This will be unlike any post you’ve read here before. A brief digression by way of preamble – this is a concept that has been kicking around my brain for a while. My fiction muscles are a bit rusty and they need flexing, so I thought it might be worthwhile to try them out on you, my cherished and loyal readers. Mostly, I need to prove to myself I’ve still got the chops. This piece is tangentially related to my novel in that it is a side story, set in the same world (i.e. same rules), though a thousand miles removed, in a different country, maybe not even at the same time. And the tone is significantly different, as is the protagonist, the style and so on. My thought is posting this as an ongoing saga, with new chapters released periodically (shamelessly cribbing the strategy from Amira Makansi with her wonderful “Porous” tale); a story unfolding in real time, witnessed by you, evolving as it goes. I’m eager to hear what you think. So, without further ado, here is VINTAGE.
A sour tincture of desperation and manure reeked from the village, the same aroma that permeated every meager settlement from here to the abandoned ports on the Delprician coast. It was the pungent signature of squandered potential and wasted life – of poverty, if he was being frank – and it spewed relentlessly from the cracks baked into the earth by a misanthropic sun. Etienne began to smell it a mere five miles out; a parasite borne unwillingly by afternoon zephyrs, slithering up and into his nostrils, daring him to retch at its familiarity. He had trudged through too many of these villes, bourgs and communes in the course of his work, and each one had the distinct gift of making him miss the perfumed pale flowers lining the stone-paved streets of Calerre with pangs ever more acute.
Sweat trickling over his brow for the first time today, Etienne tilted his head down and grasped at a whiff of the starch and fresh cotton of his cravat and lapels. The rank of Commissionaire granted him the privilege of riding in the more palatably scented carriage at the rear of the procession, but he’d always spurned that nicety in favor of riding ahead, of watching the road unveil itself before him and the locals ducking out of his way. They were a small detachment, as always, just him and a dozen armed escorts, but it was all they’d ever needed. Everyone knew what a Commissionaire was, what he represented, what they risked in defying him.
“Damned heat,” spat Corporal Valnier in his customary manner, which could charitably be called minimalist restatement of the obvious. A roughened palm found the corporal’s brow and came away coated in wet, salty sheen. He rubbed it against his horse’s neck and the horse tossed its mane in protest. Etienne permitted himself a silent smirk. It was rare to elicit more than a few words from Valnier at any given time, but Etienne had not hired him for his skill at badinage. None of the men in his company were talkers; he preferred to think of them not as men but as extensions of his will. To secure the coveted position with the entourage of a Commissionaire, one needed only to be adept at taking orders, and when required, breaking bones. Valnier was particularly skilled in the latter discipline, and Etienne was glad for the heat; it would render the corporal especially irritable and eager to demonstrate his facility with the shattering of limbs should this approaching venture go sideways, as it occasionally did.
Plus de joueurs?
The briefing had been short, as usual. The Directeur had summoned him from his habitual seat at the green baize-draped tables of the Splendide on Calerre’s Rue de la Reine and given him the name of the village and a rundown on the smattering of oddities that had led the Bureau Centrale to focus its suspicions on it. In the last months, since the executive decree increasing the penalties for collaboration, a rush of informers had sprung up everywhere, like weeds defying the ongoing drought. Not here, however. All Etienne had to go on was a list of circumstances that did not add together. He preferred these cases, as they were opportunities to flex his deduction. If it was a straightforward arrest to be made, there was no need for the deft, literate touch of a Commissionaire.
The village was called, apparently without sense of irony, Montagnes-les-grands; a pretentious moniker for a collection of huts carved into the dry slope of the Araquogne Escarpement. Until today, Montagnes-les-grands had been one of the innumerable communities through the country that had largely escaped notice of the government and of the Bureau, remaining consistent with their tax payments and demanding nothing back. It was the former that had raised eyebrows at the Bureau; seven months into the drought now and where every tiny hamlet the kingdom over had struggled in arrears, with desperate letters swamping the capital requesting extensions and compassionate exemptions, Montagnes-les-grands stayed on schedule and nary a sou short. In the present climate, uninterrupted prosperity was something to distrust. It would be incorrect to suggest that Etienne had been assigned to find out why – he knew why, and the Bureau knew why, but the Commissionaire’s task was to expose the evidence and parade the guilty as a cautionary tale. The appearance of adherence to the law needed to be maintained, even if it would ultimately have been simpler to kill everyone in Montagnes-les-grands and be done with it. But then, as Etienne reasoned, he’d be out of a job.
The first of the village homes emerged into view now from behind an outcropping of parched brush. With a jab to its ribs, Etienne quickened his horse to a trot, followed by Valnier and the rest. Clouds of dust billowed from beneath the pounding of hurried hooves, and a sound akin to fist-sized drops of rain pelting against glass echoed ahead into the main road dividing Montagnes-les-grands in two. As they crossed into the village proper, heads poked out of doors and ducked back inside just as quickly at the recognition of the gold-and-black trim of a Commissionaire’s uniform jacket, of the ensign stitched to the banner trailing from the empty carriage in the rear of the company. There could be no doubt in any of their minds why he was here, and while they may have thought themselves immune, much too far from Calerre, much too rural to be noticed, that naivete ended the instant Etienne reined his horse to a stop and planted his polished black boots on the dry earth.
The ambient noise in the centre of the village fell away as those who had not managed to flee in time froze in place and directed their eyes toward the Commissionaire and his convoy. The level of deference amused Etienne, but his face was a practiced monolith. He took a step forward, separating himself from Corporal Valnier and the other soldiers. “Mesdames et monsieurs of Montagnes-les-grands, I am Commissionaire de Navarre of the Bureau Centrale. Authority is granted me by His Majesty the King to conduct a… survey of your village. Your cooperation is expected, and appreciated. Please have your maire present himself to me.” Behind him, Valnier snorted and spat. Etienne heard the crack of a new brushed leather glove as the corporal adjusted his grip on the hilt of his sword. Valnier’s cohorts likewise straightened themselves and returned any errant glances in their direction with soulless glares.
A squat, disheveled, somewhat porcine man shuffled forward from scattered ranks of the two score-or-so villagers still lingering nearby. He was hairless, but for a few tufts of gray still clinging behind his ears like old soldiers who never received the message that the war had ended, and sad-eyed, with the weight of the cares of hundreds pressing down upon him every day. “Monsieur le Commissionaire,” he stammered from a splintering voicebox. “Welcome to our loyal community. I am Joyal, Bernaud Joyal, Maire of Montagnes-les-grands.”
Etienne waited, extending the drama, and watched sweat beads run unhindered over the freckle-dappled eggshell that was the top of the man’s head. Then he broke into a warm, oily smile and reached out to clasp Joyal’s shoulder. “Monsieur le maire,” he said. Etienne began to walk ahead, his arm draped around the confused local official’s shoulder. “Such a delight to be here, finally, in Montagnes. You have no idea the wonderful tales I’ve heard of your hospitality.”
“Y-yes, of course,” replied the maire, clearly vacillating between his justified fear of the Commissionaire’s plans and a leader’s duty to welcome new business. Etienne had seen it so often; they always held onto a small sliver of hope that they might escape unscathed.
“Indeed,” he went on, gushing with the banality of a sycophantic opera critic, “the gourmands in Calerre speak ever so fondly your tapenades, and pieds paquets. A dear friend advised me that I should not dare leave until I have sampled the gibassier, that it left him in absolute fits of ecstasy.”
“Naturally, we would be happy to serve you whatever you–”
Etienne firmed his grip on Joyal’s shoulder, drawing him in a little tighter. “Magnificent! My men, too, are quite famished from the road. I expect nothing less than your best, my dear Bernaud.”
“I shall have the kitchens prepare immediately–”
“Poetry, my friend, poetry to a soul parched of fine verse. And you will of course supplement this feast with a bottle or two from your prize reserve, yes?”
“If it would please Monsieur le Commissionaire–”
“I can think of nothing greater.” Etienne stopped walking and let his arm fall from Joyal’s side. “My men and I will speak to your fellow citizens while you make the preparations. Let us say, seven o’clock this evening?”
“S-seven o’clock,” said the maire. He effected a clumsy bow with hints of a curtsy and hurried off on little piggy feet. Etienne held his practiced smile not a second longer than he needed. The Commissionaire had no interest in talking to the rest of the people of Montagnes-les-grands. He would learn nothing from them. Despite themselves, despite their fear of his office, they would protect their own. He needed to let the knife linger in the side of this village a little longer, and then twist it at just the right moment.
Les jeux sont faits.
Etienne reached into his breast pocket and extracted the golden timepiece etched with the insignia of the Bureau on the reverse of its face. He read the position of the hands, and squinted at the sinking sun for confirmation. Ten past five. A little less than two hours to sample the limited, questionable charms of the village that dared call itself Montagnes-les-grands before he executed his ultimate play and left the place gutted, terrified, and ever more reverent toward the implacable Crown it was the Commissionaire’s duty to serve with unwavering zeal.
Commissionaires, of course, had but one duty. And Etienne had two hours left to perform it here in Montagnes-les-grands.
Two hours, to find and catch a witch.