voice sounded like, that perhaps it sabotaged her willowy, ethereal presence by being an oddly-accented, raspy, tone-deaf squeak.  That amused him, and he laughed as consciousness finally slipped away.

Etienne.  “Etienne.  Etienne!”

Someone was shaking his shoulders, hard.  Etienne clawed at the darkness, desperate to remain its prisoner.  Waking offered him nothing; in slumber he was carefree in the company of his fantasies.  But he was pulled up and away from the abyss, hauled by the legs like a rabbit to market, and flailing fingers could not keep him anchored.  Light pried apart his eyelids and wedged the real world back in, and he was greeted not by some anonymous thug but by the welcome visage of Corporal Valnier.  “Monsieur,” he said once Etienne was aware of him, reverting to their custom.  “You’re safe.”

“Valnier,” Etienne whispered.  Every halting syllable scraped over a razor.  “Still… no more… than two words for me?”

The corporal grinned as he pushed a skin full of blissful water to his master’s lips.  “Drink up.”

They replenished his fluids, gave him enough food to quell his irate stomach and tended to the worst of his wounds, and at Etienne’s insistence got him swiftly onto a horse and their company riding onwards to the south before the first stars began to twinkle in the night.  There were only six of them now.  Valnier was sure that at least four had been lost back in St. Iliane, and there had been no sign of the others.  As the corporal related it, in his economical manner, of course – Etienne had to piece together the missing parts of the tale with observation and deduction – despite the immediate casualties, the company had made a decent fight of it and managed to retrieve a good portion of their gear and weapons in the confusion, before setting out after the posse that had been pursuing Etienne and, eventually, running them all down.  Etienne allowed himself a smile at that, though he was not enamored to hear that Le Taureau was still alive, and that even crippled, the enormous man had taken down two of his men.  There was a score to be settled there, and Etienne imagined for a moment descending upon St. Iliane clad in his Commissionaire’s uniform with a legion of soldiers at his back.

Premières choses premières, however, and a decent night’s sleep would be a good start.

They located a suitable camp adjacent to a small freshwater lake once the last of the daylight had gone, though as usual the departing sun did not take its heat with it.  Valnier supervised the securing of the horses, the distribution of food rations and the construction of a fire, the latter for its visibility and certainly not for its warmth.  Etienne sat back and watched and listened to his men as they set up their sleeprolls and chatted amongst themselves.  They were by turns angry, remorseful, embittered and afraid, and he did not know what he could say to them by way of reassurance.  He had never been one to ingratiate himself with the men under his command; to him they remained anonymous drones useful only for the carrying out of orders, and with the exception of Valnier it was his habit never to keep the same complement for more than one assignment.  He let Valnier tend to the names and the foibles and the quirks while he remained detached and concentrated on the mission.

Ce soir, he found himself examining their faces and thinking about the four who had not made it out of St. Iliane.  Those four men could not have imagined when they saw the sunrise this morning that it would be for the last time.  They could not have imagined that the filthy water Le Taureau saw fit to serve them would be the last drink they would ever taste.  They had entered into this contract expecting that they would do the job, receive their pay, and go home, to wherever and whatever home was.  Somewhere there were people waiting for those four men to return.  Etienne could not even admit that they died for a worthy cause.  If anything, they had died because of his pride, his vanity, his arrogance.  Hardly reasons one could satisfactorily explain to a grieving widow.

After a time the men settled into base conversation and filthy humor, presided over by the silent Valnier, who sat by the fire with arms crossed.  Etienne rose to his feet and wandered off, mumbling an excuse to his corporal about locating some privacy to relieve himself.  The corporal nodded, implying with a look that Monsieur should remain where he could be seen at all times.

Etienne walked a good distance down, to the edge of the shoreline, stopping where the water lapped gently at the toes of his boots, and looked out over the long white V painted by the moonlight upon its still sheen.  Those men, Valnier included, would all be looking to him for what to do next.  For the first time, he had no answer.  He could not go back to Calerre and supplicate himself before the Directeurs now.  The unspoken order had been to return with his quarry or not at all, meaning the alternatives offered by failure were exile, prison, or, a convenient disappearance.  The mission had to continue, but, to where, and to what end?  The damned witch left no trace of herself, no trail for a hunter to follow.  The path before him was as dark and shapeless as the lake before him now.  One might as well have asked an ant to chase this bird.

Etienne unlaced his boots and kicked them off, and stepped into the water.  It curled about his toes and caressed his blisters.  He loosened his shirt collar, and found himself undoing buttons, then slipping his arms out of the sleeves and letting it fall aside.  His belt was next, and he stood naked on the shore and let the hot breeze slide between his legs for a moment before abandoning all further semblance of caution and plunging headfirst into the lake.

It was warm and soupy and clogged with algae, but Etienne did not care.  He swam until the water began to clear and feel cool.  He floated on his back and looked up at the moon, at the canopy of stars splashed across the sky.  They were uncommonly brilliant tonight, and he struggled to recall the last time he had looked at them.  His father had taught him the names of the most prominent ones, but those secrets had long been forgotten.  What good, he had asked in his more callous days, were those tiny dots of light up there?  Certainly nothing worth remembering what the misguided astronomers chose to call them.

Etienne waded further.  The campfire at the shore was an easily located beacon, so he was not concerned about becoming lost in the darkness.  He did not relish returning, though.  He would be content to remain out here as long as he could plausibly extend it.  Going back meant giving an answer to that question they all wanted to ask, and he still had none.  For now he was content to let them have their time, and exchange their jokes, and roast dried meat in the flickering flames in the hopes of lending it some palatable flavor.

Etienne squinted as he looked back.  The flames were not flickering.  They were steady, like those of a candle.  He had never seen a fire that size be that calm.  Odd.  Maybe he was just tired.  But no sound was coming from the campsite either.  The voices had stopped.

Etienne paddled closer.  It was more than just a steady flame.  It was frozen still.  Sparks that had snapped free of cracking logs hovered in mid-air, caught and held motionless by an unseen hand.  The five men, too, were suspended in the midst of their own respective movements, robbed of all will.  It was as if he was looking at a painting of the scene in the most realistic style imaginable, rendered by the sixth person abruptly standing with them.

Clad in a hooded cloak.

A chill shot through Etienne’s spine, and the water beading on skin exposed to the air evaporated into dry cold as his breath turned to mist.

Furious arms ploughed water into foam as he swam hard for shore.  The figure in the cloak crouched and extended a hand, reaching a slender, feminine finger out to tap gently against the surface of the water, as though testing its temperature.  A purple flash spread out from her fingertip through the body of the lake, expanding in ever-widening concentric rings of light.  As magic hurtled through each drop of water it solidified instantly.  The wave spread further and washed over Etienne.  It caught him at the waist.  He felt a hard wrench on his midsection as the spell seized him in its grip, and though he could feel himself ordering his legs to kick they did not move.  He was suspended in what had become an enormous transparent block, with him very much the insect in that amber.

Etienne looked up to see the figure in the cloak step out onto the now stony surface of the lake.  He opened his mouth to call to Valnier, but the corporal remained a frozen sculpture, staring blankly into a fire that was just as lifeless as he.

The cloaked figure began walking towards him, striding with purpose.  Etienne shivered, even as the cold air infused itself with a familiar, seductive scent.

It’s her.  Mes dieux, it’s her.

She stood over him, and as she drew back her hood and allowed her long hair to spill out, Etienne fought the impetus to gasp at the revelation once more of the beauty that had arrested his senses and his heart, upon their first encounter.  She was, impossibly, even more than the vivid picture that had haunted every moment of his existence since.  Such feelings she fired in him he could scarcely comprehend, let alone try to control.  Of all the emotions, all the wild thoughts surging within him in her presence, the only one that was clear was that he was hers.

Luscious amaranthine lips parted, and she spoke music to him.

“Hello, Etienne,” Nightingale said.  “You’ve been looking for me.”

*  *  *

And we will leave it there for 2014.  Have a happy New Year and look forward to the resumption of this rapidly sprawling tale far sooner than you’ll see hoverboards on retail shelves.  Thanks always for reading!

Vintage, Part Seven

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We humbly present our newest installment.  From the writer’s perspective, it’s fascinating to watch an idea that grew from a single image flesh itself out and bring in new characters and situations that were never part of the initial conception.  This part contains such a creation.  Enjoy…

“Where is Nightingale?”

Etienne had lost count of how many times he had asked that question.  The permutations in which one could use the same three words were limited, the range of tone confined to a scale from mildly inquisitive to angry and accusatory, and it felt as though he had exhausted them all by the conclusion of the first week on the hunt.  The answers, also, were entirely variations on the negative, whether offered with formality across a posh dining table or squeezed from a stubborn neck.  Oh, they had all heard rumors equal in vagueness, but specifics were as elusive as the object of the quest herself.  It became plain to Etienne, though he was hesitant to share his revelation to Valnier or his new crop of recruits, that Nightingale would be found only if she wished to be.

The search took them back into the vast stretches of the province surrounding the wilds where they had first seen her.  Enough miserable and often nameless villages dotted this portion of the country to occupy Etienne’s detachment a good twenty years if they had the means to check through each one.  Though it had gone unsaid at his meeting at the Bureau, Etienne understood that expediency was expected, that the Directeurs demanded a swift victory to repair the damage to the Bureau’s image that Nightingale had caused.  But it had been like sending a captain on a sea voyage without a sextant or a map, or, as it sometimes felt, even a sail or an oar.  Certainty had always guided Etienne’s assignments in the past, and he was not accustomed to fumbling about in the darkness.

This next town was called St. Iliane, and if Montagnes-les-grands had been a dunghill, St. Iliane was home to the flies who would have gleefully swarmed over it.  Befitting its deceptively holy name, it had once been a monastery, and at some point in a forgotten page of history had been overrun by a band of brigands who had slaughtered the peaceful friars and planted their flag in the blood and the ruins.  What remained of the monastery, a few brick walls infested with weeds shriveled and browned from the drought, teetered on a hillside overlooking a distasteful hodgepodge of ramshackle lean-tos cobbled together from whatever rotten wood was available.  It was the last place in the world anyone could expect to find witches hiding – let alone women, for that matter – but Etienne was leaving nothing to chance.  Montagnes-les-grands had also presented itself as a routine assignment.

His new entourage rode into the village with customary bluster, yet the deference and fear Etienne had come to expect was absent from the crusted faces of the ruffians stumbling along the pitted, bending road that divided St. Iliane in two.  Most ignored them.  A couple of tattooed bruisers pointed and snickered.  Of course, neither Etienne nor any of his company bore the usual trappings of representatives of the Bureau.  No uniforms, no insignia, no formal carriage flying the ensign.  In their weathered, nondescript civilian garb, Etienne and his men might as well have been a visiting company of jesters.  Certainly, they did not look like anything for the hard-living men of St. Iliane to concern themselves with.  They did not even look worth robbing.  Pity, for the cache of weapons concealed inside each man’s saddlebag would likely fetch a considerable price.

The Directeurs had promised an arsenal to even the odds, and they had delivered a handsome supply of swords and arrows crafted of the same strange, non-tarnishing silvered metal that formed the collars and manacles so useful in blocking a witch’s access to her magic.  Etienne had never been a swordsman so he could not vouch for the blades, but Corporal Valnier had been dutifully impressed by their light weight and the sharpness of their edge.  “Feels good,” he had offered by way of comprehensive review.  The other men had derived tittering amusement from the blue sparks that burst forth each time the blades touched during sparring practice.  The arrowheads, too, were atypical, long and slender with rounded rather than pointed tips designed to wound, not to kill.  For himself, Etienne had procured a new dagger which sat sheathed inside his vest, though for the moment he could not imagine bringing himself to use it.

He still dreamed of Nightingale, when he could still his mind enough to achieve sleep, that is, and the dreams were growing more intense the longer the search took.  The contour of her perfect face became ever clearer amidst the hurried flotsam of thought and image, even as the moment of their single encounter receded with the passing of weeks.  It was the very opposite of the custom of memory, and it only deepened his fascination.  He craved understanding how she could so imprint herself upon him – but mostly, he craved her, the very shape and idea of her.  A hollow ache that he could not salve gnawed at his soul, and the dreams were torturous reminders of what remained teasingly absent.  He thought he had been overstating the matter when he confessed to himself that he was in love with her, and he could reel off a litany of reasons why:  it had only been one sudden, brief meeting, he was mature enough to know better what love was supposed to feel like, and it could all be very well merely a dark spell she had cast upon him, but he did not care.  He had tasted the greatest vintage imaginable, and the only answer to the madness was more.

Etienne raised a hand and bade his company to a halt.  Pausing first to pat the dagger next to his breast, he tossed his horse’s reins to Valnier, then lifted himself from the saddle and stepped down onto the road.  He took a few cautious steps forward and waited.  No one emerged to greet him.  The people of St. Iliane affected a remarkable indifference to the presence of Etienne and his men.  It was difficult for Etienne to quash a rising of bile.  Common courtesy demanded that attention be paid to arriving strangers, yet these louts could scarcely be bothered to fling a glance in his direction.  For a moment he missed the yoke of a Commissionaire’s formal wear.  The simple pleasure of a loosened collar had brought with it such disrespect as he was unaccustomed to experiencing.

“Excusez-moi,” he said, largely to the air as the St. Ilianeux brushed past him; the hot, dry breeze seemed to be a more receptive audience.  “We wish to speak with whoever is in charge.”

From a window, someone let loose a broad, belly-shaking chortle seething with mockery.  Etienne looked up, scouring the edges of the scene for whomever had found his legitimate question so risible, but said culprit obviously lacked the courage to deliver such a broadside in person.  Etienne had long ago learned that it diminished the value of his time to spend it concerning himself with the actions or opinions of the worthless, so he shrugged off the slight, raised his voice and and repeated his question, embellishing it now with invented details:  “My name is Amaury Léand, I am an agent of La Première Société de l’exploitation minière et le commerce, and if you would prefer not to hear what I and my colleagues have to say, we will gladly take our business elsewhere.”

That would snare their attention.  ‘Amaury Léand’ was meaningless, a portmanteau of the working-class names of a pair of long-forgotten distant cousins, but PremSoc was the largest private mining and trading company in the country, and their appearance in a new town meant jobs and wealth were soon to follow.  Etienne gave blithe ears a moment to digest his words.  Sure enough, two men off to his right ceased what appeared to be drunken meandering and begin whispering to one another in cold sobriety.  They exchanged nods and started in Etienne’s direction, and their pace suggested that either they had realized the fleeting nature of the sumptuous opportunity that was presenting itself, or remembered that PremSoc had once flattened their mother’s house in the course of its mining operations.  Either way, Etienne did not turn to face them.  He kept his feet planted.  They would talk on his terms, not theirs.

The clothes of these two were as patchwork as the homes throughout St. Iliane, stitched together from the remnants of a variety of outfits that might at one point have been considered fashionable in their own right:  two-thirds of a leather vest punctured with rusting studs, one cotton pant leg and one wool, dangling, stringy scraps of a fur scarf wildly unsuitable for a drought but worn apparently for lack of anything else.  Their faces bore the warts and deformities of poverty, malnutrition and general apathy regarding personal hygiene, and Etienne had to saturate his thoughts with the sheen of Nightingale’s perfect skin to stomach a glance even at the less afflicted of the pair.  “You,” one of the rubes barked at him.  “What do you want?”

“Not to have to repeat myself to someone in no position of authority regarding what I have to offer,” Etienne said, turning his head away.

“You are really from PremSoc?” asked the second man, a rather stupid expression warping further an already damaged face.

“I would show you credentials,” Etienne said, “though it would do little good as I suspect neither of you gentlemen are the reading sort.”  Baiting them probably wasn’t the sharpest approach, but Etienne doubted they comprehended half the words he was using.  “Do you have a leader here, or do I turn my company around?”

“You want Le Taureau,” said the first man.

“Le Taureau,” Etienne said.  “You gentlemen are his executive appointment secretaries, then?”  He thought he heard Corporal Valnier stifle a snicker.

“They’re my brothers,” announced a fresh voice, belonging to an imposing man who appeared from one of the huts, flanked by a quartet of sycophants.  Truthfully, imposing was understating it; he was imposing in the way a waterfall would be considered imposing by a minnow.  He had the broadest shoulders Etienne had ever seen – that or he was sporting a curtain rod beneath the tanned deer hide draped around his neck – and a ridiculously barrelled chest that preceded the arrival of the rest of him.  There was a robust, peaty odor of whisky about him, probably from those very barrels on his chest, and his skin was rosy with untreated sunburn and untempered drink.  A full but unkempt beard dangled from his chin, matched in unruliness by dark eyebrows the size of most men’s mustaches.  Valnier was the best fighter Etienne had ever known, but this new player looked as though he could dice the good corporal into mirepoix with his left hand, providing he could stop that hand from shaking with sot’s tremors.  Yet his eyes were so dark as to be almost without color, and Etienne could see no light behind them.  It was like being stared at by a corpse.

At least, the nickname made immediate sense.

“Monsieur Le Taureau,” said Etienne.  He affected a slight bow of acknowledgement.

“Same question, tête de cul, asked by the gentleman it concerns,” Le Taureau said back.  “What do you want?”

Etienne offered up a salesman’s smile.  “A cool drink, perhaps, and a more shaded venue in which to discuss my company’s proposition?  I think you will find it to your liking.”

Le Taureau looked over the faces of Etienne’s men.  He and Corporal Valnier locked eyes for a longer moment than the others, as if the two were sizing each other up.  It was plain from the sneer curling Le Taureau’s scarred lip that he did not think much of the good corporal.  “Inside,” he grumbled.  “We will take charge of your horses.  Leave weapons behind.”

“Monsieur,” said Valnier, registering his objection.

“It’s all right,” Etienne said.  “We’re here to do business.  These are reasonable men.”  He had no intention of surrendering his dagger.  It remained concealed inside his vest as the rest of his entourage dutifully handed over their swords.  Valnier’s face was that of a man being asked to sever his own arm with a rusted spoon, and the slight villager who accepted his blade noted the corporal’s displeasure and scampered away before Valnier could change his mind.  Fortunately every curse Valnier knew was fewer than two words, and Etienne detected more than a handful of them muttered beneath each breath.

Once inside Le Taureau’s preferred meeting hall, or meeting hovel, as it were, it became apparent that the amenities offered by this place were as lacking as the appearance and the manner of its inhabitants.  The cool drink Etienne had requested was lukewarm brown water he was certain would infect him with nine kinds of intestinal ailments, so he left it untouched on the pitted table in front of him.  Le Taureau had no cup for himself.  He explained, brusquely, that he did not drink with men from the city, and would break his custom only if they concluded a deal.  He sat, said nothing further, and attended on Etienne making his pitch.

The challenge for Etienne, then, was to get to the business at hand.  He took a swift survey of the room:  Valnier and the dozen-odd, silent men of his company gathered on his side of the long, narrow table, Le Taureau and a handful of scruffy, chattering Ilianeux on the other.  Etienne felt his confidence swell at the meager opposition, and he launched with verve and volume into what he considered to be a finely crafted speech of complete and utter gibberish.

It was symphonic in its flow, with themes based on key notes introduced boldly and repeated for emphasis, varied with each iteration but adhering always to his main point:  the (entirely fictional, naturally) notion that PremSoc wished to build a new major trade route to the northern border that would pass conveniently through St. Iliane, and wouldn’t there be such bountiful opportunities for the locals to establish inns and other merchant ventures to ensnare the heaps of cash flowing over the coffers of those passing through.  Etienne was careful to hold this specific nugget back until he had first laid out the basic details and built upon each layer like a confectioner perfecting each layer of cake before frosting it.  The men listening could draw the desired conclusion and congratulate themselves for being clever, and only then would Etienne affirm what floated unsaid.  The best way to sell anyone anything was to lead him to convince himself it was his idea to buy it in the first place.  Etienne wondered, as Le Taureau’s goons fell quiet in turn, enraptured by his presentation, if he had not misspent what could have been a lucrative career in mercantilism, or the practice of law.

Le Taureau himself, however, remained the immovable object.  When Etienne concluded the concerto, he sat motionless behind his beard and his enormous chest for a long moment, hurling an enforced silence into the air.  Finally he leaned forward, and the table creaked and sagged beneath the weight of gauntleted arms.  “What do you need us for then?” Le Taureau asked.

Etienne was impressed by the question.  “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“The mighty Première Société doesn’t need our permission to build this grand road.”

“That’s true.  No, we could probably build it right through your kitchen and there would be little you could do to stop us.”

Le Taureau narrowed lifeless eyes at him.  “Then why are you wasting my time?”

“Safety,” Etienne said.

A smirk.  “Safety.  Ours?”

“Ours.”  Etienne leaned forward himself, close enough to be greeted by a fetid waft of Le Taureau’s stale breath.  “My superiors are concerned about, well, it seems strange to say, but they are worried about the unusual happenings in this part of the province, if you take my meaning.”  He lowered his voice.  “You must know about her.”  Le Taureau’s face went blank.  “What is it they call her…”  Etienne feigned a foggy memory and threw a look to Corporal Valnier to sustain the ruse.  “Ah, yes.  Nightingale.”

“You’re worried about a bird?” Le Taureau said.  “Tête de cul indeed.”  His men exploded into fits of laughter.  A murderous frown twisted Valnier’s lips.  Etienne might have fretted that they had wasted their time here, but for one miniscule detail that only he managed to notice:  Le Taureau curling his meaty fingers into a tight fist to stop them trembling.

The instant he had spoken her name.

Etienne smiled.  “Yes, a bird.  A rather rare bird, with an unusual, unique call.  And terribly lovely feathers.”

“And if I’ve seen this bird of yours,” Le Taureau said, “what can I expect in return for the favor of helping you cage it?”

“I think you’d find there would be few requests we could not accommodate.  Certainly enough to reverse the fortunes of every man in St. Iliane.  Dramatically.”

Le Taureau shrugged.  “A dramatic offer deserves a dramatic response.”

Metal against leather has a distinct sound, like a shriek, as if the sharpness of the blade can yet wound what is already dead, and send a warning to those nearby.  As Le Taureau’s men leaped to their feet and drew swords from their scabbards to point at Etienne and his company, that same damnable shriek cut into Etienne’s ears and transformed itself into a dizzying wave of fear that plunged straight to the pit of his gut.  The doors burst open and twenty more men brandishing weapons poured in to surround the table.  Etienne did not move.  It was the best action he could take under the circumstances, but it had the happenstance to be born of a moment of pure indecision.  His men had surrendered their swords and bows.  They were better trained that these ragtags, professional soldiers to the last man, but training was of limited use with the tip of someone else’s blade aimed between your shoulders.  Instead, Etienne stared ahead at Le Taureau’s satisfied grin, and fear evolved quickly into loathing.  Le Taureau’s eyes suggested that the sentiment was mutual.

“What say you now, Monsieur le Commissionaire?” said the large man, gesturing to his mustered forces.  “Still want to build me a road?”

At this juncture it did not matter how the man had deduced his identity.  That could be puzzled out later, if they managed to escape this room.  Etienne spoke slowly.  “You have no idea what you are risking here.”

Le Taureau sneered at him.  “Oh please.  You Bureau types.  You come into our homes in the middle of the night, you take our sisters, our wives and our daughters from us, and you expect us to thank you and sucer vos bites for our trouble.  What am I risking?  Look around.  Because of you, we have nothing more to lose.”  He leaned closer.  “And if you think I am going to help you lay a murderous hand on a beautiful goddess, your Bureau has reached a new plateau of insanity.”

Etienne saw it then in Le Taureau’s eyes:  a flicker of life.  A sudden infusion of youth and vigor and blood running hot inside the veins.  And he knew exactly what it was.

The man was in love with Nightingale as well.

Le Taureau stood back and addressed the rest of Etienne’s company.  “Here is what is going to happen now,” Le Taureau said.  “Your men will surrender the last of your valuables to us, and then you will strip down to your breeches and march in single file back to your Bureau.  You will tell those cowards of Directeurs that they can put the men of St. Iliane to the most dreaded of their many infamous tortures and we will still never, ever betray her.”  He planted his fists on the table and fixed his stare on Etienne again.  “You cannot stop what she has begun.  She is the wind and the ocean, and your Bureau is a castle of sand.  And you know it.”  Le Taureau smiled, the smile of the condemned man recognizing another who shares his fate.

His knees became water as a moving veil of sparkling purple mist enveloped him and permeated deep into his skin…

“Well,” Etienne said.  “I for one won’t mind being rid of these clothes.  It is so frightfully hot today, don’t you agree?”  Valnier raised an eyebrow at him.  Deliberately, Etienne pushed his chair back from the table and rose.  Le Taureau’s compatriots followed him with their swordpoints.  He reached a hand inside his vest.  “Though I’m not sure this will fit the way you like.”

Metal made no sound scraping against cotton as Etienne snatched the dagger from its concealed sheath.  But everyone heard the crunch and squish and ensuing scream as he plunged it straight through Le Taureau’s hand.

* * *

Like the Energizer bunny, this just keeps going.  Unlike batteries, however – and hopefully – the energy won’t run out.  Part Eight is on its way.

Vintage, Part Six

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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.

Dénégation plausible?

“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 available right here.

Vintage, Part Five

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Happy Halloween!  As you can gather I’ve had something of an explosion of productivity this past week.  Please enjoy part five, which takes its inspiration from one of my favorite stories.

“Encore une autre, monsieur?”

Etienne shook his head of the haze that had been creeping over him for the forgotten accumulation of hours he’d been idling at this table.  He blinked hard to clear his view of the exhaustion-and-boredom-crafted filter of muddy glass and swung his attention to the decanter in the white-gloved clutches of the server, who was far too young and chipper for this late in the evening, or was it early in the morning?  Etienne tossed him the barest of nods and turned back to his disappointing cards, shuffling them in his hand in the futile expectation that a different physical arrangement would somehow improve their value in the game.  The server, sensing that this was not a customer who should be pestered overmuch, refilled his glass with the Cabernet Forêt Haute whose bold tannins and ripe underpinning of oak and currant long been a favorite of Etienne’s but to which he now found himself utterly indifferent.  He let the glass sit untouched.  The server noted quickly that the odds of a gratuity were not favorable, and he retreated with haste.

The croupier glanced at Etienne from beneath long lashes.  “Ouvreurs?” she asked.

Etienne sighed as he contemplated his diminishing pile of chips.  He stacked two hundreds’ worth and slid them across the baize.  “Ouvert,” he replied.  “Avec cinq.”

“Fermer,” said the thin, greasy man to his right, laying his cards face down and leaning back from the table.  The bland, timid man next down the row did the same, and the loud, sweaty man on the end shoved an obese pile of chips forward and belted out “Ouvert avec sept.”

“Deux joueurs,” announced the croupier.  She began to shuffle the cards.  The loud man sucked on an ivory pipe and exhaled a withering stream of blue smoke over the green baize, making it plain with his leer that he would enjoy having the girl suck on something else of cylindrical shape.  Etienne winced at the nauseating odor, which worked to exhaust him further.  He finally sampled the wine, its precise flavor tainted by the stench of tabac wafting through his nostrils.  Of all the tables available to play route de perle, the boor chose this one.

The Splendide was one of the seven major establishments lining Calerre’s Rue de la Reine, or “rue des casinos” as it was known (informally, because although technically gambling was illegal, a regular schedule of bribes, preferred tables and free drinks ensured that the law had not been enforced in over a hundred years).  It was not the largest or the most finely gilded of the “Lucky Seven,” but Etienne had always preferred it for one simple reason:  where its competitors hired male dealers and female servers exclusively, the Splendide had cleverly reversed those roles.  The Splendide’s proprietor solicited the most attractive and capable women he could find, and spent a fortune tidying them up, focusing on their hands:  dousing skin in expensive creams to soften away the callouses of hard living, shaping and lacquering fingernails so they gleamed beneath the crystal chandeliers and the flicker of the thousands of candles replaced fresh each morning, training them in the art of movement and music and grace.  The effect was, of course, to distract the gamblers; to fixate their stares on the refined female fingers shuffling the cards and not on the cards themselves.  (Low-cut uniforms supplying generous glimpses of cleavage did their part as well.)  It worked.  Beguiled, oafish men seeking to preen for the comely presence across the table bet more, stayed in the game longer, and lost big.  The house at the Splendide made more money than the other six major casinos combined.

Etienne had identified this scheme years ago, and he could mark players whom he knew would be especially susceptible to the Splendide’s formula, leading him to a significant run of luck at its tables.  Tonight, though, he was losing, badly.  He was down two thousand in the last hour alone.  Three times he had lost count of the play, letting his eyes against better judgment be entranced by the balletic flourishes of the croupier’s fingers as she spread the cards about the table.  Her name was Sylvette, and she was young and new but carried herself with the confidence and poise of a seasoned professional twice her age.  She spread the deck in a fan shape and trailed the tip of a wine-red fingernail over the back of each card, laid out precisely one half-inch from the next.  “Vos choix, messieurs,” she said.  “Grand ouvert premier.”  The pipe-smoking man grinned and leaned forward to take his card.  A smug grin exposed a row of brown teeth as he appraised his selection.  Hardly the most effective gaming tactic, and Etienne should have noticed it, but he was distracted by Sylvette, a luminous thing even framed in the smoke.  He gazed at her hands, folded in front of her on the table now, and studied the precise shape of each long, tapered digit, the clean pores in her unblemished skin, the brushstrokes of the rich paint decorating her nails.  His mind was lost back on the road outside Montagnes-les-grands in the frosty night, on the sparkling purple glow winding about the equally delicate hands of the witch as she decimated his regiment with effortless finesse.  On her devastating beauty, on her captivating smile, on the kiss that defeated the mighty Commissionaire.

It had not, much to his regret, been a dream.

He had awoken from her spell into the stark midday heat, the wintry air the witch had carried with her vanished along with both her and any trace of the other one, Genvieve.  His men, he was frankly shocked to discover, still lived to the last of them, though most had broken bones and so many cuts and scrapes that they looked as though they had been dropped from an impossible precipice onto a sea of rocks.  Corporal Valnier was wheezing through cracked ribs, his temper flared beyond its regular level of merely foul.  Their horses were long gone, so they salvaged what they could from the carriage, mended their wounds with the field gear as best possible, and resumed what was now the humiliating long walk to the district garrison.  Etienne had said nothing on the voyage, leaving Valnier to marshal the others and maintain their morale, what little remained of it.  He retreated into his thoughts to ponder his failure.  Should he have left Montagnes-les-grands earlier?  Had it been truly necessary to stage the theatrics of the dinner?  Should they have chosen a different route to the garrison?  Had it perhaps been needless to pursue Genvieve in the first place?  No, as to the latter he had no choice.  It was a directive from the Bureau, and no matter your misgivings, you did not disobey those.  The realization was sobering; Etienne had grown complacent with his record, his indefatigability.  The witch had shown him just how miniscule he truly was.

“Monsieur?” said Sylvette.  She giggled and gave his distracted face a coquettish wave with her perfumed hand.  He saw the witch sweeping his men from the road with hers, saw her touching a flirtatious kiss to her fingertips and unleashing her power against him with a breath.  That face.  Its hypnotic perfection was burned immutably into his vision like that of the child who despite his parents’ warnings stares at the sun too long.  It haunted each step along the endless road to the garrison, hovered on the fringes as the patrolling constabulary happened upon his bedraggled band, manifested in the hearing room days later as his superiors in the Bureau castigated him for his negligence, suspended his rank and ordered him back to Calerre without pay while they considered further sanctions and possible expulsion from the Bureau itself.

Etienne had not argued the decision.

Calerre usually felt like home, but not this time.  The restaurants did not sate his appetite, the operas did not stir his soul, the gambling offered him no joy in victory.  His sleep was sparse and shallow.  Tellingly, he had not gone near any of his customary venues in search of temporary companionship.  The witch’s beauty had been such that it had destroyed his capacity for perceiving it in any other woman.  Those many local belles who had once enchanted him and lent their fire to his nights had become second-rate reminders of the sheer awe that he had been fortunate to witness in a moment ever too fleeting.

Enough of this foolishness.  He was Etienne de Navarre, a decorated Commissionaire of the Bureau Centrale, dedicated to hunting down witches wherever they lurked and practiced their evil deeds.  The hunter was not meant to long for, let alone lust after his prey.

“Monsieur,” said Sylvette again.  A red fingernail tapped the table.  “Ces gentilhommes attendent sur vous.  S’il vous plaît, choisir votre carte.”

The fog in Etienne’s mind broke, and his face soured.  Deliberately, and certainly taking no pains to avoid inconveniencing his frowning, bourgeois pipe-smoking table-mate, Etienne reached for his glass and drained it in one gulp.  He winced at its bite, coughed hard, and groped at a card from Sylvette’s pile.  It was a seven of moons.  Etienne shuffled it into his hand and mulled over the possibilities.  He pushed another pile of chips forward.   “Augmenter à neuf,” he said.

Sylvette cast eyes to his competitor, whose confidence was abruptly rattled.  “A vous?”

At the least, the unexpected move on Etienne’s part motivated the man to crush out his infernal pipe.  He had the option to fermer now and lose only half his stake.  If he stayed in, the house would double the pot, so a possibility of a large win loomed, but a far more probable loss would claim his entire pile of chips.  Yet men loathed appearing cowardly in front of gorgeous women, and Sylvette’s appeal to this fellow was palpable.  The man sighed, mumbled “dupliquer,” and matched Etienne’s dangerous bet.

“Le jeu continue,” said Sylvette.  She gathered her fan of cards into a single pile, cut them and selected five from the bottom half.  They snapped as she lay them in front of the two players and the lingering two spectators who had already opted for fermer.  An eight and three of ships, a nine of moons, a pair of captains of oceans and a solitaire of stars.  The boor looked mollified, at least for now.  Those two captains in the croupier’s hand combined with the solitaire were a potential threat, but they were undercut by the weakness of the other two cards.  It was all betting and odds now.

“Augmenter à douze,” said Etienne.  He had placed far more chips in the center of the table than remained in his reserve now.  The other man had no option but match him again.  Sylvette spread the rest of the cards in another fan and invited them both to choose.  Route de perle favored boldness, but it had an equally nasty tendency to punish the faint-hearted.  Etienne drew a five of stars.  His opponent did not seem pleased by what he had taken.  Sylvette collected the cards, cut them again and laid five more next to her original draw.  She had added an admiral of oceans and commodore of moons to her hand, along with two useless deuces and a four of ships.

The smart move here would be to end things, to montrer rather than risk the dealer complete what she was very near to achieving.  On another night, in another mood, Etienne would have done so without hesitation.  He smirked, and pushed the last of his chips into the center of the table.

“Augmenter complet,” he said.

Gasps circled the table.  More sweat pooled on the boor’s forehead, seemingly enough to drown a small bird.  His hands were shaking.  With a complet, there would be only one more draw of a single card for both the players and the dealer.  The pot would now be trebled by the house, but it required all players to bet everything they had left.  The other man looked down at the large pile of chips next to his trembling fingers.  Etienne watched greed and sense play out their ageless duel across his opponent’s expression.  If only he could wager on that particular contest.  The man shoved his chips forward and buried his face in his cards.  “Complet,” he repeated.

Sylvette spread the cards out once more.  Etienne and the other man both drew.  Six of stars for the Commissionaire, and again something obviously unappealing for the boor.  The croupier touched a card in the center of the fan and pulled it slowly towards her.  Etienne grinned.  She was just as gifted at drawing out moments as he.  Sylvette slid the tip of her lacquered nail beneath the side of the card, paused for one interminable second and flipped it over.

Mermaid of moons.

“Flotte,” announced the croupier.

“Putain merde de diable!” exploded the other man, confirming his loutish tendencies by slamming fists on the table so hard that drinks spilled, neatly arranged stacks of chips scattered into heaps and both spectators jumped.

“Désolé, monsieur,” said the fetching Sylvette, though not without a perceptible hint of bemusement as she swept his and Etienne’s chips into the receptacle on her side of the table.

“You!” spat the man, redirecting impotent rage at Etienne.  “You made us lose on purpose!”

“Garçon,” said Etienne, lifting his finger to summon the server and ignoring the taunts.  “You could have fermered at any time, mon ami.  Don’t fault me for your inability to read the cards.”

The thin, greasy man and the bland, timid man sensed trouble and tripped over each other attempting to withdraw themselves from the field.  The server approached and Etienne gestured at his empty glass for a top up.  He winced at the odor of the boor, a fetid mix of onion and tabac smoke, as his opponent lurched over him, trying to intimidate Etienne with bulk.  “You owe me ten thousand,” the man wheezed.

Etienne waited until his glass was replenished and he’d taken a cleansing sip.  “Tell you what,” he replied.  “I’ll give you half the money and use the other half to purchase you a decent bath.”

He wasn’t sure what he heard first:  the shriek from Sylvette, the shattering of his wine glass on the marble tile, or the crack of the boor’s chubby, wet fist connecting with his face.  But ending up sprawled on the ground was becoming something of a habit for him.  A gaggle of bodies – Splendide workers, the other man’s allies, and random drunken toffs spoiling for an excuse for a fight – piled on top of him, crushing out the light and the air.  Etienne felt blow after blow land on his body, and he simply closed his eyes and let the assailants have at it while he awaited the inevitable passing out.  He craved seeing the witch once more, and in unconsciousness, his visions of her were the most vivid.

…With seductive amaranthine lips, the witch smiled at him.  Her hand began to glow again as she raised it and planted a delicate kiss on her fingertips.  Etienne felt the dagger in his hand, but did nothing.  The witch lowered her fingers just so and blew.  Etienne’s knees became water as a moving veil of sparkling purple mist enveloped him and permeated deep into his skin…

The whine of rusted hinges creaking to life startled his eyes open and admitted awful light into his throbbing head.  Ache seized every muscle.  The iron tang of blood filled his mouth from a swollen and split lip, and wafts of stale urine from a cold, lumpen floor floated into his sinuses.  Definitely not the Splendide’s Suite Royale.

“Monsieur,” he heard a wry voice say much too loudly.

Etienne forced his head to turn.  Corporal Valnier was standing at the opened entrance to the jail cell, grinning from ear to ear.  Etienne permitted himself a deprecating laugh.  “I’m sure this is not how you expected to see your Commissionaire again.”

The corporal shrugged.  “Seen worse,” he said.

Etienne groaned as he attempted the impossible feat of sitting up.  He rested his head against the pitted brick wall.  “You have come to liberate me from my path of self-destruction, have you?”

Valnier shook his head.  “The Bureau.”

Etienne felt a chill.  He swallowed razor blades.  “What do they want with me?”

“An assignment,” said the corporal with an eagerness in his eyes more suitable to a child handed a new toy than a grizzled hulk of a man with an uncountable slate of kills to his name.

“What kind of assignment?” asked Etienne.

Valnier took a step forward.  “Retribution.”

*  *  *

Hope you are enjoying this tale!  It seems to be sprawling a bit beyond what I had originally thought, but hey, as long as one derives fulfillment from crafting it, there is surely no reason to stop.  Unless, you know, it becomes boring, but I’m sure you’ll advise me of that.  Roll on Part Six…

Vintage, Part Four

vintagetitle

A flash of inspiration has allowed me to present this next installment to you on a much shorter timeframe.  Hope it was worth the (shorter) wait!

People often talked of time seeming to slow during an instant of extreme crisis, but it was a phenomenon that Etienne had, up until this point, never himself experienced.  By contrast, he prided himself on being the man who could subjugate time to his will and take control of moments.  This particular moment, however, was bombarding his senses with information he couldn’t process fast enough, let alone contemplate reactions to.  Each impulse required dragging his limbs through a morass of glue.  Breaths themselves had to be forced.  He gulped at frigid air and tried to concentrate on the simple action of putting one hand in front of the other, hauling himself along the ground as the world went mad.

He heard yelling, but it too was stretched and deepened by elongated seconds such that he could not decipher the words.  He tried to follow the line of sound to its source, but could see nothing but blurry shadows slithering beneath a sky too old for the sun and too young for the moon and stars.  Sparks and clashes of metal were next, followed by screams.  Etienne kept pulling himself forward, out of the thorns and branches that stabbed into his flesh like probing, skeletal fingers.  He winced at the unfamiliar sensation of pain.

“Valnier!” he heard himself call out, hollering through the soup.  Where was his reliable corporal?  He could not distinguish any of the voices out there in the dark; he knew that they had to belong to his men, but he could not recall ever hearing them so full of panic, chaos, and worst of all, fear.  Etienne needed to take command again, to unite them against whoever – whatever – was attacking them.  Yes, that was it.  It was an attack.  Perhaps a company of thieves, waiting in the wilds for a wealthy company to blunder by.  But how could that be?  Mere thieves couldn’t swing the temperature from sweltering to freezing in a heartbeat.

He needed to reach the road.

More yelling now.  The shrieking of escaping horses, apparently the only ones in their company with any sense.  Boots trampled the ground near him.  Shadows had graduated into silhouettes, and Etienne could see outlines of his soldiers, the cut of their standard uniforms comfortably familiar, blades raised as they hurled themselves into the fray.  He watched them run towards the road, back up the hill the company had just descended before they were besieged.  Etienne tried to glimpse who they were charging, each logical part of him expecting to see an opposing line of cutthroats with swords and bows, perhaps even a catapult judging by the level of destruction the enemy had been able to wreak thus far.

And each logical part of him denying the truth of what was actually there:  a solitary figure, shrouded in hood and cloak, arms raised and held out, and pulsating bands of eerie purple energy swirling and sparking about each extended hand.

A witch.

Etienne’s men converged on her, but the slightest motions of those glowing hands were adequate to sweep them effortlessly from her path.  Her fingers twitched and Etienne watched the bodies of veteran soldiers contort as they were sent careening away over the treetops before they could get within ten paces of her.  The witch was not even granting them the courtesy of a straight fight.  Etienne froze in place and fought to keep his teeth from chattering at the cold, lest he give away his position in the scrub.

Etienne did not remember offhand, and certainly would not have if asked then and there, how many witches he had captured and delivered into the custody of the Bureau Centrale in the course of his brilliant career.  They all had their tricks and their unusual abilities which made oftentimes for a challenging hunt, but he had never seen a witch with this much power.  Someone who could dispense with a full platoon of soldiers as if she were brushing dust from a table.  This was why the Bureau Centrale existed, to prevent witches with such powers from tearing their country asunder, but Etienne wondered if his superiors back home in their comfortable suites had vastly underestimated the reality of the threat out here.  What were soliders, indeed, what were entire armies against such overwhelming magic?  True, she might be unique, but worse still, she might only be the first.

He could not have admitted it to himself – indeed, a Commissionaire’s pride would never dare allow it – but he was afraid.  Raw cold dispersed into his veins by a frenzied heartbeat stole all mobility from his legs, and he tucked his arms into his chest to retain his few lingering shreds of warmth.  And he wondered, probably for the first time in his life, whether he would survive the night.

Another soldier ran towards the witch, confident sword poised to slice her in two from shoulder to thigh.  Etienne wanted to warn the fool, but his jaw held shut.  With a gesture she immobilized the man and hoisted him into the air.  His head lolled back and yelps of pain became choking gurgles as she lifted him higher.  The sword fell from his hand and clattered upon the frozen ground.  She swatted her fingers and tossed him aside.  Visible adversaries dispensed with, the witch proceeded along the road, toward the overturned carriage, her stride unbroken and casual, more of a stroll than a tactical advance.  Etienne watched her pass directly in front of him, the light enveloping her hands like twin beacons draping the night in shadows of amethyst.  Did she know he was here?  Did he dare risk revealing himself?

From bleak prospects suddenly arose a sliver of hope in the form of a single word spoken in a hushed tone by a familiar voice:  “Monsieur.”  Accompanied by a leather-gloved hand laid on Etienne’s shoulder with an atypical reassurance.  Corporal Valnier.  “Restez ici,” he barked, and he was gone again, sword drawn, making a bold line for the witch whose back was to them now.  Valnier did not seem to care whether she heard him.  His steps were heavy and defiant, characteristic of a man who from the day he learned to swing his fists had never backed down from a fight.  Etienne dared to begin to think that his reliable corporal might in fact win the day for them.

He was disabused of that notion in the fraction of a second it took for the witch, without showing the barest acknowledgement of the brute closing in on her, to nonchalantly lift her right hand as though tossing a superstitious pinch of salt over her shoulder, and consequently fling the esteemed Corporal Valnier, arms and legs flailing against invisible forces, into the distant woods like a limp chunk of unwanted carrion.  Etienne did not hear him land.  He could not see any more of his men anywhere, not that it would have mattered now.  If Valnier could not handle her, then what chance did any of the others have?  Especially himself?

The battered carriage lay on its roof in a gully not far from where Etienne was crouched.  He could see everything now.  Again, the witch made a simple flicking motion with her finger, and wood and metal cracked and whined as component fibers and filaments rent themselves asunder and the entire rear section of the carriage helpfully detached itself and tumbled out of the way – revealing the bound and rattled form of the young Genvieve, Etienne’s ostensible prisoner.  She was slumped against one side of the carriage and had a fresh gash across her cheek, a result of the crash.  She and the other witch did not speak.  Instead the witch posed her hand over the magic-inhibiting manacles, and the purple light sharpened into a quick, direct blast from her fingertips that seared the metal instantly into ash.  The collar also sizzled into nothingness in short order, and Genvieve rubbed her throat in disbelief.  Task accomplished, the witch let the energy fade from her hands, and ceded the duty of illumination of the scene to the rising moon.

Freed, Genvieve rose from the wreck.  White light wreathed itself around her, reshaping her body into another feline form, this time much larger than a stringy tortoiseshell, and one Etienne had only ever seen in illustrations of animal life on the jungles of the Lower Continent:  a panther, sleek and black and indistinguishable from the night into which it promptly raced away.  Etienne’s failures were compounding upon themselves with each passing second, and yet it seemed like it had only been a handful of minutes since this had all started.

Perhaps he was dreaming.  Perhaps he had fallen asleep on the long road to the garrison of the maître provinciale, and soon he would be roused by one of his men and see that all was as it should be, the caravan in formation riding quietly south in the hot and still night air.  But the pain in his lacerated legs, the ice making his teeth clack and grind, and the growing desperation seizing his thoughts left little room to wish that this might be resolved only by opening his eyes.

They had lost their prisoner, their custom-bred horses had all fled, the Bureau’s valuable property had been destroyed, and his men were beaten and probably dead for all he knew.  Etienne was his detachment’s last chance to salvage some honor from this near rout.  Drawing upon a depleting resolve, Etienne stood.  He had no sword, and he could spot none within easy reach.  He had only a small dagger tucked inside his uniform jacket, and it was mainly for ceremonial purposes.  Etienne did not recall the last time he had it sharpened, if ever.  He loosened a button and reached in to wrap his fingers around its jeweled hilt.  Touching a weapon usually provided comfort, but this felt to Etienne like the ultimate gesture of futility.  A scary old butter knife with which to challenge the most powerful magic he’d ever seen.  Even the most crooked oddsmaker on Rue de la Reine would not dare touch that wager.

Etienne held the dagger next to his waist, the blade pointing forward.  The Commissionaire swallowed a rock in his throat.  Frozen air filled his lungs.  He took a step.

The witch turned.  She looked straight at him.

Etienne stopped.

His training, and his years of experience, had taught him to hate witches, to mistrust every last thing about them, no matter how innocent it might seem.  His adult life had been devoted to the eradication of their blight upon his cherished country, for the greater glory of the King and the people.  So he knew better than to allow himself to be beguiled.  He knew, as indelibly as words chiseled into stone, that a pretty face was merely another deadly weapon, and that the briefest hesitation in the sight of beauty could mean the difference between triumph and death.

Yet years of training and experience vanished tonight in a breath as he beheld the witch’s face, revealed beneath the hood of her cloak.

She was that beautiful.

Monsieur le Commissionaire Etienne de Navarre admired poetry, though he could not compose it himself.  He had forgotten more literature than the average thousand ordinary peasants combined had read, but the ability to describe the sublime perfection of the face looking back at him was beyond even his highly educated means.  Calerre had so many attractive women floating about its societal echelons, and each could boast of a particular feature of her visage that might elevate her above her kin; the sly, sharp, artistic arch of a dark eyebrow, the deep shade of rose upon a sculpted cheekbone, lips that blossomed like spring flowers and ran red with the hottest blood, to name but a few that had crossed his path.  It was as if someone had measured and catalogued the highest attainable degree for each of these rare and becoming physical traits and bestowed them all into a single woman.  And here, beholding this inconceivable objet d’art made flesh, Etienne could not muster a move.  He looked back at her, stupidly, like a boy touched with the first stirrings of puberty and beginning to comprehend the depth of his helplessness before this most feminine of all imaginable worldly and otherworldly powers.

With seductive amaranthine lips, the witch smiled at him.

Her hand began to glow again as she raised it and planted a delicate kiss on her fingertips.  Etienne felt the dagger in his hand, but did nothing.  The witch lowered her fingers just so and blew.

Etienne’s knees became water as a moving veil of sparkling purple mist enveloped him and permeated deep into his skin.  Each extremity seemed to disappear in turn, the sensation of numbness racing through his body until he felt like nothing but eyes and a mouth floating in space.  Then even that was gone, and he fell into slumber with the witch’s face etched into his dreams.

*  *  *

There’s more, honest!  We’re just getting going.  Stay tuned!  In fact, just tune in here!

Vintage, Part Three

vintagetitle

The following is brought to you by the letter V, the number 3 and a soulless multinational defense conglomerate that may or may not have been responsible for the MK-Ultra program.  Hope you like it.  If you’re new to this tale, Parts One and Two are just a scroll down away.

About a year ago, a traveling opera company had staged a production of La Sirena Ridere at Calerre’s Palais des Printemps, which Etienne had been terribly excited to see, coming as it did in a well-timed and well-deserved sabbatical from his regular duties.  La Sirena was famed for the magnificent and demanding multi-octave-spanning aria by the female lead in the second act that few sopranos were capable of achieving.  Even a sublime talent like the radiant Chelys Anjour – Etienne’s longtime favorite performer – could only execute it successfully on perhaps every third attempt, if she was having a good day and the acoustics in the venue were favorable.  The foreign troupe in question had none of these factors working in its favor; still, sitting in his box on that night, Etienne had commended them for their audacity in the attempt and held out hope that he might find himself pleasantly surprised.  However, as Act Two drew to a close, the Commissionaire’s discriminating ears were lacerated by what he now considered only the second worst thing he had ever heard.

Neck locked in Corporal Valnier’s seasoned grip, the cat screamed and hissed and flailed its paws, curled claws sinking into the thick, hewn leather of his glove.  Valnier hoisted the cat into the air, and, holding it a safe measure outside swiping distance of his face, carried it howling away from the table as Etienne dabbed his mouth politely with a napkin and rose from his chair.  The old woman began wailing and weeping as well, and though her arthritic arm flails weren’t quite as frenzied as the cat’s, they still merited restraint by two of Etienne’s men.  No one else in the room, particularly the rotund Maire Bernaud Joyal, dared move, intimidated at every turn by the soldiers eyeing their merest twitch.  Valnier pressed the cat against the back wall, the brutish man taking care not to injure its fragile head even as his fist was but one nervous impulse from crushing its spine.

Etienne pointed at the old woman.  “Quiet,” he said simply, and stared at her, unblinking and even, until she ran out of breath and her cries shrank to whimpers.  He then joined his corporal at the wall, where the cat too was squirming with far less vigor as each second slid by, its screeching fading from incessant and grating to halting and merely distracting.  Controlling time, Etienne had discovered, was the best way to take command of a room.  The patience to allow your opponents to wear themselves out was a skill that took longer to hone than any particular proficiency with a blade, or incisiveness with one’s wit.  Too many were eager to try to win such battles with haste.  Patience was most certainly required in a scene such as this, which, Etienne could admit, would look quite ridiculous to a passer-by.  A mighty detachment of the King’s soldiers, led by a distinguished Commissionaire, capturing a cat.  And it was not by any stretch the strangest assignment Etienne had ever found himself leading.

Said feline was mewling weakly now, its paws resigned and limp.  Its tail hung straight down.  Corporal Valnier kept his hand locked around its neck.  Etienne allowed himself a smirk.  “Cats are renowned for their sense of self-preservation,” he said.  “I have heard tell that when their owners have died and left them to starve, cats will not hesitate to eat the flesh of the very hands that once fed and cared for them.  Loyalty, it seems, cannot conquer the cries of one’s stomach.  I suspect, however, that this situation is somewhat different.”  No one answered him.  “Well then.  This has gone on quite far enough, don’t you think, my dear?  I suggest you save us all a great deal of bother.  Or, you can watch your friends’ entrails spill onto the floor in turn.  Your choice.  But I don’t imagine you’re that hungry yet.”  He nodded to his detachment spread about the room, their swords drawn, herding the villagers into manageable clumps of quivering flesh.  Blades edged nearer to necks.  Etienne removed his watch from his pocket again and flipped it open.

It took only a fragment of time for the maire to lose his nerve.  “Gen!” he hissed.

The cat stopped moving.  Panicked round eyes narrowed to calm slits again.  If one did not know better, one might have even noted a shrug of its shoulders, an acceptance that all was lost.

A white shimmer began to gleam from beneath the cat’s fur, spinning into the air around it like dust motes hovering in a beam of sunlight, caught and whisked into a tizzy by a sudden breeze.  Strands of light layered tenderly over themselves and grew into a cocoon shrouding the cat’s form, yet the unflappable Corporal Valnier kept his grip tight, even as the light expanded beyond the silhouette of the animal and extended to the floor.  It reshaped itself into the more familiar and logical contours of a human being and began to withdraw into ether, each tendril slinking into nothingness like a wave shrinking from a shore.  Left in the wake of the transformation and the vanishing rush of white was the terrified shape of a girl, edging past her teenage years.

“Salut, mademoiselle minette,” Etienne said.

She was pretty enough; witches usually were, in Etienne’s experience.  But he had long ago conditioned himself against the pull of base instincts.  He could sate his appetites for feminine companionship back in Calerre; on assignment, he was stone.  His dedication to his work, his devotion to the Bureau, his appreciation for the romantic aesthete’s life the pay allowed him to lead at home crushed any logical inklings of temptation he might feel.  It was drilled into them in training:  beauty was only another weapon in a witch’s formidable arsenal.  Few of her spells could be as potent as a mere whispered plea from a pair of soft, inviting lips.  More than one Commissionaire had been undone in that way, and Etienne had no intention of being the next addition to that embarrassing list.  He focused immediately on the flaws:  the limp, stringy hair, the squarish chin, the overlong, gawky neck straining beneath Valnier’s grasp.  And he avoided the eyes.  Eyes invoked sympathy.  Instead, he turned away to address the rest of the people.

“Behold, mesdames et monsieurs, the creature you have risked your lives to protect,” he said. “Had you exercised some prudence, had you not desired to use her talents to fatten your purse…”  He narrowed his focus to the pathetic visage of Bernaud Joyal.  “Who knows how many years you might have scuttled safely out of reach of the vigilance of the Bureau Centrale.  Yet you all know the law.  And you know the consequence for breaking it.”

“Please, monsieur,” interrupted a meek, shaking voice, new to the exchange.  “They have not done anything wrong.”

“Well, that is certainly more palatable to the ears than anything else from you so far this evening, my dear,” Etienne said.  He allowed himself a glance at her, yet it remained in motion, flitting across her body, never meeting the eyes that he could tell were beginning to tear up, based on the trembling evident beneath the forced steadfastness of her begging.  Staying clear of a look was more than just preventing any hint of empathy, it was also showing her that he did not acknowledge her as a person, let alone as the remotest semblance of an equal.  Yet another tenet of the Bureau Centrale.  “And you will forgive me for disagreeing.  The village of Montagnes-les-grands has indeed done wrong; it has committed treason by harboring a weapon that might be used against the interests of our King and great country, as egregious an offense as giving aid and comfort to enemy combatants.”

“My magic harms none!” the witch said.  “All I can do is help plants to grow.  I have only tried to help this village survive the drought.”

Etienne laughed.  “All you can do, hmm?  Apart from being able to transform yourself into any number of creatures that could infiltrate our most secret installations?  Spy on our senior officials and compromise the confidential proceedings that keep our country safe and secure?  Get yourself near enough to the royal family in order to to carry out an assassination?”

“I would never–”

“Mademoiselle,” the Commissionaire said, “Gen, is it?  Short for something?”

The young witch’s eyes fell to the splinters in the floor.  “Genvieve.”

“Genvieve.  The hour is growing late and I have not wish to tarry in this dunghill of a village any longer than my assignment requires.  Therefore I present you with two options, admittedly neither of which you may find overly favorable, but the preferred choice will see each man and woman walk out of this room alive.  That is, if you surrender to my men and I.  The other path involves you attempting to use your powers to extricate yourself from this predicament, which, talented as you undoubtedly are, presents at the least the possibility of a temporary reprieve.  It does, however, ensure that we will kill everyone here, beginning with this gnarled creature who seems to hold you in such high regard.”  One of the men restraining the old woman touched the tip of his blade to her throat and pressed against it just enough to draw a single drop of gleaming red blood.  It trickled a snaking path down the polished metal, pooled and fell to the floor, landing with a tiny plosh that everyone could hear, so taut the silence as all waited on the next move.

Genvieve looked to the old woman, wrinkled skin stretched smooth as she cringed at the touch of the soldier’s blade.  The witch’s own neck chafed in the grip of Corporal Valnier, who, unlike Etienne, had no problem with staring into her eyes, as his black pupils were dead to a concept as foreign to him as mercy.  Etienne attended with arms clasped behind his back, affecting indifference as to her ultimate decision.  For him it was merely a question of how much blood would be joining that solitary drop lying on the floor.

“I will go with you,” the witch said, tears drying from her eyes but filling her throat.

The old woman began sobbing as the soldier removed the blade from her neck.  Etienne nodded to another of his men, who fetched a satchel from beneath his feet and dropped it in the middle of the table.  Etienne broke the seal on the top flap and extracted a pair of metallic items, fabricated by the Bureau’s engineering section:  one large, dinner plate-sized locking ring and two smaller ones connected by a chain.  Etienne had never been certain what kind of metal it was.  It resembled fine silver, but it never tarnished, never even absorbed the oils of fingerprints.  It was effective enough, however, that Etienne had long ceased wondering about its origin.  He motioned to Valnier to bring the witch over.  “Your hands, please, mademoiselle,” the Commissionaire said.

Genvieve held them out without protest.  Valnier took the manacles from Etienne and snapped them into place.  Etienne retained the task of attaching the collar around the witch’s neck.  “Certainly more fashionable than the good corporal’s glove, n’est-ce-pas?” he said.  Genvieve had no rejoinder.  She was a young woman utterly defeated.  And now, wearing the Bureau’s custom collar and manacles, she would find herself incapable of casting any magic.  Quite harmless.

“Monsieur Valnier, you will see to Mademoiselle’s traveling arrangements?” Etienne said.  Valnier seized the witch by the arm and forced her towards the door.

The old woman screamed again, and the soldiers held her back.  “Where are you taking my granddaughter?” she howled.

“Fear not, my dear lady,” Etienne said.  “Your young one is just in need of a little re-education in the ways of polite, law-abiding society.”

The woman collapsed into a torrent of grief and pain, her pitiful sobs shaking the walls.  Etienne stepped past her to the frozen face of Bernaud Joyal, a man just as condemned as the witch being marched out of the salle.  “Monsieur le maire,” Etienne said, “an officier from the Bureau will be arriving tomorrow to take charge of this village and supervise the reparations due the King for your actions.  He is not a subtle man, and he has no taste for cuvée.  I would strongly urge that you place your affairs in order and give due consideration to abandoning your post.  I hear Fauniere is quite lovely this time of year, if you succeed in making it that far.”  Without giving the man an opportunity to answer, Etienne spun on his boot heel and exited the salle with the rest of his men, and never again wasted a further thought on Bernaud Joyal.

Outside, the afternoon heat had scarcely abated a blink, even as the late sun began to dip at their backs over the crest of the Araquogne Escarpement.  The persistent drone of cicada wings cut the thick air, accompanied by the first hint of crickets emerging for the night.   Efficient as ever, Etienne’s detachment had already loaded the witch into the cell at the rear of the carriage and readied his horse.  With dispatch, he climbed into the saddle.

There was a garrison about two hours’ ride south of here, where they could discharge their young prisoner into the custody of the maître provinciale for this district, and find a quiet night’s rest before setting out on the three day journey back to Calerre in the morning.  Etienne sighed at the thought.  He had been too long away from the tables, the opera, the restaurant where his rank afforded him the best table and a complimentary selection from their cellars.  He was tired of holes in the ground like Montagnes-les-grands and the snivelling types who squatted there like so many filthy moles.  And he was tired of the heat.  The drought had weighed upon the country for what seemed like years now, but at least Calerre had the benefit of cooling breezes blowing across it from the neighboring sea.  He remembered his father taking him to the harbor to watch the great masted cargo ships coming and going, and the smell of the brine and the salt and the sound of the almost musical patois of the sailors.  And his father cautioning him against repeating the profanities he heard in front of his mother.

Corporal Valnier’s horse edged up alongside his.  “All ready,” he announced.

“Valnier,” Etienne said, “is it possible you might ever have more than two words for me?”

The corporal shrugged and spat.  “Doubt it.”

Etienne laughed and shook the reins.  A chorus of hooves signaled the departure of the detachment from Montagnes-les-grands, a place destined to be forgotten the moment it vanished from view.

No one talked as they made their way south.  The carriage cell had no windows barring a small slit at the very top to keep the occupant from suffocating.  Usually, whoever was in there would scream and cry for at least an hour until their lungs gave out and the promise of hope went with them.  By contrast, this witch, Genvieve, did not utter a sound.  Etienne had never encountered one so seemingly indifferent to what was happening to her.  She did know what being apprehended by a Commissionaire for practicing witchcraft meant, did she not?  Etienne was half-tempted to climb aboard the carriage and ask the girl himself, but he quickly thought better of it.  A little longer and she would be someone else’s problem, and he would be on his well-earned way home.

Etienne felt the hairs on his arm stand as a shiver touched his back.  Odd.  He was too tired, he reasoned.  The heat refused to abate and here he was suffering a chill.  He did not relish the notion of voyaging back to Calerre and waging a battle against a fever at the same time.

The shiver returned, this time snaking its way into his boots and bracketing his sides.  Etienne yanked back on the reins and brought his horse to a stop.  Corporal Valnier, bringing up the rear, noticed and hollered at the rest of the caravan to halt.  He trotted to his Commissionaire’s side.  “Monsieur?” the corporal inquired.

“Shh,” Etienne said.  Apart from the occasional whicker of one of the horses, the oncoming night had gone completely silent.  No animals, no insects, not even a fragment of wind rustling through a bush.  Etienne blew out a long breath and watched it condense into icy mist in front of him.  It was as if they had crossed a threshold into deep winter.  “What the hell is going–”

A clap of thunder exploded next to him as something hurled him from his horse and sent him sprawling across the hard, dry earth, which tore through his silks and ripped away patches of his skin.  He came to a merciful stop in a web of dried thickets, and he gathered himself enough to look up for a moment and see his men flung through the air like discarded toys, the horses squealing and flailing in the dirt and splinters of wood and iron bursting from the massive carriage as it went tumbling end over end.  And a sudden, instinctive thought that a true Commissionaire would never, even in his darkest moments, lower himself to thinking, flashed through his mind.

Quelqu’un nous sauver…

*  *  *

To be continued… right here!

Parables on publishing, politics, pop culture, philosophical pondering and pushing people's limits.

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