Vintage, Part Fourteen

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Without further ado, picking up mere seconds from where we left off…

There is never anything remarkable about the room in which someone’s life is ending.  Rooms are hardly ever built with the express purpose of containing a man’s last breath.  They happen upon that role instead by quirk of fate, becoming through no intent of their own the unexpected terminus for that unpredictably snaking line that demarcates a human being’s limited time in the world.  But once a room houses a death, it is defined by it.  Death etches itself deep into the paint, and its tendrils seep through to stain the brick beneath.  The air tastes of it.  No matter what other, happier events have transpired in that room in the past, now, it can never be anything else.

That’s the room where my father died.

Etienne’s legs started to quiver as he heard the first cough, that dreadful rattle of a brew of blood and acid bubbling up from a stomach worn thin as paper.  The bed held a mere sliver of the invincible man who’d once held his hand so tightly, shrunken now to a shivering bag of bones under jaundiced skin and flaking white hair.  The smell was enough to invite one to retch up one’s own contribution to it.  In the memory Etienne knew he was to enter and sit at the edge of the bed and try to hold his father’s hand again, but he fought against repeating that history with every spare iota of fortitude.  “Papa,” he said quietly.  Reynand did not hear him.  “Papa, c’est Etienne.”

His father tried to say his name, but the first syllable broke into violent wheezes.  Reynand clutched a small, blood-soaked towel to his mouth, almost devouring it as he tried to stifle the tremors in his gut.  Etienne did as his memory of the moment commanded and found a place on the bed after all, reaching for his papa, wishing and pretending that he would recover, or, if not, that at least the horrible coughing would stop.

It did, finally, and Reynand slumped against his pillow.  “Etienne,” he was able to croak in a cloud of red spittle.

“Papa,” said Etienne, “I thought I could try to find maman.  Maybe if I told her how sick you were she could come back and try to help you.”

Reynand started coughing again, and he slammed a bony hand down on his son’s and squeezed while he saturated the towel with pieces of his insides.  Etienne winced at the sensation of some of that old strength lingering in the man’s grip.  “You said you thought she was living in Quermont now,” he said.  “I have enough saved that I could hire someone to take me there.  Then I could find her and ask her to come back.  It would only take a day or two.”

“Maman is never coming back,” Papa insisted, with handfuls of breath tinted by ancient anger.  “I taught you better than to waste your money like that.”  He dropped to a conspiratorial whisper, although there was no one to overhear them.  “Why don’t you go buy some of Papa’s medicine for him instead?  Hmm?”

“The doctor told me your ‘medicine’ is making you worse,” Etienne said.

“Putains,” spat his father.  “Liars and quacks.  They’ll not be foisting their leeches on me.”

“Maman knows how to make you better.  She always made me better whenever I was sick.”

Reynand shrank from his son, the tremors in his limbs seeming to ease as resignation slid over the wanness of his features.  He closed his eyes to watch regrets drift across his mind.  “Your maman… your maman.  My love.  I had every chance with her, to build our life into something lasting.  She gave me more chances than I deserved.  Far more.  At every opportunity I squandered them.”

A young only son was the wrong audience.  His father should have called for a brother, a dear friend, or a minister, rather than dump his final confession on someone who should never have been so encumbered.  But Reynand de Navarre had no siblings, had long since alienated any acquaintances and considered religious men to be a pack of deluded hucksters.  There was, at the end, no one else.  Only this boy who had yet to grow out of his round face and into his stringy frame.

“But why?” asked Etienne.

“A man doesn’t appreciate what he has while he has it,” said Reynand with a deep sigh.  “He wants more.  He goes off in search of more, and he thinks that home will always be waiting for him when he deigns to return to it.  I loved your mother, but I loved other women too, and when temptation touched me I gave myself to it.”  He turned away to gaze at the less judgmental face of the streaked and faded cornflower wall.  “So many times I begged her to forgive me,” he said, “and when she did I would go out and find another yet again, and still another.  In my arrogance, my stupidity, I couldn’t understand how I was hurting her, how I was destroying the bright spirit I’d once fallen in love with.  I only cared about what I wanted, what I felt I was making of myself.  A bold, confident man who takes what he wants, pulls its beating heart from its chest and roars in triumph as the blood pours down his arm.  Oh, mon fils.  How I miss her.  How one last kiss would be enough.”

He began to weep.  As the tears ran, the coughing returned.  Papa’s entire body convulsed into hacks and sputters and shakes.  He groped for the towel as blood froth pooled at the corners of his mouth.  As he bore witness to the deterioration, Etienne winced and choked back tears of his own.

It had been so long since he had seen his mother.  He could scarcely remember those details that should have been unforgettable.  The lilt of her lullabies.  The warmth and the soft scent of her as he pressed in for a hug.  The promise of sleep with peaceful dreams simply by knowing she was in the next room.  It had all been snatched away, and the man dying in the bed was to blame.

Etienne waited for the spasm to pass.  He let his father enjoy one complete minute of restful breathing.  “Papa,” he said, “if you had been different, would Maman have stayed?”

“Peut être, Etienne.  Peut être.  But even if I had remained faithful from the first day I was probably never enough of a man for someone like her.  Oh, you should have seen her then.  The most magnificent thing I had ever laid eyes upon.  I threw her away.  She was right to go.”

“Why didn’t she take me with her?” Etienne pleaded.  “Why did she leave me with you?”

“You were the mistake that tied her to this wreck and shadow,” Papa said, sinking deeper into the abyss.  “You would be a constant reminder of a life wasted.”

Young Etienne aged ten years in the space of a single word.  He felt himself shift away from the old man, and heard his lips deliver the phrase that he knew would demand the most cruel truth a boy could hear from his father.  “Is that all that I am, Papa?  A mistake?”

“You’re a bright boy, Etienne.  But if the world was fair, and men were wiser, you never would have been born.”  He gave Etienne one generous second to gasp at the stab of the spear before he twisted it.  “But, since you were, make yourself useful and take that money and go buy your Papa some more medicine.”

In silence, Etienne rose from the bed.  He made for the door as the chastened, obedient son desperate to earn his papa’s praise.  “There’s a good little fellow,” said Reynand.  “You know the kind I like.  Herriot’s genièvre, in the blue glass bottle.  Ask Monsieur Clouvet to help you get it from the top shelf.  Get it back here as quick as you can.  You’ll do that for me, won’t you?”  The smile on the old man’s repugnant face, the ruddy lips splitting yellowed skin, was as oily as that of a confidence trickster.  He was positively giddy at the prospect of downing more of the accursed drink and blithely ignorant of the irreparable damage he had just inflicted upon his boy.

The first time, Etienne had run away.  To the harbor, to throw reality into the sea and find himself instead in the place where he’d once been the happiest.  The easy path.

Just like him.  Just as he would have done.

“Father,” Etienne said, suddenly with an older, learned voice.  A term he had never used for Reynand before.  It had always been ‘Papa.’  He stopped at the doorway and turned back as deliberately as the second hand of a clock, carrying on his shoulders the accumulated burden of two decades of unanswered questions, rued choices and paths of fate grown impassable with twisted weeds.  He turned to see again the likeness of the withered waste of a man who had sired him, a gnarled half-corpse soiling a sagging bed, the heart beating now only out of lingering spite and stubborn reluctance to give up an old habit.  “Thank you,” said Etienne.  “Thank you for the gift of learning how to hate someone without reservation or regret.  I fled from here once because I was terrified of a world without my papa in it.  Now…”  He grinned.  “I am tempted to buy your coveted drink and pour it down your throat myself just so that you’ll die faster.”

It did not seem possible, but Reynand de Navarre shriveled further into himself.  Eyelids peeled back into his skull, and the shakes that wracked his body now added tremors of fear.  “Etienne, my son,” he begged, “I don’t want to die.”

“Yes you do,” said Etienne.  “It’s all you’ve ever wanted.  Nothing has ever been worth living for.  Not Maman, and certainly not me.  You’ve made sure to hasten your end at every opportunity, but even now you’re still too much of a coward to do what you always taught me was the most important thing in life:  defend what you believe.  Here is what I believe, father.  This is the fate you have earned.  Congratulations.  Enjoy it alone.”

“Etienne!” Papa sobbed as his son strode from the room without remorse or lingering wish to look back.  Not this time.  The room where his father died could remain that.  Etienne closed the door on the wizened creature’s plaintive cries, sealing them forever behind rotting wood panels and locking his own memories in a steel vault he knew now he need never open again.  Yet he felt no relief from their weight, only a deepening and entrenchment of the anger that had made him reach out to the Bureau Centrale.

The witch was waiting for him a step outside time in the corridor beyond.  Its detail and color faded like the light after a sunset, vanishing from his mind, leaving only the two of them in a sea of gray growing darker with each approaching wave.

“It was not long after this,” Nightingale said.

Etienne nodded.  “He could have been a revered professor, or conseiller to the King.  Instead, Reynand de Navarre died without a sou to his name and completely forgotten.  Five days, before the smell compelled a stranger to kick down the door and discover him lying there.  I don’t even know where he is buried.”  He smirked to himself.  “It has never occurred to me to find out.”

“Hatred is the most reliable of emotions.  It justifies every questionable action and thought we might ever have.  If you forgave your father, if that hate was gone, who would you be then?”  She edged closer.  “You don’t even know, and the very idea of it frightens you.”

“This is not fear,” Etienne said sharply, temper boiling over and spilling at her.  “It’s fact.  I know the pull toward hopelessness, the ease with which one can let the cruelty of life turn you into a victim.  That was him.  I’ll never see myself become that.”  His eyes flitted to the door behind him.  “Never,” he whispered.

“At what cost?” demanded Nightingale.  “Do you think that innocent girl who could speak to butterflies deserved to pay?  Did your mother?”

Ice paralyzed Etienne’s spine.  “What do you mean?” he said, each word enunciated deliberately, aimed straight at her with the precision of an arrow.

Nightingale said nothing.

From raised palms and fingertips a cold cascade of light and mist, sparkling in the amaranthine shade of her lips, shimmered across the darkness between them and wound itself about his limbs, as delicately as the application of a balm to a burn.  Where the spell touched him, Etienne’s pores went instantly both numb and aflame, and the sensation burrowed down through nerve and muscle to the very fragments of his bones.  It spread into his chest and from there exploded across the rest of his body, cocooning him in suffocating strands of energy.  A sudden jolt of terror pierced the parts of him he could still feel.  He reached for her, to beg the witch to stop.  On his outstretched arm the fingers were shrinking, the lines were smoothing out, the hairs were retreating beneath the surface like frightened worms.  The world, what he could perceive of it, seemed to be getting so much larger, and Nightingale, magic continuing to pour from her elegant hands, was towering over him now as if he was sinking into the earth, yet the ground remained solid.

Etienne’s thoughts began to split apart, the complex phrases of adult intellect devolving into colors, shapes, abstract fragments of emotion that were more instinctual than reasoned.  He was compelled to speak, but forgot the words.  Forgot all the words.  Forgot what words were.  When he did manage to force something out, it was formless sound.  A wail of pure desperation and pure need.

Nightingale let her hands fall to her sides, the last of the spell ebbing into the darkness around her, as she contemplated the baby lying in front of her.  It squirmed and screamed, utterly incapable of comprehending where it was or what had happened to it, knowing only in its innocent state that it was scared, or hungry, or in pain.  The witch smiled, placed a finger to her lips, whispered a calming “shh,” and retreated into the shadows.  The baby’s cries echoed into the void.

It lay there on its own in dark nothingness for a few moments shy of an eternity, pleading for someone, anyone to come.  Tiny, chubby legs kicked at the air like a turtle flipped onto its back.  Two voices began to filter through the cold murk, the words only random sounds to a baby’s ears but the tones varying enough for it to be able to distinguish in its undeveloped mind which was the man and which was the woman, and which would most likely come to him.

“Encore!  Every night.  Every hour.  This maudit brat will not let us sleep!”

“He is a baby, and babies cry.  We were told he would be a sickly child.”

“He’s just being petulant because he wants attention.  Ignore him and he will stop.”

“Go back to bed then if your sleep is so damned precious to you.”

A door slammed, the harsher of the two voices departed, and sudden gentle hands reached down to lift the baby and cradle it in warm, welcoming, forgiving arms.  “Mon cheri,” sang a perfect voice.  “Je suis ici.  Maman est ici.  Je ne vais nulpart.”

The baby kept crying, wincing at the pressure cutting into its chest.  The woman rocked it back and forth, whispering reassurance, planting tender kisses on a downy-haired crown.  This was the third time the infant had contracted the illness, and the episodes were lasting longer and growing more intense – and the same could be said for her husband’s impatience.  Two nights past, a drunken rant had seen him threaten to abandon them both, but the morning’s sobriety had brought tearful contrition.  She knew that in his own primitive way he was afraid for the child’s well-being as much as she, even if his ability to articulate it was not much more evolved than the screams cutting at her eardrums right now.

Her heart bled to see her little one like this.  The first two times he had gotten better, but it had been three days and nights now and the usually reliable herbal tonics were doing nothing.  The fever would break, and then flare up, and the tiny body’s reserves were depleted by an inability to keep down even liquid nourishment.  There would be hints of hope here and there where sleep would arrive, but never for more than an hour before the cries began again.  The local doctors had cautioned her that the child might not survive this latest bout, that the sickness had been racing through the city claiming many other, much hardier newborns.  She had thanked them for their optimism and sent them on their gloomy way.

The cruel irony was that she knew of a remedy that would sweep away the sickness like crumbs from a table, and she was terrified to use it.  It would mean going back on an old vow and exposing the entire family to a life of looking over their collective shoulder, of waiting for that awful and inevitable pounding on the front door in the middle of the night.  She had been quite content to pretend, for more years than she could remember, that the choice, and the fear, belonged to someone else.  But here, holding her son, listening to his cries rattle the walls while a husband incapable of handling crises pulled a pillow over a veritable ostrich’s head in the next room, a mother’s instinct for protection drowned out worries of self-preservation.  Enough.  She could not abide him hurting any longer.  She needed to remember who she was, recall the old gift, and reach into that dusty corner of her memory for the needed spell.

“My sweet fils Etienne,” she whispered as she leaned over him.  She spread apart the blanket in which he was swaddled and laid a hand against his soft pink chest.  A warm golden light spread out from her fingers and washed over him in a cleansing glow that brought early dawn to the small room.  The cries stopped.  The infection was gone.  The baby cooed happily, peacefully, and gazed up into the sad smile and the light from the manifestation of the magic reflected in his mother’s eyes.  She lifted her hand, drawing the healing energy back into herself, and with a flourish of fingers dispersed it into tiny stars dancing off into the air and winking out one by one.  “I am so sorry,” she said, understanding the consequences that the breaking of her vow meant for him.  Her tears fell onto his cheeks.  He giggled at the warmth and the wet.  She laughed and clutched him to her breast, humming the innocent song about goats and lambs that her own mother had once soothed her with, and praying that for once, morning would not come.

As the adult Etienne de Navarre watched, he did not know whether to scream out in mad disbelief, sob in regret or simply throw up, and he grasped at elusive breath and begged someone to tell him what to do.  Strength in his legs gave way.  He crumpled to the ground.  “My mother…”  He heaved the words as though they were anvils.  “She…”

“Elyssia de Navarre was a great sorceress,” said Nightingale behind him.  “Forced to conceal her powers to escape the suspicion of the Bureau Centrale.  For many years she lived in denial and without magic, until that night she chose to use it to save your life.”

“She never… I didn’t…”

“You wondered, though,” said the witch, peering into his soul like it was made of glass.  “Why your friends got sick, but you didn’t.  Why your garden was always full of food even in the driest summers.  Why she seemed never to age.”

Etienne dared to lean nearer to the living image of his mother and himself as a baby, close enough to gasp at the taste of the pomegranate scent of her long hair, to be able to look up into his mother’s eyes once more.  Tears could not diminish entirely the smile he remembered seeing behind those eyes, no matter the harshness of the moment or the cares troubling her mind.  He thought of the long cold years since he’d seen them.  Part of him knew her every facet and the other was staring uncomprehending at a stranger.  His mother, the very shape of the force he had sworn to fight.  He thought of his father pleading for her.  He thought of long nights spent wondering where and why she had gone, thinking perhaps that if he called out the window into the darkness loud enough she might hear him and return.  He knew the futility of wishing to regain lost time, but it was equally futile to try and expect to function now only on reason.  He hated the life that had followed her departure, and he mourned the one he could have had with her in it.  “She didn’t help him,” he whispered through clenched teeth, unsure if he was talking about his father or himself.  “She could have saved him.”

“Don’t confuse magic with miracles, Etienne.  There is no spell to change a man’s character.”

“Is that why she left, finally?”  Nightingale did not answer.  Instead she moved next to him and laid a comforting hand on his shoulder.  “No,” he said.  It made sense now.  “They found her.”

“She wanted to send for you, but she feared that they would take you too.  She sacrificed herself to ensure that you would grow up free from their reach.”

Etienne had as much use for religion as his late father, but he suddenly found the idea of a misanthropic god meddling in the fates of men for his own amusement to be far more credible.  “Instead, I joined them.  And I dedicated myself to hunting down everyone like her.”  He flailed at recalling how many there had been.  That he could not recollect the precise detail of each life he had helped to end was a nameless shame that was far too heavy to be described merely as crushing.

Nightingale added another weight.  “To hunting your own family, Etienne.”

Etienne turned away from the angelic figure, back to the other celestial woman who had led him to this place, and offered her only a blank canvas upon which to paint.  “You, she and I are the descendants of a single unknown, legendary woman who lived over a thousand years ago,” she told him.  “She was the first to have magic.  Her daughters inherited her powers, and their sons carried the magic in their blood to bequeath to their own daughters and granddaughters.  As they went out across the world so too did magic take root in every corner of civilization.  No matter how many of us have been tortured and killed over the centuries by those too frightened to try to understand, magic endures.  As much a part of nature and as impossible to stop as the light of the sun.”

Etienne caught a note of uncertainty in Nightingale’s voice.  “But something has changed.”

“Man’s tenacity and resourcefulness when presented with the impossible is boundless, even more so when it is spurred by hatred,” she said sadly.  “He will even learn to block the light.  The weapons your friend Meservey invented are a mortal threat to us.  I have done my best to interfere, but… the Bureau is winning, Etienne.  The Commissionaires have doubled their quotas.  More witches are being captured and murdered than ever before.”  For the first time since he’d known her, the immensely powerful Nightingale looked scared, and even overwhelmed.

“Much to atone for,” he said, quoting her words back to her.  “But I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.  I’m not my mother.  There has always been more Reynand than Elyssia about me.”  He glanced at his mother again, and hoped that her spectre would not notice him, what he had become in her absence.  He was Commissionaire Etienne de Navarre of the Bureau Centrale, the son of a sorceress and a betrayer of his entire kind.  The revelation tasted of ashes.  Maman, if only I had known.  Why did you never tell me?

He hated who he had become.  He hated who he was.

“Men born to witches have gifts of their own,” Nightingale said.  “They are more intelligent, intuitive, driven… the qualities you admire most in yourself, and of which you have made such fine use in your career.  Your ability to read every nuance of a situation, to command the attention of others, what some might even call your magnetism, you owe those to her.  But you fear that your father’s weakness taints your strength, and this fear has shaped your choices.  You don’t acknowledge it, though.  You wrestle it into the dirt and grind it beneath your heel, but it’s always there.  It even shows in how you drink.  Never to excess, always in control, understanding every precise element of every vintage down to the signature of the fruit from which the wine came.  Mastering it the way he couldn’t.  Control is strength to you, because control tames the fear.  And for a very long time, magic was something you could not control, so you worked to destroy it.”

Nightingale knelt next to him and covered his hands with hers.  He felt the charge of mystical energy sizzling at her fingertips.  “Etienne, your father and mother are long dead.  You cannot wound them anymore.  You need to forgive them and do honor to both their memory and to the love they shared once that gave you this life.  When we first met, that night outside Montagnes-les-grands, I could sense who you were.  I knew you were one of us, and that given time, I could reach you.  It was why I let you go free, why I sought you out at the lake, why I’ve protected you and why I am asking you now.  If you loved them.  If you love me.  Help me end this war.”

The image of Elyssia and the baby began to dissolve, spinning away into fragments of golden light.  Etienne reached out to grab onto something, any vestige of her he could keep, but his hand found only air.  The particles swirled higher, tearing away the darkness to reveal the white room overlooking the Calerre harbor where he’d awoken what felt like a hundred years ago.  It was nighttime now, and a quilt of amber lights flickered over the hillsides at the mouth of the dark sea beyond.  “Au revoir, maman,” Etienne whispered, swallowing his emotions.  His father had wanted only one more kiss.  He would have settled for a final glimpse.

Au revoir à vous deux.

Nightingale was still holding his hands, awaiting his answer.  He collected himself and reasserted the self-confidence that she’d told him was an inheritance from Maman.  “You are wrong,” he said.  “The aim should not be to end the war.  It should be to win it.  This will never stop until we burn the Bureau to the ground and salt the smoldering cinders.”

She smirked at the improbability contained in his remark.  “I have a great deal of power, Etienne, but not against those weapons.  Not against legions of Bureau soldiers.”

“We will need our own army, then.”  An idea crested to the forefront of his thoughts, one that the former, more rational Etienne would have dismissed as lunacy, and indeed there was a not insignificant part of him that still considered it so.  “I have an inkling as to where we might recruit one.  I may need your help, though, in convincing its leader.”

“Why is that?”

“The last time I saw him, I stabbed him through the hand.”

*  *  *

Happy weekend, happy reading, and thanks for sticking around!  A break for a day or two, then it’s on with writing Part Fifteen!

“Chewie, we’re home.”

werehome

Three little words.  The first uttered in darkness, the remainder as the lights come up and we behold the weathered features of Han Solo standing next to his furry, lifelong companion, in the aging corridors of the Millennium Falcon.  A clarion call to uncounted legions of dreamers, young and old alike, waiting in what often seemed merely vain hope for thirty-two long years.  We’d seen the Falcon fly in the first teaser, but this was different.  This was an affirmation of something that we’d long been told was never going to happen.  This was a gift.  This was faith rewarded.

About damn time.

The Internet has grown far beyond what it was in 1999, when one had to suffer through an agonizing hour of QuickTime buffering through a dial-up connection to behold the reveal, following the Lucasfilm logo, of Trade Federation tanks creeping over a grassy hill.  Certainly, at the time, I pored over the frames of the teaser for The Phantom Menace with unbridled curiosity, clutching at the merest hint of clue to what the story would be, and discussing and debating it at length over pints with fellow Warsies.  We were excited, surely, long having been starved of anything new from the galaxy far, far away, absent the comic books and the Timothy Zahn continuation novels, which, finely crafted as they were, could not quite compare to the idea of a new Star Wars movie rolling across the screens.

Retrospect (and retconning, to be totally honest) has diminished the sense of anticipation rippling through fandom in those months leading to Phantom Menace‘s opening night.  I was the only one of my friends with free time on the day advance tickets went on sale, and I hauled myself out of bed before the sun came up in April ’99 and drove twenty miles to the theater where there was already a line fifty folks long, prepared to stand there under baking sun until the box office opened at 3 p.m.  People were playing the fresh-in-stores Episode I soundtrack on ghetto blasters, clowning around in Jedi robes and swinging plastic lightsabers, one-upping each other with quotes and character impressions and generally having as good a time as one can in a long queue.  Foolishly, I did not bring any provisions (or even a hat) with me, and wound up having at one point to ask the two guys I’d befriended standing directly ahead of me to hold my place while I hopped in the car and raced off to the most proximate fast-food joint to find a bathroom and some bottled water.  When they finally flung open the doors and I walked away, sunburned but with a whole pile of golden tickets for the 12:01 a.m. showing two weeks hence in pocket, it seemed rather anticlimactic, but I still had the sense of mission accomplished and relief that I wouldn’t have to wait one second longer to see it than anyone else.

We wanted so desperately for that movie to be everything we’d been hoping for.  It’s tough to remember too that apart from the most deeply cynical cinephiles, everybody loved Phantom Menace on first sight.  No less an authority than the late Roger Ebert said, “My thumb is up, with a lot of admiration.”  But the glow faded very fast.  Loud naysayers started screaming about its flaws, and those of us who’d been soundly in the pro-camp began to realize that beneath the digital veneer and the aura of NEW STAR WARS! was a poorly-written and poorly-performed story locked in to hitting marks and prevented, by its very nature as a prequel, from giving us any surprises.  It was like a long, monodirectional train ride past flashy scenery to a predetermined destination, its characters marionettes against bluescreen, the dialogue stilted and hammy.  And the previously revered George Lucas became a figure of scorn.  We gave him two more chances to right the ship, but as the credits of Revenge of the Sith rolled, and with them the end of Star Wars as we knew it, we sighed at the affirmation of that old axiom that we can’t go home again.  The uneven Clone Wars aside, that was it.  Lucas said he was finished with Star Wars.  He was ready to move on.

Enter the Walt Disney Company, and later, J.J. Abrams.  The man who’d awoken the dormant Star Trek franchise by infusing it with a healthy dose of Star Wars-style action and banter.  The man who tossed out the story treatments that Disney had purchased from Lucas and said that what he and the fans wanted to see was the return of Luke, Han and Leia.  Sure, we said, good luck getting Harrison Ford back, who had opined with grouchy regularity over the preceding thirty years that he had absolutely no interest in revisiting the character of Han Solo.  The photograph released last April of the new cast sitting in a round, Ford included, was welcome, but could not compare with the reveal in yesterday’s trailer of Han and Chewie, together again against odds, against fate, against belief and probability and all measure of the randomness of how life unfolds.  The gasp heard around the world was very real, and quite deafening, given the three decades we’ve been collectively holding our breaths.

The Force Awakens will not premiere for another eight months.  In the months prior to the Phantom Menace‘s release, entertainment journalists were speculating about the possibility of it out-grossing Titanic and Lucas himself said with a shrug that it simply wouldn’t happen.  He understood that hyperbole of some aside, he was up against expectations that no one could possibly hope to meet.  Certainly, Episode I could have benefited tremendously from some alternate creative choices here and there, but had Orson Welles come back from the dead to direct it from a script by the equally moldy Billy Wilder, you still would have had a vast majority of fans grumbling that they thought The Matrix was better.  Anticipation is a funny thing in that satisfying it is often an exercise in disappointment.  With tremendous loyalty to Star Wars as a whole still a robust force – pun intended – and the additional burden on its back of overwhelming the lingering sour taste of the prequel trilogy, so too can The Force Awakens not hope to please everyone.

What it has already done to its betterment is given us a singular moment that we can savor until the cold months return, and a lovely sentiment that we can remember with a smile in years to come, no matter the quality of the end result.  The feeling that we have, if for ever a brief instant, finally come home.

Marvel Fatigue

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I come before you today with a problem.

It is a rather insidious one at that, beginning at the base of my spine and migrating with so many spider’s steps one fraction of an inch at a time up along the vertebrae and couching itself in the recesses of my brain, there to ferment and fester and trickle into the forefront of my thoughts.  It is the contradictory notion of living in the height of the era of fantasy and comic book-inspired film adaptations, long dreamed about since boyhood, and being overtaken gradually by a creeping fog of ennui that threatens to grow into shrugging disinterest.

You see, I have Marvel Fatigue.

I know, I should probably be forced to turn in my geek card after a statement like that, and go and lurk the message board of the New Yorker waiting for Richard Brody’s latest bloviation on Antonioni.  But I’m wondering, in the last few weeks before Avengers: Age of Ultron debuts, if we’re just getting too much candy and we’re growing benumbed to its taste.  Since 2008 there have been ten movies set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with eleven more slated for release over the next five years (even more if you factor in the X-Men and Spider-Man movies).  And that doesn’t take into account whatever it is DC is doing (which seems to be a late-to-the-party duplication of the Marvel game plan, but with much more depressing product, in keeping with the prevailing dark chic aesthetic of the period), or the various TV iterations of the MCU, be they Agents of SHIELD, Agent Carter or any of the plethora of forthcoming Netflix originals.  We’re way past saturation point now; we’re drowning.  And it would be one thing if the movies were bad – for the most part, they’re all serviceable pieces of entertainment, made with top-notch talent.  But they are all so locked into a shopworn and audience-tested formula that they’ve utterly lost their capacity to do the one thing movies like that should:

Surprise us.

The feeling began to bubble up after I saw Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie that was being lauded left and right in the community of fandom as one of the greatest things for those of our ilk to hit the cineplexes since the original Star Wars.   My son, naturally, was presold, but, won over as I was by seeing gushing praise from sources I respected, I even managed to sway my wife to join us.  And apart from a few cute touches here and there, I came away from the screening feeling let down.  The clincher for me was the music, the collection of tracks on Peter Quill’s fabled “Awesome Mix Volume 1.”  Disappointingly, there was not a single song on there that hadn’t been used in at least a dozen popular movies preceding this one.  Perhaps the intent was to feed nostalgia by scoring the story with the songs that would have been popular around the time Star Wars was wowing us all for the first time in 1977.  For me, it was the most blatant possible reminder that these movies are suffering from what I’ve talked about before with cultural karaoke.  Rather than striking out for bold, new, uncharted territory, they’re treading ground that has already been crushed under the weight of heavily booted footprints, choosing always the safe and familiar route.  Every moment is a callback to something else, instead of standing on its own.  You practically need a pop culture dictionary to understand everything that’s going on.

I enjoyed the first Avengers, but I’ve never watched it again from start to finish, as for me it was rather like a meringue:  sweet and sugary but ultimately hollow and scarcely worth a second taste.  If you set aside the whee! factor of seeing all those characters together in a movie for the first time, the story is paper-thin, and the emotional moments are forced and artificial – I mean, come on, the idea of the bickering team bonding over the death of a marginal character who’d had little impact on the lot of them (and turned out to only be, as Miracle Max would put it, mostly dead) just in time to fight off the alien menace in a CGI orgy of exploding buildings, is pretty flimsy for ostensibly A-list screenwriting.  One can also see, based on the clips released from Age of Ultron thus far, that the sequel will follow the same pattern.  Now that they’ve become an inseparable team, the heroes will find themselves pitted against each other, again – not for any organic reason, but because the Scarlet Witch’s magic messes with their minds – until they again overcome their differences and unite to fight off the robot menace in a CGI orgy of exploding buildings.  Throw in a few pop culture puns delivered from Robert Downey Jr. and you’ve pretty much got the whole movie there in a nutshell, haven’t you?

I don’t say this all to be snarky for the sake of being a contrarian.  I want to be wowed.  I want to be surprised.  I want the movie to go left when I was convinced it was bearing right.  I want to burst out of that theater and race to the kiosk to buy a ticket to see the very next screening.

I just have little faith that that’s going to happen.

I imagine that I will take my son to Age of Ultron, laugh at the parts I’m expected to laugh at, roll my eyes at the showers of concrete from the exploding buildings, and shuffle on home to mark the calendar for when I’ll have to take him to Ant-Man.  Marvel hasn’t shown in its productions thus far, nor indeed, have any of the other superhero movies of the 21st Century, that they have any interest in pushing the envelope and giving us something unexpected.  And why should they?  They have a formula that keeps generating hundreds of millions of dollars annually, a pent-up demand from my generation and our descendants that continues to flow as predictably as Niagara Falls.  You know exactly what you’re going to get when you walk into one of these movies, and it’s foolish to pretend that there is no appeal in that, as anyone who keeps going back to McDonald’s can attest.

I’m tired of McDonald’s.  Give me a steak.

Yeats famously said that things fall apart, the center cannot hold.  Eventually, one of these movies is going to fall flat on its face, and questions will be asked, fingers will be pointed, articles will be written and everyone will collectively scratch their heads, wondering where it all went wrong.  There won’t be one distinct answer, other than the notion that by refusing to evolve, by churning out essentially 21 versions of the same story in a period of eleven years, they will have brought on their own demise.  The irony of it all is that it isn’t as though the potential is not there for mind-twisting stories and emotionally resonant moments, given the sheer volume of the source material, and the reservoir of talent bursting to be heard.  But the focus remains only on predictable flash, because that is what a group of accountants in Burbank have decided is what sells – especially to overseas audiences who don’t grasp the puns – and they want their bazillion-dollar Christmas bonuses.

I’ve simply reached the point where as an audience member, I can’t overlook the hyperkinetic pixels and the stale one-liners anymore.  Yet I cling to a tiny, diminishing reservoir of hope that one of these days, one of these movies will leap off the screen and smack me out of my complacency and remind me why I loved these stories to begin with.  That hope is what keeps me buying tickets.

But I’m not there lining up on opening night anymore.

Vintage, Part Thirteen

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I have nothing terribly interesting to say by way of introduction today, other than:  Here’s Part Thirteen.

He awoke to the cool salt scent of the morning sea.  Sheer curtains glowed with new sunlight as they billowed gently beneath the touch of the rising breeze.  In the distance, sea birds cried, and the wind answered, filling Etienne’s lungs with bracing, purifying air.  He was lying in an immense bed, on a cotton mattress as soft as fresh meringue.  He raised his head from a down pillow and pared a silk sheet away from a supine body.  Etienne’s bare feet sank into deep wool as he took a few cautious steps towards the curtains and pulled them back, opening the day as one would open a gift.  There were no windows.  Instead the room was absent a wall, and it looked out past a narrow balcony over the great seaside treasure that was the city of Calerre.  Jewelled rooftops rolled away over hills and valleys down to the horseshoe of the natural harbor welcoming those majestic ships that had so entranced him as a boy.  He could see the square sails of a three-masted barque unfurling as the vessel caught the early winds, while trawlers jostled for positions at the jetties to unload the nets containing the dawn’s haul of espadon and vivaneau.

He was home.

Etienne took a moment to inhale the view, to envelop himself in its tranquility.  He felt better-rested than he had been in months, if not years.  Old aches were silent and recent wounds were forgotten.  The room he found himself in was just as serene, its lavish furnishings and decor painted entirely in pristine white, soaking up the sunlight as it poured in, radiating a cushion of narcotic warmth.  The generous donor of the accommodations was sitting before a wall-mounted oval mirror at a white dressing table on the other side of the bed, running a delicate brush through long dark locks that spilled over one seductively bared shoulder.  He did not know if she had been there the entire time, or if she had just appeared – by magic, as was her wont.

Nightingale wore only a white satin robe, tied at the waist with an amethyst-hued ribbon.  She sat with her legs together at one side, and Etienne, who until now had seen her in a succession of concealing cloaks and boots, usually at the peak of night, found toned flesh gleaming in the sun to be as perfect as he had hoped.  It was hyperbolic understatement to say that her appearance was without flaw; more than that, it was as though each part of her had been crafted, with deliberate purpose, to the highest possible measure of allure.  And her presence seemed to be magnified beyond the limits of her physical form, beyond space, beyond even the moment.  Even as he looked at her across the room, he could feel the warmth of her body against his, taste her euphoric scent permeating his very skin.  He stood at the balcony and she sat at the table, but at the same time, they slept in the bed, laughed and rolled on the floor, clenched flesh in the burst of orgasm, danced quietly beneath the crystal chandelier, ached at the other’s long absence.  It was like all the elements and emotions of a courtship compressed into a single fragment of time.  The spark of a first kiss caught and preserved in amber, at once both rapturous, and disorienting.

She sensed him watching her.  She did not pause.  The brush continued in a straight line along to the very ends of her hair, then returned to her crown and repeated the downward journey, each stroke smooth and even.

“Good morning,” Nightingale said.

Etienne felt his cheeks fill with blood.  A pang of dizziness swam across his view.  “Hello,” he said back, the most erudite phrase he could summon.  In this place, she was both a beguiling stranger glimpsed in a crowd and a lover of decades whose every facet he could recite by rote.  “Are we… is this…”  Words were elusive suddenly, as though he was a foreign man unfamiliar with the language, struggling to articulate his intentions.  He pried his eyes away from her legs.  “Is this real?”

“What makes you believe it isn’t?”

He realized he sounded ungrateful.  However she had brought him here, it was certainly an improvement over the rickety bridges of Charmanoix.  “It’s just… I know of no establishment in Calerre that has this view.”

“What is real, what is not.  Such reductive thinking, Etienne,” the witch said, a tease laced into her voice.  “The truth you’ve yet to discover is that the answer to that question is not an absolute.  It does not have to be one or the other.”  She made a gesture, and a blast of frost seized Etienne’s spine.  He turned back to the view to find that the Calerre harbor had been usurped by a chain of snow-capped mountain peaks beneath a hard, thin sky, and that their room now teetered over a thousand-foot drop into a valley of blue ice.  Instinctively, Etienne grabbed his arms to stave off the shivers.  Teeth chattered so hard he was afraid he would break his jaw.

Undisturbed by the swing in temperature, Nightingale walked toward him.  She lifted her fingers again, and the cold stopped as swiftly as the slam of a door.  He heard the lash of wave against shore and looked out to see the golden sand of a beach and the swaying fronds of towering palms.  A sticky wall of humidity pressed against him.  With a sheepish sigh Etienne released his arms from his own crushing grip.  He could offer the beautiful witch nothing but a gape of disbelief.  She read him as easily as printed words.  “Go on,” she said with a nod.

Etienne crouched and scooped up a palmful of the clean, dry sand.  “This is a crossing,” Nightingale told him.  “Of time and place and magic, of mind, body and soul.  As intangible as a dream and as real and as truthful as the most intimate connection two people can share.”  It was her gift to him, he realized.  She was granting him the opportunity to be completely vulnerable.  With her.

He rubbed each grain of glass between his fingertips.  For what might have been merely spell-wreathed mirages, they felt real enough.  He stared out at the clear ocean, watched white foam bubble at the crest of each oncoming wave, and thought of walking the beach with her hand in his.  “I’ve always dreamed of coming somewhere like this, someday.”

Nightingale placed her hands on her hips.  Her tone became strangely judgmental.  “When the Bureau Centrale has no further use for you?”

Etienne let the sand sift between his fingers and fall silently in a small pile, like an hourglass.  Time, which had so often been his to command, felt terribly short, even in the pocket of eternity Nightingale had created for the two of them.  “I daresay that will be sooner than I was hoping, and under circumstances somewhat different.”  He brushed his hands, but they still felt coated in grit.  “I murdered a Commissionaire.  My men killed his men.”  An unwanted tremor invaded his words as he turned slowly back to her.  “I’ve never killed anyone before.”

“Perhaps it feels more real to swing the sword than to sign the order,” Nightingale said.  “But the result is the same.  One life ends at the hands of another.”  No, she would not absolve him.  There was too much blood to wash away, no matter how vast the ocean beyond these three walls.

“I can’t remember how many orders I’ve signed.  I don’t remember all the names.  Mothers and daughters.  We tell the families that they’ll come back.  They never do.”

“Your Bureau has carved a chasm in the soul of this country and of its people,” the witch said.  “It has skewed the course of history down a path it was never meant to tread, and from which you may never find your way back.  How much progress and happiness and even basic decency has been sacrificed to the pursuit of the illusion of security and safety?  How much humanity has been lost to the irrational indulgence of fear?  How many dreams ended too soon?”

“I’m not sure even the Bureau has an accurate count.”  Numbers seemed a cold, inadequate measure of the tragedy she was describing.

“And yet,” Nightingale said, “until you met me you were a loyal soldier in their cause.  Had I not intervened that night, you would have delivered that innocent girl to the tortures of the Bureau and hunted down another, and another, without hesitation.  Repeating the same pattern over decades until your vices finally caught up with you.”

Etienne found it within him to smile.  “You have a way of changing a man’s mind.”

She drew closer, each barefoot step bursting with sensuality.  In flashes of time he was covering her quivering body in hard, welcomed kisses, or he was on his knees pleading with her to return as she stormed out of his life.  “Would the argument have been as convincing,” Nightingale asked, “if I didn’t look like this?”

She had never been modest about her beauty, nor its effect on him.  He was humbled by that.  “Does it matter?”

“You say that you are in love with me, but you do not love what I am.”

“Haven’t I proved that to you already?”  The taste of pleading was wine turned to vinegar.  “Was saving the sisters and killing Meservey not enough?”

“I am a witch, Etienne,” Nightingale declared.  “Of all the powers I have shown you, I have still more that you cannot fathom.  That frightens you.  And part of you clings to a choice you made years ago, to fear me.”  She aimed a delicate finger at his chest.  “I can see it there, embedded in your heart.  Festering.  Rotting away like a piece of old meat left in the sun.  It has been part of you for so long you will not give it up easily, no matter how enticed you are.”

Etienne started to tell her that he did not fear her, but the sentiment caught in his throat.  He was back outside Montagnes-les-grands, glimpsing her face for the first time.  He was suspended in ice watching her circle him with silent steps.  He was broken on the bridges of Charmanoix and reignited by her healing magic coursing through his veins.  He was somewhere half-asleep dreaming of wanting to see her, and now, standing before her, he was terrified that she might slip away.  He could see by her face that she knew all of these thoughts just as they crossed his own mind.  Pride was a fool’s option; he gained nothing by pretending her assessment was not correct.

“Then take it from me,” he said.

The room turned black.

Abruptly, he was alone, and lost, unable to glean any reassurance from his senses.  He could not be certain which way was up, or indeed, if up was even a concept that could be applied.  Etienne wanted to cry out, but he had no lips to part, nor throat from which to sound out the plea.  He struggled to find arms to wave, legs to run.

Just then, out of the middle of the black drifted a man’s voice.  A single point of reference, finally, to which Etienne could strain to listen with the ears he now remembered he had.  The voice grew louder, repeating a single question until it became clear enough for him to understand every precious word.

“Why do you want to work for the Bureau Centrale, Monsieur Navarre?”

He was in a plain, windowless room, painted in plain colors, adorned by plain, functional furniture.  The walls were hypnotic in their blandness.  A small, choking coal stove sputtered out wafts of fetid smoke he did his best to avoid coughing on.

Two men were seated behind the desk across from him.  The one speaking suited the room; he wore a plain black uniform jacket with black buttons done up to the collar, and nary a decoration on the breast.  There was absolutely nothing memorable about him.  He was the sort whose name you would forget immediately after being introduced, and indeed, Etienne could not recall it, only his pretentious title:  Coordinateur executif.  The other had not said a word past initial greetings, yet Etienne remembered him.  Sous-adjoint directeur Girard Noeme.  His uniform bore several polished gold and bronze medals, and his creased face and silvered hair were indicative of a life lived hard, while his relaxed posture, folded arms and perpetual grin were the stamp of not giving a solitary damn about anyone and anything.

Etienne reached into his arsenal of charm and served them the most obsequious response he could imagine.  “I’ve long been an admirer of the Bureau and its effectiveness at quelling the most potent threat to our society anyone has ever witnessed.  I have a great passion to serve my country and fight against those who would seek to destroy it, and I am confident that I can apply my skills to furthering the Bureau’s mandate in whatever role you would have me fill.”

Noeme’s grin edged into a smirk, while his featureless colleague turned crisp white papers on the desk.  “Your transcript from College de Calerre says that the focus of your studies was literature and philosophy,” said the coordinateur.  “I have difficulty understanding how such an education is of assistance in the pursuit of criminals.”

“Education in the arts gives one a keen insight into the workings not of the mind, but of the heart, that place where the deepest motivation springs – particularly the motive to do evil.  It trains one to seek to understand the story of the other, to recognize patterns of behavior and to establish connections that otherwise remain unseen.”

The man remained unimpressed.  “Such as?”

“Such as me being able to observe that not only are you unmarried, but it has in fact been some years since you last dallied with a member of the fairer gender, and while you were and remain quite enamored with her she thought very little of you, and refused to answer your somewhat fervent correspondence after her father terminated your courtship.  You believe you are better than your current position, and you dream of rising in the ranks, but you lack the will and the drive to seize any chance that might present itself, though there have in fact been several you regret letting slip.  Few friends, mostly family members who don’t truly have any interest in your company but feel obligated to see you for feast days and the like.  Any leisure time you might have is spent in the care of your elderly, ailing mother, and, on a more obvious note, based on the scratches on your right hand you appear to have recently acquired a pet cat.  Finally, though you are attempting to affect an air of nonchalance and even boredom with this process, you are urgently in need of a visit to the lavatory.  Too much café with your morning repast, maybe?”

Girard Noeme burst to life, slapping his hands together and unleashing a roar of laughter that startled his humiliated colleague.  “Brilliant!” he announced.  The coordinateur was not quite as amused.  Noeme punched his shoulder.  “Oh come now, Alein, you must admit he nailed you.  What was her name again, the one with the harelip and the one leg shorter than the other.  Florelle.”

Alein’s ire was not dispelled by Noeme’s sense of humor.  “Arrogance is not a quality that the Bureau appreciates,” he said, a wobble in his voice undermining the attempt at condescension.

“The Bureau appreciates any quality that assists them in apprehending witches,” Noeme said.  He turned his grin on Etienne and gestured to the door.  “Come along, young man.  Let us find some more diverting ways to waste your time.”  Etienne rose and followed him, leaving the flustered coordinateur to his precious papers and boring surroundings.

“You’ll have to pardon Alein,” Noeme said once they had left the interview room a good distance past earshot.  “His mother does harry him so.  Personally I don’t believe she’s ill at all, I think the old battleaxe just enjoys being doted on day and night.”  He chuckled again.  “That you could sense that about him is quite impressive.”

“It’s something I’ve always been able to do,” Etienne said.

“The Bureau would welcome that insight,” Noeme told him.  “Our enemy is gifted at deception and false fronts.  Though I think I’ll spare myself your impressions of me.”

“Would you mind telling me where we are going, then?”  They crossed through a narrow corridor filled with doors, each painted black and stenciled with a single identifying code.  Noeme gave no indication of which, if any, was their destination.

“I’ll let you in on a secret,” Noeme said.  “For the nature of the Bureau’s work, we are less interested in your academics than we are your character.  Alein has to do his intake assessments, and proud we all are of his fastidiousness, but what is written on paper can never truly capture the essence of a man.  You have to prove that to us in other, more direct ways.  Ah, here we are.”  He stopped them at a door with the meaningless designation RT-106.  “In you go, then.”

Etienne hesitated.  “What am I expected to do in there?”

Noeme shook his head.  “Easiest task you’ll ever have.  Just enjoy a fine meal.”  He turned the handle and pushed the door open.  Etienne ventured a cautious step inside.  Noeme sealed the entrance behind him, leaving him alone.

This room was even blander than the first, though the ceiling was mirrored, creating the illusion of a doubling in height.  In front of him was a table with a single chair, upholstered in beige velvet.  On the table was a porcelain plate bearing the largest, juiciest portion of filet mignon he had ever seen, seasoned and seared to a succulent medium rare, and accompanied by mushrooms au jus and grilled asparagus spears drenched in butter.  Thin slices of fresh baguette adorned a side plate, and crowning the presentation was a flawless crystal glass of a plum and vanilla-scented red.  The only thing preventing the famished Etienne from diving at the table immediately was the sight of his dining companion.

She was young, no more than fourteen.  Strings of unwashed blond hair drooped over her eyes.  Malnutrition had rendered her so gaunt as to be little more than a ghost there at the back of the room.  She wore filthy, shredded rags, and a thick chain attached to a metal collar around her neck locked her in place.  The stink of her poisoned the enticing aromas of the meat and the wine.

Noticing Etienne, she rose to her feet, slowly, exerting the feeble strength of starving limbs.  The chain clanked as she took one creaking, teetering step after another towards him, looking as though the next would see her topple over.  It went taut and stopped her a cruel arm’s length from the table.  She did not say a word.  By the look of her he imagined the power of speech had long since been broken.  Instead she just stared at him, letting bloodshot, bleary eyes make the desperate request her voice could not.

Etienne knew what was being asked.

He sat down, gathered the knife and fork and began to eat.  The girl wept and wailed and screamed, but he remained in the velvet-covered chair with the calm indifference of a morning lake.  He devoured the beef and chased it with satisfied sips of the excellent wine, even as the girl thrashed against her chains until she bled, pleading and reaching for the smallest morsel of food to take away her hunger.  It went on like that as he made his way through the meal, her efforts losing their conviction as the amount of food remaining on the plate started to dwindle into crumbs.

She collapsed into weak, defeated sobs as he used the last slice of baguette to wipe the plate clean of the au jus.  Etienne leaned back and dabbed the corners of his mouth with a cloth napkin, and shut his ears to her cries.  Part of him – any part that might still have been human – wanted to crawl out of his skin, or at least out of this room.

The door flew open, and in strode Girard Noeme, applauding as though he’d just witnessed a master class performance of the finest drama ever penned.  “Well done, my boy, well done.  Very impressive.  We’ve been watching.”  He gestured to the mirrored ceiling.  “You would be surprised how many give in after the first minute.  So, how was it?  Did you enjoy it?  Chef Lafraine is cooking today, I find he can’t manage pork very well but his beef filets are truly divine.  And that’s a ‘32, that red.  Nothing but the best here.  Unlimited budgets certainly help, yes?”

“It was delicious,” Etienne said with a deliberate casual manner, as if there was not in fact a starving young girl crumpled there on the floor.  Muffled moans still rose from her broken form.

“Well, I’ll be sure to pass that along,” said Noeme.  Only now did he acknowledge the girl.  “Oh, there there, my sweet little thing.  Such noise!  Come here, stand up, let me look at you.”  He made a show of offering compassionate assistance, when it was plain he was hauling her to her feet.  Noeme cupped her chin in his hand.  “Ah, I remember this one.  Interesting.  She has the ability to communicate with and direct the behavior of butterflies.  Such a useful, productive skill, don’t you think?”  Noeme chuckled to himself.  “I think you’ve been short-changed, my dear.  Give me the mighty sorceress who can throw lightning or turn herself into a dragon.”

She started crying again.  Noeme clucked his tongue.  “Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to tease.  Here, let me help you.  Etienne, would you, please?”  Noeme pointed at the steak knife lying on the empty plate.  Etienne handed it to him.  Noeme took it and swiftly slashed it across the girl’s throat.

Blood spurted in an arc from the exposed artery, choking her cries.  Noeme took a deliberate step back as she lurched forward.  She was dead before her body hit the floor.  She was so emaciated the impact scarcely made a sound.

With a sudden coldness Noeme tossed the knife aside.  It clattered on the porcelain plate.  Etienne did not look at it.

Noeme noticed Etienne’s gaze lingering on the girl’s body.  “Don’t waste your tears, my friend,” he said.  “There are plenty more where she came from.  That’s why we’re all here, isn’t it?”  He slung a congenial arm around Etienne’s shoulder and walked him to the door.  “Welcome to the Bureau Centrale, Etienne.  Shall we move on to level two?”

Etienne understood what was supposed to happen next, that he was supposed to accompany Girard Noeme to the next round of tests, most more gruesome and soul-crushing than even this.  From there he would be granted the starting rank of enseigne spéciale and begin his formal Bureau career, rising ultimately to the coveted post of Commissionaire faster than anyone in the Bureau’s history.  But this time he willed a redirection of the narrative.  He let Noeme’s arm slip away and halted, waiting behind as the sous-adjoint directeur carried onward, talking to the air as he went.  “Nightingale,” Etienne called out.  “Nightingale, stop this.  Please.”

The room turned dark and cold, and a column of bright violet light descended and twisted into the captivating shape of her.  “These are your memories,” Nightingale said.  “You cannot blame me if you find them distasteful.”

“I know what I’ve done.  I don’t need to relive it.”

“Yet you do not know the truth of who you are.  I am in your mind, Etienne, I can see it, but you need to be shown if you are to understand.  Go through the door.”

“I’m afraid,” he said, no louder than a whisper.

“I am here.  Go.”  She waved her hand, and the door slid open.  Etienne could see nothing but blackness beyond it.  He edged his toes nearer to its threshold.  Etienne drew a deep breath and clenched his fingers into fists.  He lifted his leg and stepped across.

Into the bedchamber of his dying father.

* * *

This story keeps growing, so what you’re seeing now is a novel unfolding one chapter at a time.  Believe it or not, that wasn’t my initial intention, but now I suppose I’m stuck with it!  I have a few other projects to tackle first but I’ll be back with Part Fourteen soon enough.  Kind of excited to do the big reveal Nightingale hints at in the closing section…

In Conversation with… Emmie Mears!

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It’s my privilege today to welcome back for a chat the fan-dab-tabulous author Emmie Mears, whom you may recall (that is, if you don’t follow her and her works already, double-finger-wag shame on you) from our conversation last year about her then-impending debut superhero novel The Masked Songbird.  Her journey since then has been one fraught with as many sharp curves and unexpected drops as a theme park roller coaster.  Now that things are trending up, big time – think rollicking new novel, new agent and new epic fantasy on the horizon – she’s graciously agreed to return to talk about it, in inimitable Emmie style, and share a few hard-earned words of wisdom.  Hope y’all dig.

The last time we caught up with you, The Masked Songbird was about to make its debut.  Since then I guess it’s fair to say a heck of a lot has happened.  Can you fill us in?

Do you have three days and a significant number of Big Macs handy?

2014 was one of those years that made me wish I had an ejector seat. Or could be cryogenically frozen. Or could become a glittery vampire and frolic away into the tundra. Basically, within about three weeks, all four of the books I had under contract became orphans. Publishing has been undergoing many seismic shifts in the past decade, and with the acquisition of Harlequin by Harper Collins, my imprint got smushed in the plate tectonics. It’s not a hugely uncommon thing to happen, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t spend the day my book disappeared from Amazon under a pile of pizza and Buffy episodes. Also, my former agent (who was and remains wonderful) left the business, so I had to do the query trench thing again. Which was…interesting. I girded myself with my beast of an epic fantasy and waded back in, to a surprisingly cacophonous response. I’m still sort of bewildered by February.

Ultimately, I decided the best way forward with three urban fantasy novels in a market where most editors have severe urban fantasy fatigue (actual diagnosis) was to put them out myself. My wonderful former agent and friend is making the covers, and they rock. It’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience so far.

Through a combination of circumstances, Gwen was orphaned.  Now she’s making a comeback.  What’s changed from the first kick at the can with this book – what have you learned, and what, in retrospect, if anything, might you have done differently?

Hoo, doggies.

I think the biggest thing I’ve learned about this business is that there is no “the one.” There’s no One Book. There’s no One Deal. There’s no One Agent. Essentially, there is no sovereign specific. I could go with a metaphor about eggs in baskets, etc, but I’d rather just say this: publishing is a rapidly-changing landscape. You have to be adaptable. You have to roll with rejections, and you have to get back up when the business doesn’t pull its punches. I have a pet (very mathematical) theory that…

Success in publishing = hard work + time(x factors)

Time can be two months or two years or two decades. (Hell, it can be two centuries — there are enough posthumous success stories out there. GO TEAM ZOMBIE AUTHORS!) The x factor is going to be that weird concoction of the market, industry biases, reader readiness, word of mouth, cultural coincidence, and whatever the fuck (can I say fuck?) else makes a book sell. The x factors can speed up or slow down a single book’s chances of success. But that little time variable is what mitigates their influence. If you work hard for long enough, you might not be grossing Janet Evanovich royalties, but you’ll probably find some sort of success whether you’re shooting for trade publishing (brick and mortar distribution, advances, etc.) or going it on your own.

Time and hard work also heavily influence a writer’s craft, which also plays a part. My seventh book was infinitely stronger than my first book.

Book math. It’s gonna be a thing. My equation right now looks like: >6 years working 60-130 hour weeks between full time day job and full time writing shtuff (crowded UF market + uncontrollable publisher movement + 7 years of an established online presence + readers still liking UF) = my first thousand sales. To me that feels like success.

Please don’t do the math on my hourly wage for the last half decade. (Anyone who ever accuses me of getting into this business for teh moniez is welcome to replicate my equation in their own controlled experiment.)

How has the progression of real-world events (i.e. the results of the Scottish referendum last year) impacted Gwen’s story, and do you think it has affected the timeliness of the book?

I was very deliberate when I first wrote Shrike: The Masked Songbird to make the referendum present and important without hinging the book on its outcome. I didn’t want that. A: I am heretofore unsuccessful at predicting the independently concluded thought processes of groups of 4 million people. (Or four people, for that matter.) B: The question behind the book was more “what makes a hero?” than “what will Scotland do?” And on that latter bit, I wanted to explore what Gwen would do. In the USA, there’s Captain America and plenty of homegrown heroes who love their country. Ultimately Gwen is a hero who loves her country.

There is a sequel coming in September, and it’s followed with the sort of uncertainty that came in the wake of the referendum. Scotland is a very different place today than it was a year ago, and I wanted to show that, as well as the helplessness that comes when someone is swept away on something they can’t control. Shrike: Songbird Risen is very much a book about learning how to wield your power, and I think that remains topical in post-referendum Scotland. It’s a darker book (and I wrote it on deadline pre-referendum, so I was careful to consider how uncertainty shapes people regardless of what happened with the vote), but I think there is a lot of hope in it. Ultimately it’s not superpowers that save anyone — it’s humanity.

I’m very interested to see what will happen in the coming general election. The referendum galvanized a massively engaged, powerful populace.

There seems to be a perception, fairly widespread among amateurs, that all one has to do is land representation or get that first book published and it’s money-printing and red carpet time.  The media doesn’t help by hyping overnight success stories.  What’s the reality of a working writer’s life from your perspective?  What does everyone who calls him or herself “an aspiring author” absolutely need to know about making this business of wordsmithery a realistic calling?

There’s this common joke in publishing circles of the ten year overnight success. Like I said above, there isn’t a The One. No one thing will make you a success. I’d also challenge that those “overnight” success stories are probably not really overnight at all. Nobody waves a hand at a keyboard and poofs a book into existence, and there is no, “Like a good neighbor, IMPRINT is there!” to make an editor magically appear next to you with a contract in hand.

My reality is something I touched on above. I get up at 5:30 and shower and drag my sleepy butt to the metro. I either write or read on my hour train ride. I work 8-10 hours in the office. I slog back on the train (again writing or reading). I play with my cats, give them their beloved fudz, and write some more. On weekends, I get up and do write-y stuff. Plot, outline, draft, edit, revise, rinse, repeat. I wasn’t joking about the high end of my hours — sometimes I really do work 100+ hours in a week. That’s not everyone, but for me, that’s what it’s taken to get where I am.

Okay. I hate the word aspire. It sounds like a cloud’s fart.  I’m gonna go all Yoda on you. Do or do not. There is no try. To quote Chuck Wendig and probably a lot of others, writers write. If you write, you’re a writer. If you’ve written a story, you’re the author of that story and therefore an author. You didn’t fart it into existence (unless you have some extraordinary talent, and if so, you are squandering your potential and should have your own reality show), you wrote it. You’re not in competition with anyone.

If you want to do words as a career, it takes time. It takes that and a lot of effort. There aren’t shortcuts for reading widely in your genre (or in general). You don’t have to reinvent the wheel — I love craft books for learning foundational things like structure — but even learning things on an intellectual level necessitates practice to make them work for you. That said, I’m ten years in and only this year has it begun to look like I could do this full time and pay my bills this way. It’s a long con, and there are setbacks and obstacles at every stage. Getting an agent doesn’t make everything into the dance-y, pre-gasoline fight incident scene in Zoolander. (There might still be freak gasoline fight incidents.) Getting published doesn’t even guarantee your books will be on shelves a year later. *waves little flag meekly*

The great thing is that today in authordom, there are many paths to readers, and you can pick any or many of them.

It’s been said about just about every art form, but if you can be fulfilled and happy doing anything else, for Hades’ sake, do that instead.

What’s your writing routine?  What’s your writing playlist?  Is there one particular song or album that breaks you out of block?

I carve out writing time wherever I can. My dream schedule would be to wake up, go for a swim or a run, shower, write for a few hours, read, eat, write a bit more, and then play video games till 3 AM and do it again. (I’m allowed to dream, right? That sounds nicer than scribbling on a metro train whilst smelling someone’s BO after getting three and a half hours of sleep…)

I usually don’t write to music, which may be a surprise. When I do, it’s usually music without lyrics, though it depends on what I’m writing. Writing Storm, I listen to classic rock. For that I blame Supernatural, because even though I wrote the first Storm book before ever seeing an episode of the show, demon hunting and classic rock now just…live together. When writing Shrike, I listened to a lot of Frightened Rabbit. When writing Stonebreaker (my most recent novel), I listened to music only rarely, and it was usually the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, even though the book’s not so LoTR-y except for sharing a genre.

I want to ask a little about the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign.  Where did this start and what is it all about?  What voices would you like to see get more exposure on the bookshelves?

This amazing campaign started because of a sort of perfect storm (har har) of things. BEA released their author lineup for 2014 and stats came out for representation in literature, AND there was comparison to census data…it all added up to a rather stark depiction of the lack of diversity in publishing compared to the diversity of the American (and global) people. (They say it better than I.)

Basically, representation matters. Seeing yourself in media matters. Seeing yourself excluded from media has an impact. Seeing yourself relegated to a set of stereotypes has an impact. In any given adventure movie, you’ll have (usually white, able-bodied, and straight) men playing a number of roles. The brains, the brawn, everything in between. One gets to be a geek, one can be the muscle, one can be something else entirely. They are allowed a diversity of experience. Look at the Avengers for a sort of case-in-point example. Tony Stark is the wealthy genius playboy. Bruce Banner is a gentle — if explosive — also genius. Steve Rodgers is the underdog-turned-hero. Clint Barton is the pensive (at least in the movies), deliberate, competent dude. And Natasha Romanova is a femme fatale. She’s not without nuance, but where guys have four people to find themselves in, women have one. You learn at an early age to relate to people who aren’t you when you are part of a marginalized people group, regardless of whether that means gender identity, race, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic status, etc.

A desire for diversity is a desire to see many facets of experience. Being a straight, white, able-bodied man is not a homogeneous experience, and in all corners of media, they are allowed that diversity. Being a queer woman, or a woman of color with a disability, or a queer man of color? If you see yourself at all, you are conditioned to scramble to pick up the scraps. Diana Pho (editor at Tor) wrote a phenomenal piece on Jim Hine’s blog recently. Go read it. I’ll wait.

Ultimately books and media without diversity are erasure — if you’re writing a futuristic sci-fi where humans are exploring other worlds and your flight crew is all white dudes? On a lot of levels, that says that the rest of us aren’t welcome in that new world, or that we weren’t even thought of to include. This discussion is about having empathy for experiences outside our own and being willing to learn to see ourselves in people who go through the world in different skin.

I grew up with two moms, and I’m a bisexual woman. Growing up in the 90s where the only representation of my family that I saw in media was a banned book (Heather Has Two Mommies), I was used to receiving signals that my family was bad or wrong or somehow dirty. A book about a family like mine was banned. People argued about it. That communicates things to children. I remember when Ellen DeGeneres came out. There was this sense of “FINALLY” for me, to see someone I loved like Ellen suddenly having something in common with my family. Representation is powerful. It tells you that you’re not alone. It tells you that you deserve to be here. It tells you that your story matters, and that you can be a hero too.

Without dropping spoilers, there was a powerful moment in Storm in a Teacup involving consent.  The scene was realized beautifully.  Why don’t others get it – why do you think that there is still so much depiction of non-consensual sex in popular fiction, and what does it take to change that trend?

Possible trigger warning for my answer here, as I intend to be frank about issues of consent and rape.

I think that can be boiled down to that concept of rape culture. That phrase alone tends to flip the off switch in some people’s heads, so bear with me. Culturally, we’re taught that men make the first move, that men are the ones who are assertive sexually (or aggressive), and that women are the passive recipients. Phrases like “she was asking for it” (when the she in question was, in a literal way, doing nothing of the sort) and “he couldn’t help himself” reinforce this idea. I think a lot of the issues of consent in fiction are unintentional. I have done it too, without even meaning to. I’d meant something to BE consensual, but after multiple editing passes by multiple people, this scene had slipped by until my editor said, “Huh, just realized this could be interpreted as non-consensual.” And she was right. I was mortified, because that wasn’t what I meant. That’s why getting new eyes on things is important; your experience might filter out some of those interpretations. Someone else might be hyper sensitive to it and save you the heartache of having your words hurt someone else (and obviously, that other someone as well).

(Also, there’s a difference — sometimes a fine line, sometimes a big boldy thick one — between hurting someone and offending someone. Someone telling me they think my hair is ugly might offend me or dent my delicate fee-fees a little, but someone breaking my trust or plunging me into a triggery situation without warning can do damage. I want to err as much as possible on the side of not hurting people.)

Non-consensual sex is rape. It’s not sex. Rape is violence, even if terrible politicians try to say that only certain kinds of rape are “forcible.” (They might as well say my rape didn’t count because I didn’t have contusions afterward.) I think the conflation of rape and sex is part of what makes this mess. Participating partners in sex should both want to do it. To me that seems very simple, but somehow that’s an alien thought to too many people.

What does it take to change it? So many levels of change will be necessary. Demystifying sexuality for children and adolescents, teaching them to engage with the subject thoughtfully and with empathy, giving them the tools (including facts and real information) they need to make informed decisions, teaching them about bodily autonomy and consent (these things are relevant at all ages — I was taught bodily autonomy and consent as a toddler by my wonderful mothers, and their instruction helped me escape a situation where someone tried to molest me). Putting examples of this in art and media — people internalize the stories they see. Many, many levels of change.

I appreciate your words about Storm. I was intentional about it. I’m glad it came through.

What are you reading right now?  What does it take to hook Emmie’s interest, and by contrast, what kinds of books would you avoid?

I’m currently reading The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I just finished Max Gladstone’s Two Serpents Rise and a bit ago, Delilah Dawson’s Servants of the Storm. Great writing hooks me regardless of genre, but I deeply appreciate finding stories that escape the trappings of cliches and tropes. I’ve read some fantastic stories lately. Some authors to watch: Jacqueline Koyanagi, Alis Franklin, Stephen Blackmoore, and obviously the others I’ve already mentioned. They weave gorgeous, rich worlds and tell stories that make me want to live in them. Also, most of the books I mentioned star people of color, and that’s refreshing to me, like that feeling of “FINALLY” I felt when Ellen came out. Yes, more of this please. More stories. More heroes. More people to love.

Fridged women are the fastest way to get me to tune out. I’m just so tired of seeing that trope over and over. It’s exhausting when your first introduction to a character like you in a world is to someone who’s gone already. Or to always have the damsel distressing as the bait for the beleaguered protagonist. Give me something I haven’t seen ten thousand times.

You’re doing your own series on the query trenches so I don’t want to step on that, but can you talk a little about how you secured representation with Sara Megibow, and any advice you’d offer to those champing at the bit to be able to publish their much-dreamed about “I FINALLY HAVE AN AGENT!” blog post – even if it’s a hard reality check?

I found Sara IN THE SLUSHPILE!!! I will crow that loudly to anyone who listens, because I am a firm believer in slush. I wrote a query. I sent it. She requested. She offered. It was the process in its most process-y form.

My biggest advice is to look over that equation I mentioned above. Hard work + time(x factor). Some things will be harder to sell. Pay attention to the market and what’s happening in publishing. Educate yourself about the business, because even though we venture into it with a dream, it is a business with a bottom line. It (as a business-y bottom line behemoth) does not care about dreams so much. BUT. This business is run by people who are humans and want to find things they love and share those things with readers. Write a fantastic book. Be a professional. Follow directions. If trade publishing is what you want, buckle yourself in for the long haul and start putting in the work. It’s not a fair business. It has systematic and structural issues with diversity, so if you are a diverse author and/or have a diverse story, it could very well be harder even with so many agents and editors asking for just that right now. Just keep swimming. And remember that there are many paths to readers these days.

Lastly, can you drop any tantalizing hints about Stonebreaker, and when we might feast our eyes on it?

Ah, this question! Stonebreaker news will happen when it happens (yay, vagaries!), but I can tell you that it is a book, and it is a large book. And there are giant sentient camouflage-able bats in it.

Curse your sudden but inevitable vagueness!  Oh well folks, I tried.  In the meantime, you can check out Storm in a Teacup, presently ranked #15 in Amazon’s top Dark Fantasy novels.  Thanks so much to Emmie for taking the time to indulge my inner Larry King.  To the rest of you, thanks for reading.  Now get back to work.

 

Vintage, Part Twelve

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Always hate when I have to make you wait for it.  Allons-y without further ado then.  (This is a lengthy one, so settle in a comfy chair first.)

For most of his life, hope had been less a comfort to Etienne than it was a tool in service of an end, something to be dangled before the less fortunate and then snatched away at the most opportune moment.  Why certainly mon cherie, of course the Bureau will be lenient with you and your family, so long as you come with us and sign this full confession.  The idea of hope had fascinated him, this notion that one can aspire to the faintest hint of salvation no matter how bleak the circumstance, no matter how universally promises were dashed.  Etienne had applied a scholar’s lens to its study and dedicated himself to learning how to manipulate hope in those he was assigned to pursue.  So singular had been his focus on the exploitation of hope that he had never bothered to examine the solace and solidarity it provided to those perennially downtrodden who clung to it in the reality of a harsh world usually given to breaking hope across its stone back – the backs of men like himself.

The sound of the walk to the Pont d’Eglise was funereal, even if the pace was anything but.  Meservey’s soldiers marched in two parallel lines behind the Commissionaire, who led the way on horseback at a brisk trot.  Etienne shambled along next to him, feeling very much the puppy trying to keep stride with its perturbed master.  Meservey did not speak to him as they pushed onward over the bridges of the now-silent town, and each moment of quiet doubled the tremors surging through Etienne’s stomach.  Too much cheap and fast whisky thumped his brain against unforgiving skull and amplified the rush of the blood urged careening through veins by a racing heart.  He rued not having eaten today, but reconciled himself to the notion that he probably would have vomited it up by now.  For Etienne, the march was that of the condemned to the inevitability of the gallows.

The remainder of Meservey’s armed detachment, absent only those needed to keep the rest of the town in line, was waiting for them at the steps of the stone church on the far side of the bridge.  Without words, or even a nod from their Commissionaire, they fell swiftly into rank.  Meservey wheeled his company to port, and Etienne was presented once again with the sight of the row of festering hovels he had visited not a few short hours before; the sad, reeking, rotting underbelly of poverty he had chosen to ignore in every town, village and bourg he’d ever passed through.  This was where the dream of prosperity had failed and left utter ruin in its wake.  But by looking after the destitute in their last days, granting them some measure of dignity and peace, the witches Adelyra and Kathaline had managed to become a thin thread of hope for the impoverished of Charmanoix.

Now Serge Meservey and a dozen men with swords were only a hundred feet from their door.

They halted at the base of the creaking stairs.  Meservey descended from his horse and selected twin braquemarts from scabbards buckled to his saddle:  wide blades that were straight and short, good for hacking one’s way through both thick foliage and oncoming opposition.  They emitted blinding gleams under the hot sun, crafted obviously from the magic-bonded mix of iron and silver.  Meservey had even troubled to have his monogram engraved in bronze script on the pearlescent hilts.  He spun the blades twice and holstered them at his thighs.  “This one same as any other,” he told his men.  “First company with me.  Rest, secondary protocol in four minutes.”  Etienne did not know what that meant, nor did he understand what his part was to be in Meservey’s unfolding scene – that is, until the other Commissionaire froze him with a glare, nodded at the staircase and growled at him in a voice that dropped into the grave.  “After you, Navarre.”

“What is it you expect of me here?” Etienne asked him.

“Just knock on the door.  Can do that, can’t you?”  Without subtlety, Meservey tightened fingers around the hilt of his sword while gesturing broadly up toward the entrance.  Etienne looked at him, shifted his eyes to the humorless faces of the other soldiers, and realized he was without options.  He took a slow breath and began the ascent, listening to each painful crack of each sagging wooden step beneath his heel.  Meservey followed him.  Five of the soldiers came after.  Etienne worried the staircase would not support them all, and this grand venture would end with the lot of them pitched tête-first into the adjacent canal.

But the staircase bore them well enough, and Etienne planted his feet before the door with the peeling green paint and rapped firmly on the section where the fewest splinters could potentially lodge in his knuckles.  “Bureau Centrale,” he announced.  “Ouvrer la porte maintenant.”

No response.

Serge Meservey’s hard mouth twisted into a grin; his appetite for a fight was piqued.  Drawing both braquemarts he stepped forward and kicked against the door, punting it open and sending a chunk of the frame skidding across the floor for its trouble.  Again he motioned Etienne to enter first.

Despite the sun blazing down from a placid, cloudless sky outside, the room was dark.  Heavy opaque curtains had been drawn over the enormous rear window, leaving only a single thin stick of light to sneak through where they separated.  Listless air hung there with death’s fragrance on each breath.  Etienne thought he saw Meservey wrinkle his nose at it.  Unlike his first visit, when the walls had echoed the moans of the dying in their beds, this time everything was silent.  Those who slumbered beneath their clean white blankets did not stir, even as the soldiers filtered inside.

The lack of reaction to their arrival rattled Etienne’s counterpart, as if the man had expected to find the two witches enjoying a cup of tea.  Letting fly a choice repertoire of curses, Meservey gathered a meaty handful of curtains and tore them from the wall.  Brilliance flooded into the room from the exposed window, completing the setting but revealing nothing and no one further than the bodies in the two rows of beds.  The storm brewing on Meservey’s face swelled from squall to tempest, and he stomped over to the nearest bed and pulled the blanket off, exposing – in what one might grant as an understandable instant of shock – the unexpectedly young and hale occupant.

“Bonjour, monsieur,” said Corporal Valnier.

When Nightingale had attacked his convoy outside Montagnes-les-grands, Etienne had noted how time had seemed to slow to a snail’s crawl.  Here it screamed ahead beyond the gallop of the fastest horse, as his men leaped from their concealment in the beds with swords drawn and assailed Meservey’s soldiers before the latter group could collect their respective jaws from the floor.  Polished metal flashed shards of light over the walls, followed by flecks of fresh blood.  Cries of pain erupted, and just as quickly dwindled into choked, ebbing gurgles.  Bodies fell to the floor in turn like so many discarded gambling chips.  The Directeurs had not lied when they had promised Etienne a detachment of the best; a virgin betting man would have balked at the odds for their opponents.

Showing no respect for gentleman’s rules – part of why he was so good at what he did – Valnier clubbed Meservey in the groin with both fists, and as the Commissionaire crumpled and doubled over in a wheezing fit his swords fell from his grip.  Etienne shoved the large man aside and scrambled to collect the weapons.  The whole enterprise concluded faster than it would have taken one of the Bureau’s clerks to describe it.  Meservey, red, tears streaming at his temples, raised his head to witness his five men cut down, Etienne’s group with nary a scratch shared between them and Etienne himself directing the serious end of a custom, pearl-handled braquemart at his nose.

In spite of this, Meservey found it within himself to laugh.  “Well played, Navarre,” he said.  He coughed and spat.  “Belleclain sisters?”

“A hundred miles gone, give or take,” said Etienne.  His plan, shared with his corporal in that brief exchange outside the inn a few hours past, had gone as intended.  “My dear Valnier here was good enough to see them away the minute your detachment arrived.”

Meservey sighed, though he could not erase his grin.  “Real pity.  Heard the rumor back in Calerre, didn’t want to believe it.  Gave you every chance to prove me wrong.”

“What’s that?”

Despite the congenial veneer, his words were ice.  “Got spoiled by a taste of hot witch’s teat.  Didn’t think treason was your bag though.  Hope you shared her chatte doux with the rest of your boys, ‘cause you’re all going to swing for it.  After they gut you to force a confession first.”

“What will they gut me with?  Your magic swords, Serge?” Etienne said.  “You want to toss around accusations of treason, let’s discuss a violation of the Bureau’s very constitution, designed and engineered by you.”

“Sanctioned by the Directeurs,” Meservey reminded him.  “Blessed by them.”

“Even they answer to someone else.  The King’s executioners are going to need a lot of rope.”

“Think anyone will listen to a defrocked Commissionaire under the spell of a witch?”

Etienne edged the sword tip closer to his colleague’s skin, close enough to clip the near-invisible hairs sprouting from each pore.  “Want to live long enough to find out?  Tell me where the weapons are being made.”

“You’ve got nothing,” Meservey said.  “Kill me, you’ve still got nothing.”

A new aroma slipped between the beats of their conversation, an insidious odor slithering up between breaths of old decay and new dead flesh beginning to spoil in the heat.  It was a smell from memory, from cold nights and warm kitchens.  Wood, searing into smoke.  Etienne’s eyes itched as a gray haze faded across his field of view.  “What the hell’s going on?” he said to no one in particular.  Valnier motioned for one of the men to investigate, but need not have bothered; Etienne knew swiftly enough who was responsible.  “Secondary protocol?” he asked.

Meservey’s grin nearly split the corners of his mouth.  “Rest of my men don’t hear from me in four minutes, they seal the building and set it on fire.  Kill everyone inside.”

“Including you.”

“Big bear brings home the prize catch or doesn’t come home at all.”

“You’re insane,” Etienne said.

Meservey stepped closer, letting the sword point touch his chin.  “Going to die with me, Navarre.  Fitting end for a couple of traitors.  Shame we don’t have more of that Fián to toast with.”

“Monsieur?”  Corporal Valnier pressed him with an atypical urgency.

Sweat curled across Etienne’s forehead with the doubling of the heat, and lungs closed tight as the room filled with smoke.  He opened his mouth to issue orders and instead found himself hacking on befouled air.  Meservey seized enough uncontaminated breath to laugh.

A furious, bright amber intruder exploded through the entrance, collapsing the timbers in the ceiling as flames erupted from the first floor and began to devour the second.  Meservey used the distraction to pivot away from Etienne’s blade, and hurl himself through the great window.  Skin shredded by shattered glass, the Commissionaire fell amidst a clattering rain of hundreds of shards to the street one storey down, breaking his fall with a loud crash through crates of fishing gear.  Etienne’s indecision lasted only long enough to see Meservey pry himself out of the detritus of lures and rods and begin to run – to find and return with his reinforcements, to get word sent to Calerre about Etienne’s treason, whatever.  Etienne knew he could not let the man escape.

“Get everyone out,” he told his corporal.  “Whatever you need to do.  Go!”  Etienne climbed up to the open window frame and crouched on its edge.  He looked over the alleyway below to the clay-tiled roof of the next building, and his mind found spare a fraction of a second to wish that he had been a younger man, or truly, that he had bothered to eat something this morning.  Sheathing Meservey’s braquemart in his belt, Etienne stood, bent his knees, threw his arms forward and leaped.

Realistically, he should not have made it.  Even an inch short and he would have, should have, smacked against the side of the building and ended his journey through this life in a crumpled heap of broken flesh in the alleyway.  But whether from determination blended with stupidity, audacity stirred by adrenaline, plain mindless luck – or perhaps even a lingering trace of Nightingale’s sublime magic – he wrested that needed inch.

Etienne’s fingers clawed at the raised edge where one tile lay over another, securing a fragile hold by which arms exerted nearly into sprains could haul the rest of himself up.  Rising, he steadied himself with a deep breath.  In the street below he could see Meservey running north, back toward the town square.  Etienne set out after him, pushing his legs hard, trampling tile and wooden plank in leaps from rooftop to rooftop of the buildings lining the streets and the canals.  He kept the other man ever in his sights like a hawk set on a particularly succulent mouse for its lunch.

Behind him, fire had risen to consume the entirety of Adelyra and Kathaline’s infirmary and begun to spread to the adjacent buildings, aided by the onset of a stiff wind.  The cheap, weathered timbers of the poor quarter were unable to repel the onslaught.  Etienne could not spare a thought for the men he’d left behind, however.  He had to trust that Valnier would see to their safety.  The deep alarm bells started ringing again, and in the streets and along the canals, the people of Charmanoix emerged from their hiding as if from a long hibernation.  This complicated Meservey’s flight, as he now had to buck and weave around wandering bodies when it was plain from his course – as observed by Etienne above – that he was not entirely certain which way he was going.  Understandable, given the mazelike quality of the layout of this place, and fortunate for his pursuer, who otherwise would not have been able to keep pace.

Meservey veered off the narrow bridge onto a much narrower wood plank walkway adhering to the rear facades of a row of buildings, bowling over the villagers and smashing through their meager belongings, very much a bull on a charge.  Etienne followed across the rooftops, his own steps more the delicate springs of a deer.  A high suspension bridge at the north end of this stepped path connected the two sides of the canal and led to the main route back to the town square; it was Etienne’s best chance to stop Meservey before he reached reinforcements.

A renewed sense of determination braced Etienne’s tiring legs.  However, architecture, or rather its failings, had planned otherwise.  Etienne’s right foot loosened a flimsy roof tile that promptly shattered and interrupted his stride.  Overwhelmed by mislaid weight, his ankle twisted too far and snapped.  The crack of the bone was so loud it cut through the sudden spike of pain.  Absent that support the rest of him tumbled forward, and fingers scrabbling for a steadying grip came away only with crumbs of broken clay.  He slid towards the edge and rolled off.  For an instant he felt nothing but the fissure in his foot as air parted to make way for his falling form.  He pierced a rotted cloth awning, which slowed his descent ever so slightly, and deposited him with a final thump on a pile of hard burlap sacks, which seemed to contain only bricks.

Etienne did not know which hurt to react to first.  He rolled over onto his side, and sensed in between sheets of lacerating agony that the braquemart was gone, that it had obviously come loose in his fall.  Quickly he spotted it lying a short distance away on the walkway, the blade hanging over the edge.  Before he could reach for it a pair of boots stepped between him and the sword, and a hand reached down to grasp it; a hand belonging to the owner of the initials monogrammed on the pearlescent hilt.  Etienne’s eyes rose to meet the rest of him.

Serge Meservey smiled, and swung the blade down at Etienne’s head.

Etienne flung himself forward.  The sword sliced deep into the burlap sacks, lodging itself deeply into whatever was inside them.  Growling, Meservey yanked at it.  It took him a few seconds to free it again, and Etienne used those priceless seconds to pull himself up and limp away, forcing his good leg ahead and dragging the dead weight of his right.  He heard Meservey stomping towards him and spun.  Meservey tried a lateral slice at neck height this time, and Etienne dropped and heard the sword thock against the wooden railing.  He pushed himself up with his working knee and landed his fist in the crook of the elbow of Meservey’s sword arm.  The Commissionaire grunted and dropped the blade, letting it clatter on the planks below them.  His emptied hand became a fist and hurled a powerful blow against Etienne’s jaw.  Etienne’s mouth filled with blood, and in it swam something small, loose and jagged as well.  Had he a moment to reflect on this development, he might have fretted about still being able to chew the medium rare-grilled spice steaks he’d often enjoyed in the Splendide’s dining salon.  But as he fell, the priority was to ensure that Meservey did not get his hands on the braquemart again.  He twisted himself to land on it and cover it with his chest.

Meservey urged him in the strongest possible manner to give up the blade by locking his large hands around Etienne’s neck.  Dark spots swarmed Etienne’s vision as he tried to turn the sword beneath his weight and get his hand around the hilt, while at the same time he fought for breath.  His fingers shook as he searched for it, dug for it, scratched at it.  Fingertips grazed the hilt as the light began to dim.  Meservey continued to throttle him without pause.  Etienne finally felt his hand wrap around the leather grip.  He shifted his weight onto his left side, giving his right enough space for his arm to tear the sword out from underneath and slash blindly at his aggressor.  The blade sliced a deep gouge into Meservey’s cheek.  Blood spewed over both men.  He stumbled back, clutching at the fresh wound.

Bruised larynx wracking him with spasms of hard coughs, Etienne dragged himself vertical and turned to face the other man again.  One side of Meservey’s face was painted in strings of dark red, and part of his earlobe was gone.  Yet his mouth was still curved in a sadistic grin, and he kept advancing.  “Never were a fighter, Navarre,” he said, with a voice full of gravel.  “Should have taken my head off with that.  But you’ve got the delicate hands of an accountant.”

Etienne held the walkway railing with one hand, retreating slowly toward the suspension bridge, and swung the sword in sharp bursts with the other, keeping Meservey at a distance.  Propelled by the wind, fire was continuing to spread through the streets of Charmanoix, and over Meservey’s shoulders he could see it coming closer, eating one building after another.  “Tell me then,” Meservey went on, “this all worth a few rounds between a witch’s legs?  Did it feel that good when you took her?  Or did you let her take you, like a good little salop?”  Etienne swung the sword harder.  Meservey laughed.  They were on the bridge now, Etienne limping in reverse and Meservey continuing to stroll towards him – to an observer it was the slowest chase in the history of mankind.  Not that anyone was paying them any heed; the villagers were running pell mell trying to save their homes and belongings from the blaze.

Etienne dared a thrust toward Meservey’s stomach, and Meservey grabbed his arm and squeezed.  A vise closed on his bones, pressing them together.  Etienne let the blade fall.  Meservey pulled him in and blasted his face with another punch.  Etienne crumpled into a heap of throbbing pain.  If there was ever a time for hope, about now would have been terribly convenient.  Meservey was right:  Etienne did not have the physique of a fighter.  He was crippled now, unable to walk, and even at peak form he had perhaps half the strength of his opponent.  This fight had been over before it began, and Etienne had been stupid to think he could have offered a challenge any fraction greater than laughable, that he could have beaten Meservey at any contest more substantial than cards.

He felt soft fingertips on his face.  They were not real, of course.  His fantasy of her was taking hold again, the instinct for self-preservation offering him an illusory measure of comfort as reserves dwindled below critical.  Etienne, she whispered to him.  My sweet Etienne.

My beautiful Nightingale, he said.

You have never understood why the lost turn to magic, she told him.  Do you understand now?  Do you understand what it truly is?

The answer came to him between heartbeats.  He did not know if it was his own thought, or one given to him by her.  But it felt logical, it felt reasonable, and moreover, for once it felt right.

Magic is their hope, Etienne said.  Magic is hope.

He could feel her everywhere.  Her voice was both within and without him.  Then let it be yours now, she said.  White light washed over him, and she was gone again.

Meservey looked down at Etienne, then leaned on the bridge railing and stared out at the approaching fire, which was snaking its way along the walkway that had seen the commencement of their struggle.  Blackened timbers splintered and tumbled into the rushing waters of the canal below.  “What do I do with you now?” wondered the Commissionaire aloud.  “Finish you myself or leave you to the flames?”  What Etienne said in response, Meservey could not hear.  “What’s that?  You begging?”  He leaned closer.

“No mercy…” Etienne repeated, “for you shall have none.”

He punctuated his citation of the Bureau’s infamous motto with an impossibly brutal kick to the back of Meservey’s knees.  Balance stolen by the unexpected blow, Meservey pitched forward and, unthinking, tried to plant his feet on what turned out to be just past the very edge of the bridge.  He went down, striking his chin on the railing, and as he spun his arms flailed to hook himself desperately around one of the thick suspension ropes.  Meservey dangled there, grip precarious, over a seven-storey drop to the coursing waters of the canal.  And he watched, astonished, as Etienne rose and stood on legs that had been made whole.  “The hell,” the incredulous Meservey spat.

“Hardly,” said Etienne, flexing the healed limbs approvingly.  He ran his tongue over his teeth; they were all there, just where they should be.  Medium rare steaks were still a possibility.

The fire had reached the end of the bridge and was progressing in towards them now.  The heat piled on top of them like unforgiving iron weights.  “Same question, then.  Finish you or leave you to the flames?”

“Pissing it all away, Navarre.  Bureau will hunt you down like the witch-loving rat bastard you’ve become.  You’ll never sleep another night.”

Meservey’s braquemart was lying in the path of the fire; a tiny flame burned at its tip.  Etienne scooped it up and contemplated it.  “I’ll wager you’d love to lead that particular hunt.  Tell me where the weapons are made and you’ll have your chance.”  He touched the smoldering blade to the rope onto which Meservey was clinging.  The little flame licked at the woven fibers as if tasting them, trying to decide if they were worth sinking its teeth into.

“You’ll never get near them,” Meservey said, finding resolve enough to sneer at him.

“Then there’s no reason not to tell me, is there?  Decide, Serge, I don’t remember how long it takes for rope to burn.”

Etienne had seen plenty of hate directed his way in his life; to be a Commissionaire was to invite it, to become a fulcrum for it, to walk about wearing it as a cloak.  He had been cursed, threatened, even burned in effigy once by a particularly creative and crafty group of villagers out in Brennes.  The difference was that in those cases, it was never personal.  It was the Bureau they hated, and he was merely the representative.  Here, locking eyes with Serge Meservey, Etienne could sense raw, venal, personal hatred such as he had never experienced.  It was difficult to believe that they had shared a congenial round of drinks only an hour before, when now it was more than evident that Meservey would derive an almost carnal pleasure from discovering into how many pieces he could chop Etienne’s breathing body.  That incinerating alive whilst hanging from a bridge would be preferable to granting Etienne a victory.  That Meservey’s hatred of himself for capitulating would be just as fierce.  That in the old days a blood feud would have begun today to endure seven generations.

Each word was drenched in humiliation and distaste as Meservey forced it past his lips.  “Bureau headquarters,” he said, choking on the syllables.  “Sub-level six.  That’s where the weapons are made.”

Etienne kept the blade next to the rope.  He furrowed his brow.  “There is no sub-level six.”  The headquarters building had only five floors below ground, mostly for storage and some training facilities.  He’d been on sub-level five a dozen times and had never noted anything – doors, stairs, what have you – suggestive of a sixth.  “You’re lying to me.”

“Entrance is separate, not in the main building.  Tunnel comes in from across the street.  The old Korbolde garden house.  Now get me off this maudit rope!”  His hands were beginning to slip, and the fire had reached the ropes next to his.  Wood cracked and split.  Heat pressed against their faces.

It was enough for Etienne to go on.  And it did not come as a terrible surprise to know that the Bureau would want to keep the manufacture of its forbidden materiel so close to home.  Only one question remained – what to do with the man responsible.

This is not my choice to make, Etienne.

Etienne shifted his grip on the sword.  Meservey’s eyes widened.  “Wait,” he pleaded, hate softening in the final seconds.  Flames coiled around the top of his rope and descended toward his hands.  “Why are you doing this?  Has to be more than just because of a woman.”

Etienne had nothing to offer but a shrug of his shoulders.  “I have hope,” he said, before burying the customized, monogrammed braquemart in its owner’s stomach.

The rope snapped, and Meservey fell, sword sticking out of his gut, blood leading the way to the waters below.  There was a tremendous splash, and the body was carried silently out of sight, destined to float the remaining course of the Sept Frères to the ocean and from there, beyond all memory.  Etienne expected that none would mourn Meservey’s passing beyond the anonymous insignia that would be placed on the Bureau’s memorial wall.

“Etienne,” said a melodic voice behind him.  A real voice.

However beautiful his memory of her, it always paled when he could behold her in the flesh, as if the human mind was simply incapable of keeping an accurate record even approaching what she was.  Someone else had once referred to her as a goddess, and seeing her standing there in the middle of the flames, long dark hair teased by her servant the wind, Etienne felt a compulsion to sink to his knees and offer her his inadequate worship.  “Nightingale,” he said.

Nightingale raised a slender, perfect hand above her head.  Purple light whirled at her fingers, and around them, the fire began to vanish – not extinguish into smoke, but simply disappear as if being painted off the canvas by an artist who had quite casually changed her mind.  It rolled back and away from them, evaporating from the buildings, all that scorched wood regaining its color and shape.  Once again he found himself awed by the sheer, intangible scope of her powers.

“Thank you for saving me,” Etienne said.  “Have I earned the privilege of your real name yet?”

Amaranthine lips smiled.  She reached out to touch his cheek.  He could feel sparks of her energies tingling the surface of his skin.  I want to kiss you so desperately, he thought.  I want to have all of you, and I don’t care if you know it.  Yet he held himself back.  He wanted her to consent to his desires.  He wanted her to want him with as much pure, untamable yearning as he felt, and he wanted them both to revel in stratospheric throes of passion he could only guess at.

“Come with me,” she whispered.  Her hands glowed with a rush of magic again.

And all that was the town of Charmanoix faded from Etienne’s sight.

* * *

Remember, you can now read the complete story on my Wattpad page by clicking the icon to the right.  Lucky part thirteen is on its way.

Vintage: Now appearing on Wattpad!

Just a quick update today to advise that I’ve taken the plunge, as it were, and set up an account on Wattpad to host my fictional musings, including (but mainly) Vintage.  I gather that there are those of you who enjoy the fruits of my imagination while others prefer my opinion and more philosophical non-fiction pieces.  While I will still post the newest excerpts of Vintage here as they spring from my head, for reading convenience and pleasure they will now be gathered in a more conducive, navigation-friendly format over in this particular corner of the Interwebs.  Feel free to subscribe or bookmark to your heart’s content; this struggling scribe’s soul will greatly appreciate it.  And I’ll put a more permanent, easy-to-find link on here when time permits.

Thanks as always for stopping by and taking a few minutes out of your day to read my offerings.  Every click is a choice to spend some time here instead of somewhere else.  It’s deeply valued.

I have been, and ever shall be…

Nimoy

Our sky is a little dimmer today with the loss of someone who expanded the meaning of stardom out beyond the final frontier.  Leonard Nimoy, gone at 83, was an actor, director and photographer by vocation but at heart a storyteller and shaper of one of the most impactful fictional characters of our time, who helped remind millions of us feeling like aliens walking an often confusing planet that we were human after all.  And more than that, in an entertainment landscape overrun by buffoons and simpletons elevated by ratings popularity to aspirational figure(air)heads, Nimoy made smart and logical the coolest thing you could hope to be.  With his portrayal of Mr. Spock, Nimoy gave the pursuit and value of intellect a mysterious and, dare-one-say-it, sexy side.  He gave hope to those of us more comfortable with a math book than a bench press.  He showed that brain could be more magnetic than brawn.

When I first watched Star Trek at the age of 10 or so, Spock was the character I was most drawn to.  Sure, Captain Kirk was the swashbuckling hero and Scotty had a cool accent, Dr. McCoy was full of Southern charm and Lieutenant Uhura was simply stunning to behold, but Mr. Spock was, if one will pardon the pun, fascinating.  A teenage kid struggling with hormones and the associated emotional imbalance, particularly in the wake of the passing of his own father, will naturally find himself captivated by this unflappable figure who sets that troublesome turmoil aside and approaches each problem from the standpoint of clear and logical analysis – while never forgetting the all-important human equation, even if he hasn’t quite figured that out yet.  I wanted to learn more about Vulcans and try to emulate their approach to life, even if I didn’t think I would ever become a scientist.  More importantly I wanted to figure out if it was actually possible to neck-pinch someone into unconsciousness – would have helped with bullies back in the bad old days.

Our popular culture contains an infinite assortment of characters whose adventures and traits resonate within our collected consciousness long after they have exited the stage.  With respect to his successor Zachary Quinto, few characters and performers are as inextricably fused as Nimoy and Spock.  Surprisingly, or not, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s initial description of the USS Enterprise’s Vulcan science officer was the very definition of “broad strokes,” a sketch that could have applied to any generic alien from any cheesy science fiction program of the last century:

…Probably half-Martian, he has a slightly reddish complexion and semi-pointed ears…

As most fans know, NBC was so unimpressed with Spock as he appeared in Star Trek’s first pilot that dumping him was one of their conditions for agreeing to finance a second.  Roddenberry refused, of course, and over the original run of 79 episodes, Nimoy took those pencil marks and began to infuse him with depth, gravitas, and even a dose of Jewish mysticism (the source of the famous split-fingered Vulcan salute), creating a lasting icon.  As the Star Trek canon became ever more robust, Nimoy seemed to get its characters and the reason for its popularity more than the behind-the-camera talent did.  Blossoming into a fine director, he took them helm and helped guide Star Trek on its cinematic journey, and those times where it stumbled were those in which his voice was left unwisely on the sidelines.  It would seem strange to wish to try and do anything with Star Trek without the input of Mr. Spock, but so goes the human arrogance that Spock himself would rightfully disdain.

Like so many of his Trek co-stars, Nimoy the actor wrestled with the issue of typecasting.  In the 1970’s, he suffered through a bout of fan misgivings after the publication of his autobiography I Am Not Spock, proof that even before social media the public was apt to overreact to things not worth getting upset about.  Such was the loyalty to the character he had etched into so many millions of hearts.  (Sure enough, when rumors began circulating during the pre-production of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that Spock was to die, a most illogical wave of threats began bombarding that movie’s producers.)  When he wrote his sequel I Am Spock so many years later, Nimoy reconciled with his alter ego and with the fans who wanted to see him as nothing else, perhaps recognizing that if one is to be known for just one achievement in one’s lifetime, the definitive portrayal of a character who inspires millions of people is not such a bad legacy to leave.

In his twilight years, as he explored his passion for photography and made the occasional TV or film appearance, Nimoy seemed settled into the idea of himself as elder statesman and philosopher.  A few days ago, after he was admitted to hospital, Nimoy’s Twitter account posted several moving messages about life and memory, perhaps from an accepting sense that the days were growing short.  It was, in effect, communicating a final wish to the world that it live long and prosper, as he did.  In the final scene of Star Trek II, the dying Spock’s thoughts and words are not for himself, but for his ship, his captain, and his friend.  “Don’t grieve,” he says.  “It is logical; the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

In the end, Leonard Nimoy is that rare man who can move on from this life with no task left undone and no ambition left to prove.  It can truly be said of him that he left things better than he found them – we could wish no more for him, or ourselves.  And perhaps as his captain might have put it, “of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human.”

Vintage, Part Eleven

vintagetitle

Happy Friday the 13th!  Will Etienne thwart the curse of that notorious day in this new installment?  Read on to find out…

Etienne remembered the route back to the inn.  It helped that everyone else in the town was hurrying the other way in a thunderous dirge of shouting and hollering, a typical response to the heralded arrival of the Commissionaire and his entourage.  Etienne found it strange referring to someone else with his old title and thinking that under different circumstances it might have been himself sending the town into its tizzy.  But he was only Citizen Etienne de Navarre now, and even that appellation was of dubious accuracy given his decision to warn the two sister witches of Charmanoix.  So it was just as well no one else here knew who he was.  He swerved with blessed anonymity through the crushing mass, wincing both at the audible sagging of the bridge boards beneath hundreds of panicking feet and the alarm bells which had blared in discordant persistence for what felt like hours now.  Perhaps the men on their ropes were paid per ring.

Valnier and his men were waiting for him just outside the inn, the corporal’s perfected nonchalance symbolized by the raising of a single eyebrow as he saw his master drawing nearer.  “Meservey?” he asked, with a nod to the metal clanging from the bell tower on the adjacent building.

“At least two dozen men with him, maybe more,” Etienne said.  “I need you to do something for me.”  He leaned in and whispered – relatively speaking, owing to the need to be heard over the background noise – a condensed briefing and further orders into his corporal’s ear.  Valnier took it all in, processed it with a casual smirk and motioned for the rest of the men to follow him.  They marched off in single file, leaving Etienne alone.

He imagined Nightingale’s delicate hand touching his shoulder, her soft hair brushing against his cheek as amaranthine lips imparted sweet recollections.  You owe these men nothing, she sang to him.  I will meet you once again.  He remembered his own response:  I am yours, do with me what you will.  It was insanity, and he knew it, and still he wanted to wrap himself in it and let it permeate his very pores.  A fleeting thought of her braced him with more dizzying pleasure than any real experience he could remember, and so the next step required no independent thought, no further tortured decisions.  He could allow himself to be guided by his love for her.  This path held a purity and clarity that was, even in itself, deeply alluring.

For you, my Nightingale.

Etienne began walking back toward the center of town.  The bells pealed on but the bridges had grown quiet, the stampede having withered to a few stray wanderers like himself.  Hardly a ripple disturbed the canals beneath, the great fleet of boats now docked and tethered.  Those who had not flocked to witness the arrival of the Commissionaire’s party were hiding behind locked doors within their homes, praying to be spared the honor of a visit.

Etienne knew Serge Meservey well enough; that was to say he knew his manner and his methods, and where Etienne prided himself on being a chef’s knife making delicate, informed and precise cuts, his counterpart was a blunt hammer wielded in wild, careless swings.  He would not put it past the man, in order to flush out a mere two young women, to set this entire town of three thousand people aflame.

You’re afraid, the spectre of Nightingale whispered to him.

Her breath was at his shoulder again.  No longer satisfied with reiterating only the words he’d heard her speak, he began scripting new interactions in his mind, picturing her as a constant if invisible companion, a charming fantasy to tease him and spur him onward.  She flitted about his head, laughing and dancing out of his reach like her winged namesake.

You’re perceptive for a figment wrought from my imagination, he answered, his awareness floating between wisps of her and the regular dull taps of his boot heels on the wood of the bridge.

I am exactly as you would envision me to be, she said.

Then tell me what I’m supposed to do.

What it is within you to do.

The absent crowd revealed itself now, collected in the open nexus of Charmanoix.  Here individual paving stones in vivid shades of coral had been laid in a spiral mosaic over an adjacent series of longer, pile-reinforced bridges to create a bright and spacious square, ringed by equally color-splashed buildings containing Charmanoix’s most prominent shops and the offices of its maire.  Unwelcome installations flanking the grand meeting place at its corners, however, were the humorless black-and-gold banners of the Bureau, penning the hapless townspeople into what had become a cruel arena.  The great swell of bodies was being marshaled by uniformed men into two lines, one on either side of the open promenade.  Soldiers patrolled the perimeter by horse and nudged the angry ends of steel pikes into stragglers.  But it was not requiring much encouragement to get them mustered, given the motivational spectacle lying facedown in the very center of the square, a pooled, dark mass of sticky red staining the porous pink stones surrounding him.  From the decorative sash draped over the shattered torso it was plain that the aforementioned maire’s office had suffered an abrupt vacancy, and that the methods of Commissionaire Serge Meservey had undergone no evolution since Etienne’s last encounter with him.

Is this you? asked the illusory Nightingale at his back.  Is this what you wish to be?

She vanished, usurped by a soldier giving his shoulder a hard shove.  “You, mangeur de vers!” yelled one of the men on horseback.  “Get in line now!”

Mangeur de vers?  Worm-eater?  Etienne bit down on his usual quick tongue and committed the speaker’s obnoxious features to memory, assigning him some theoretical future retribution.

Without protest – without spoken protest, anyhow – he filed into the nearest queue of frightened villagers, blending into their ranks.  Rank odors of fish and sweat wafted from bodies cooking in the unrelenting sun.  A hum of agitated chat hovered over them.  He could hear husbands reassuring their wives, mothers comforting their sons, and others whose natural trepidation at what waited at the end of the shuffling procession was escalating with each step forward to the edge of nervous collapse.  Etienne imagined it would not be long before someone here with information on the whereabouts of the sisters decided to give them up for the sake of his own hide.  Courage, or even mere intestinal mettle, evaporated when those dread banners were raised.

He had seen this sort of fear before.  He himself had been happy to engender it when it suited his purpose.  But never had Etienne felt so drenched in it, standing here, advancing with these innocents one precarious footstep at a time.  The heat of a high sun aside, it was like drowning in a cold, murky pool, mouth only inches from air and light, not knowing that the surface was frozen over.

Would you be afraid if you were here? he asked her.

If I was here, she replied, none of this would be happening.  Certainly not.  Her magic would have swept Meservey and these men aside as easily as it had his own.

Then why aren’t you here?

Because this is not my choice to make.

Etienne’s queue veered into a deceptively aromatic bakery where the display shelves and tables in the front windows had been kicked over, breads and pastries be damned, to provide a clean desk for the thin, bland, balding Bureau functionary questioning each person prodded forward by the trio of soldiers attending him.  He was asking three simple revelations from them:  name, occupation, and the identity and location of any witches.  Based on his opinion of the answers, those so interrogated were divided again into two more lines, one that led out the side door and presumably to freedom, and another that stretched through shadowed hallways to the back of the bakery where the ovens were located.  Etienne did not want to picture what was being done back there; it was enough to know based on the hard heat and the smell of ash that the ovens were operating.

This is not my choice to make, Etienne.

“Name,” sighed the functionary as Etienne stepped forward.  Ennui shaded the word.  He did not look up from the bound ledger in which he was scribbling out near-illegible notes.

“Etienne de Navarre.”  No reaction, just a pause from writing to dip his bird-quill into the tiny ink pot at the corner of the table.  Etienne studied the long, thin brown hairs that had been yanked meticulously across the man’s crown in a vain attempt to stave off the end of the growing season, and create some faint, grasping hint of youth and virility.  Only the sightless would be fooled.

“Your occupation?”

“Honorable Commissionaire of the Bureau Centrale.  On leave at present.”

The quill stopped.  Ink pooled at the end of the word he’d just written.  The man with the combed-over hair set his pen down and looked up at Etienne for the first time.  “Impersonation of a Bureau officer is a hanging offense, monsieur.”

“As is willful or otherwise deliberate obstruction of Bureau business,” Etienne snapped back.  “Tell Commissionaire Meservey that Etienne de Navarre is here and wishes to speak with him.  Or, go see the tailor and have your neck measured for a noose.”

A few of those swept hairs deserted their last post as the man’s face lost at least three shades of its color.  Without word he rose from his improvised desk and beat a humbled path down the corridor.  The three soldiers remaining each edged a foot nearer to Etienne.  Deliberately, he took no notice of them, and instead cast his glance down to the shame of a rather flaky mille-feuille lingering in the corner of the floor, reminding him that he had not yet eaten today.  His stomach had obliged by remaining silent in the face of more pressing priorities.

Heavy boots preceded the next arrival, their echo stomping into the room well ahead of their owner.  Serge Meservey, his uniform jacket discarded, sleeves rolled to the elbow, cravat missing and buttons undone to mid-chest, looked less a Commissionaire and more as though he had just come from shoeing his horse.  Sweat and grease dappled a granite, creased, rectangular face and callused hands, which he was wiping with a stained towel.  His hairline was shaved to a receded crop of gray stubble, and a day’s worth of beard showed at his chin.  Etienne had never been certain why Meservey had wanted the post of Commissionaire and its assorted paperwork; his love was the exuberance of leaping into the mud and unleashing his fists.  The Directeurs played to his strength by sending him on those assignments without nuance or need of the refined reason that Etienne considered his own specialty.

“Navarre, you fils de salope,” he bellowed, and though the tone was jovial, Meservey could never shed the essential glacier at his core, not completely.  “The hell are you doing here?”

“Good to see you too,” Etienne said.  He extended a hand, and as Meservey clasped it, he noted blood and bruising on the other man’s knuckles.  “Sorry to have interrupted.”

Meservey shrugged beefy shoulders.  “Welcome change to talk to someone who isn’t whimpering and begging.”  He tossed his towel to the functionary, who recoiled at its stains and retreated from view.  “You’re a long way from home.”

“I go where the excitement is,” Etienne told him.

“Need a better map, Navarre.”  Meservey threw a scowl at the doorway, and at the townspeople waiting anxiously to be questioned, whom Etienne suspected would find this pleasant exchange quite bewildering given its proximity to the corpse of their maire lying in the square.  That was, if they could spare a thought from fretting over what was about to happen to them.  “Overgrown barnacles wouldn’t know excitement if it bludgeoned them in the conneries.  Hold their tongues well enough, though.”  He rubbed at a dark crust of blood on his knuckle.

“Well, if I can tear you away from scraping them off your boots for a few moments, I wondered if I might have a word or two with you, in private.”

“Of course,” Meservey said.  “Must be a decent drink somewhere in this floating trou de merde.”  He pivoted to deliver orders to his men.

Pity he killed the man who could have recommended a place, said Etienne’s vision of Nightingale.  He pictured her with a contemptuous sneer curling the perfect amaranthine lips, a pointed soft hand poised to release a spear of light into the other man’s back.  It made him smile, and he squelched it quickly before Meservey looked back at him.

The other Commissionaire led Etienne back into the square where the two large lines had begun to thin as citizens were processed and either held for deeper questioning or sent on their way, suitably chastened.  They strode across the scene as casually as two old friends on a nostalgic walk through the environs of shared and vanished youth – flanked by two of Meservey’s guards, lest some villager locate his courage and attempt a spur-of-the-moment assassination.  Etienne ensured his eyes did not stray to the body of the maire again.  His gut was troubled enough.

“Heard you were dismissed,” said Meservey.

Etienne nodded.  “I lost a subject.  The Directeurs wanted to make an example.”

“Bit harsh of them.  Lost subjects before.  It happens.”

“This was different.”  Because you fell in love with the witch who freed her, sang Nightingale.

Meservey let out a chuckle.  “They’ll have you back.  You’re too good at what you do.”

Do you really want to go back, Etienne?

L’Aiglefin Soif, a small tavern on the opposite side of the square, was abandoned and silent when it should have been bustling, thanks to Meservey’s intrusion into Charmanoix’s day.  The two guards went ahead to secure the inside before Etienne and his colleague were permitted to pass over the threshold.  Meservey treaded noisily to the pitted oak bar, selected a dusty bottle of cheap, indifferently-blended Armut whisky from sagging shelves, pried off the cap with his teeth and emptied the contents into a pair of tumblers.  “Salud,” he said, raising his to Etienne.

Etienne nodded and threw the drink back.  It scorched his throat, and he swallowed a cough.  Meservey grinned.  “Sure they pissed in it when they saw me coming,” he said.  He drank his share and poured two more.  “So,” he added, “how many of these do I have to force down your gullet before you tell me why you’re really here?”

Etienne hesitated before reaching for the second glass.  Now, of all imaginably inconvenient moments, his stomach decided to verbalize its complaints regarding its empty state.  The barely palatable Armut would be just the ideal balm.  “I was looking for you,” he said.  “I need some counsel, and I figured you were the best man to provide it.”

Meservey roared.  “I’m hardly the man to help you get your job back.”  He took the half-empty Armut and a bottle of imported Fián an Thraudh and circled from behind the bar to claim a seat at a small table.  Etienne took the chair across from him and spun his glass slowly, trying to stretch out his sips while Meservey, it appeared, was content to get himself inebriated.  Etienne could see the pores in the man’s forehead and cheeks redden with each gulp.

“That’s not precisely what I was talking about,” Etienne said.  He leaned forward.  “Do you know any more about why I was dismissed?”

“None of my business.  Figured the Bureau had its reasons.”

“They usually do.  Have you heard of Nightingale?”

“Here and there.  Supposed to be some all-powerful witch.”  Meservey shook his head and took another deep swig of the Armut.  He’d gone through most of the bottle on his own already.  “What do you know about it?”

Etienne thought he caught a taste of her perfume on the tavern’s stale air.

“She’s been freeing captive subjects all over the country.  She ambushed my men and let loose a shapeshifter we’d taken, and we couldn’t do a dieuxdamnés thing to stop her.”  Etienne allowed himself more of his drink.  It did not sit any better on this attempt, setting every inch of his throat aflame on the way down.  He did his best to pretend it did not bother him.  “She is targeting us.  She wants to destroy the Bureau.”

“Doesn’t do much for your career prospects, does it?” said Meservey.

“You don’t seem concerned.”

“Witches don’t scare me.  Never have.  Know why?”  Etienne shook his head.  Meservey set his drink aside.  “Forget the talk about the law, morals, religion, this god versus that.  Only constant in the world is fear.  Little animals are scared of the big ones, because the big ones eat them.  Big ones don’t need to be afraid of their dinner.  Think about it, Navarre.  They’re so mighty with their magic, what the hell are they hiding for?  Why aren’t they fighting back?  Because they’re afraid.  They’re afraid of me.  I’m the big bear.  And I’m not scared of anyone who’s afraid of me.”  Meservey concluded his oration by seizing the Armut and finishing it straight from the bottle.

You haven’t met me, little cub, whispered Nightingale.

“I don’t know,” Etienne said.  “If they’re so afraid of us, why do we see them as such a threat?  Why have you and I devoted our lives to hunting them?”

“Beats real work,” muttered his counterpart, reaching for the Fián an Thraudh.

Etienne intercepted Meservey’s hand and poured the Fián himself.  It was marginally less pungent than the Armut, and infinitesimally smoother on the stomach.  Between the bells from earlier, the lack of food and two full tumblers’ worth of undiluted whisky, his skull was beginning to emit a percussive, aching throb.  Apart from the increasing amount of crimson in his face, Meservey seemed unaffected.

“I worry,” said Etienne.  “I worry that the Bureau is losing its way, that we’re becoming what we profess to despise.”

“What makes you say that?”

Etienne let a thick pause hang between them for a moment.  “The weapons, Serge.”

The granite in Meservey’s face and the coldness behind his eyes revealed nothing.  If this had been route de perle, Etienne would have just dared to augmenter with an irretrievably weak hand, and with the croupier only a single draw away from a flotte.  What transpired next would depend on how expert a gambler Serge Meservey fancied himself to be, and how deeply that Armut had infused itself into his blood.

The Commissionaire only clucked his tongue.  “Gone soft, Navarre.”

“You designed them,” Etienne said.  “You–”

“Someone’s coming at me with a sword, think I’m going to defend myself with a stick?”

“It’s using magic, Serge.  Not only is it against the law, but it goes against the principles on which the Bureau was founded.  The principles you and I swore an oath to defend with our lives if need be.  If we’re using the same forbidden powers then how are we any better than the ones we’re chasing?”

“Difference does it make if it’s witch’s magic, or Qarceshi steel, or baby’s candy beans?  This is war, and when I walk into a battle I’m making damn sure I have the strongest arms.  Send a thousand Nightingales against me and I’ll still be the last man standing.”

“Who’s making them?”  Meservey sat back instead of responding.  Etienne leaned in again.  “Come on, Serge, you’re not a witch.  Who’s making these things for you?  Hmm?”

Meservey’s lingering joviality vanished, and Etienne knew he had overplayed what feeble cards he had.  “What’s it to you?” the Commissionaire asked him, icicles dangling from each syllable.  Etienne felt the eyes of the guards lock onto his back, and an oppressive silence seize the air.

Nightingale, too, was gone from his thoughts.  He was alone.

Etienne was spared answering by an urgent knock at the door of the tavern.  One of the guards opened it, and the functionary from the bakery appeared.  “Monsieur,” he announced.

“Have something?” Meservey asked.

The balding man hurried to his master’s side, bent low and whispered into Meservey’s ear.  Etienne could hear only hushed fragments, and studying Meservey’s face for clues was fruitless.  Abruptly, the Commissionaire stood.  “Knew these people had no spines when I first rode in here.  One of them finally proved me right.”  He looked to his guards.  “Get my horse and tell the rest of the men to meet us at the Pont d’Eglise.”

Sobriety smacked Etienne with a brick.  He chanced ignorance.  “What’s going on?”

“Two more for the trophy case,” said Meservey.  “Kathaline and Adelyra Belleclain.”  He smiled to himself.  “Never taken a pair of sisters before.”

Exactly as Etienne had predicted.  One of their friends or neighbors had given them up, out of the understandable fear at the consequences to themselves and to their families, to say nothing of whatever physical coercion Meservey and his men were applying in that part of the bakery he hadn’t been able to see.  It had been, truly, only a matter of time, and the sisters, whose sole crime was easing the passage of the dying, had run out of it.

Meservey made for the door, his functionary and guards in tow.  He stopped and looked back at Etienne, who had not moved from their table.  “You,” he said.  Not his more congenial ‘Navarre,’ just ‘you,’ as if Etienne was another of the barnacles he took limitless delight in crushing beneath his heel.  Accordingly, the next words out of his mouth were not an invitation, they were a command, and Etienne had no choice but to obey.  “Come with me.  I want you to see this.”

* * *

Of course there will be a Part Twelve.  Just wish that I could write it faster…

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.

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

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