Ramping up towards what is hoped to be an exciting conclusion. Rated PG-13 for a wee little bad word that is situationally appropriate.
Etienne had seen Valnier’s fists deployed, more often than he could remember across a copious collection of years, against a variety of hapless targets. When Valnier cared to take advantage of the infrequent leisure hours afforded him, the corporal’s spare time was spent exclusively in the building of his strength; in particular, that of his hands, most often by slamming them against heavy leather satchels stuffed with rice, over and over again until the skin cracked and bled. Etienne had no idea how long Valnier had been practicing this punishing regimen – he’d never thought to ask him – but their missions had benefited tremendously from the result. Valnier could drop the toughest combatants with a single punch, or choke the truth from the most stubborn, defiant tongues. And Etienne had usually watched these events with a lasting gratitude that it wasn’t him on the other end.
A sea of blood flooded his mouth as those granite knuckles connected with his jaw. Etienne doubled over and sprayed red flecks onto white marble tile. Shaking fingers clutching at a grip on the floor, he gulped at breath with the desperation of a beached fish. Valnier circled to the side and planted his boot deep in Etienne’s stomach. Etienne sprawled over onto his back. The moans reverberating from the walls didn’t even register as his own, such was the disbelief ripping his brain at the betrayal of the man who had been arguably the closest thing Etienne had to a friend.
Chained and held at her arms by guards just a few feet away, Nightingale could do nothing but watch. “Stop!” she cried unheeded. Heavy silver manacles rattled as she shifted against the grip of the soldiers. Valnier wrested Etienne up by a handful of hair and drew back for another blow. His fists were painted in Etienne’s blood.
“That is perhaps enough for the moment, Valnier,” said Directeur Ste-Selin. “We would prefer you not make too much of a mess.” Valnier snorted and threw his former superior aside into a collapsed heap of bruised and broken flesh.
Etienne stared through a throbbing haze at the blurry ceiling, infinite aches even leaching into his thoughts. Through the wall of pain he heard only faint sounds of Nightingale’s plaintive whimpers.
Valnier. Of all the people.
“It surprises me,” Ste-Selin berated him with an air of tut-tutting derision, “that someone of your intelligence and experience would presume that we would send a compromised man unsupervised on a mission of such crucial importance without certain guarantees. Your corporal has been invaluable in providing us regular updates. His loyalty to the Bureau has never been in question.”
Etienne imagined flashes of Valnier being hurled into the woods by Nightingale’s power outside Montagnes-les-grands, saw him recovering quickly and racing back to watch the witch envelop his master in a veil of sparkling purple mist, bringing him under her spell. Saw the corporal watching Etienne descend into an obsessive abyss of gambling and fighting, realizing that he was no longer the ruthless Commissionaire he had once been, reporting these concerns privately to the Directeurs. And the Directeurs, rather than simply disappearing Etienne, seizing instead a gilded opportunity to use him to eliminate their most formidable foe. When Valnier had freed him from the cell beneath the Splendide and teased him with the prospect of retribution for their shared disgrace, Etienne could not have known and never would have imagined the true nature of the mission. He had congratulated himself for outsmarting and out-strategizing the ever-so-cunning Directeurs, when in fact the entire premise had been based on a lie. Their promises of promotion had been empty inducements. They had never intended him even to return.
And now he had delivered them Nightingale.
It was, to understate the matter, a monstrously inconvenient development.
“We have been fully briefed on your scheme against us,” said Kadier Duforteste. “Your hooligan associates from St. Iliane are being rounded up as we speak.” Etienne thought of the curses spewing from Le Taureau’s infuriated gullet. Hopefully the big man gave them a decent fight first.
“It must be humiliating, to truly comprehend the depth of your failure,” warbled Theniard Preulx. “This institution is eternal. It shall not fall before the pathetic likes of you.”
Etienne pulled himself to his hands and knees. Attempts at words became angry coughs that shredded his throat. “This institution is rotten to its core,” he spat out. He pivoted to Valnier, though he could not bring himself to look in the corporal’s eyes yet. “Ask them how they made that pretty sword hanging off your hip.” To the Directeurs now. “And you ask him who killed Serge Meservey’s men.”
The Directeurs responded with a collective trio of shrugs. “Wars are won with sacrifice,” Ste-Selin said. “Nightingale is the most powerful subject we have yet encountered. With her in our custody, the course of the war will forever be turned in our favor. The Bureau would gladly trade a thousand Serge Meserveys in exchange for a prize of her worth.”
Probably, Valnier would have been instructed to obey Etienne’s orders, no matter how bizarre and unpalatable he found them, until otherwise advised. Keep up the illusion of the loyal soldier until it was no longer necessary. He had likely convinced the others who had accompanied them and who had gone with Le Taureau’s group to maintain a similar ruse.
“So when do they cut you loose for someone they value more?” Etienne said to no one and everyone at the same time. A turbulent silence invaded the room.
Valnier ended the brief lacuna by delivering another blast to the side of Etienne’s head. “Shut your mouth!” he bellowed as Etienne crumpled again. Rage boiled in Valnier’s voice, a geyser’s worth of suppressed emotions erupting at the surface, far too many to be contained in mere two-word bursts. “You betrayed everything we fought so hard for,” Valnier said. “For what? Huh? Answer me, you lying bastard!” He closed Etienne’s neck between clawing fingers. “I would have followed you anywhere. Anywhere. And you gave it up, just so you could fuck that unholy bitch.” Spittle landed on Etienne’s purpling face, a souvenir of Valnier’s hatred.
How must it have been for Valnier, sitting silently and watching Etienne, the man whom he had given so much, and for whom he had labored without question, plan to rip their world apart, seemingly on nothing more than fanciful whims inspired by a woman? Ruminating on his secret orders the entire while, waiting on the day and hour and minute when those orders would be carried out, nurturing a dying hope that Etienne might surprise him in the end and return to the side of friendship and light.
“Language, please, Corporal,” interrupted Ste-Selin. “Even though we may be dealing with the undignified, we shall not lower ourselves to his level. The Bureau keeps a higher standard.” He waved Valnier off again. Etienne coughed and sucked in precious breath. “Directeur Duforteste, if you will, kindly read out the charges for the benefit of the transcription.”
Duforteste consulted a tan-colored piece of paper in front of him. It was embossed with two parallel gold lines running the length of the left margin. Cold recognition struck Etienne, and he hardly needed to hear what was written on it. “Monsieur Etienne De Navarre, of the rank of Honorable Commissionaire of the Bureau Centrale, suspended, having committed a wanton act of treason against the persons and the property of the Bureau, including collaboration with the enemy and multiple counts of sabotage, incitement to sedition and murder, most notably the murder of Commissionaire Serge Meservey, is hereby sentenced, without possibility of reprieve or appeal, to death by execution. Said punishment to be carried out immediately, in this place, effective this date. Signed, Theniard Preulx, Michel Ste-Selin and Kadier Duforteste, Directeurs, Bureau Centrale.”
“No!” screamed Nightingale.
“Fear not,” said Ste-Selin. “Once our re-educators have finished with you, you will beg us to let you join him.” The Directeurs stood. “The sentence has been pronounced. Please do the honors, Captain Valnier.”
The newly-promoted Valnier – his inducement for turning on his friend – tore his sword from its scabbard, marched to the center of the room and forced Etienne to his knees. He pulled Etienne’s head back by the scalp and lay the edge of the blade against the artery in Etienne’s neck. Etienne swallowed, and cast his gaze across the room at Nightingale. If she was to be the last thing he saw, then it was not such a bad way to end his misbegotten life.
“One thing I must ask, before we do this,” said Preulx. “You were always such a keen observer. How did you not observe the obvious goings-on under your own nose?”
“It must have been the failings of those who trained me,” Etienne said with a wry, casual flair, even as he strained his neck against Valnier’s sword. “They missed the obvious as well.”
“And what is that?” demanded Ste-Selin.
Etienne nodded at Nightingale and smiled. “Her chains are fake.”
Every eye in the room widened. Each jaw began to drop.
Nightingale was swift to dispense with the flash of incredulity that had paralyzed the menfolk. She summoned her magic and glanced down to see the telltale violet sparks erupting at the tips of her fingers. Before the remainder of those widened eyes dared blink, she vaporized her metal bonds into white-hot shards in a tremendous explosion of light and blunt force that sent the two guards holding onto her arms careening over the clerks’ carrels. At the sight of the freed witch, Valnier sneered and moved to slice into Etienne’s throat. Nightingale threw forth her hand, sending an angry bolt of lightning screaming across the room to strike Valnier square in the face and hurl him into an unyielding wall. The sword clattered on the floor tile. Valnier’s body twitched, with lingering forks of spent purple energy crackling over it as it came to rest. Etienne rubbed at his neck and let out a relieved breath.
And then the mayhem began.
Doors burst open on all sides. Soldiers surged through them like waterfalls forced through a sieve, while bureaucrats and secretaries flailed to scramble their way out like insects fleeing the flood. But Nightingale was magnificent, a master witch at the apex of her powers, sweeping away every single assailant, scarcely looking perturbed as she went. Even armed with the dreaded magic-forged weapons, the pride of the Bureau Centrale suffered a rout. It was exactly like the first time Etienne had seen her, but now he could admire rather than cower. Watching her fight wreathed in the bands of violet light that flew from her fingers was to bear witness to a ballet, executed immaculately in the eye of a hurricane of bodies and debris. Still more men came at her, and either a gentle wave of her hand cut them down, or a delicate twisting of her fingers smashed them in a collision of shattered limbs. None could offer so much as a challenge to her, and their efforts regardless inspired only cringes of embarrassment. Man could try to lie to himself to bolster his ego, but pitted against a liberated goddess, he would forever be found wanting.
The tide of soldiers trickled to a halt. Nightingale and Etienne stood alone in the epicenter of the destruction, surrounded by the unconscious fallen, as a forest’s worth of dislodged papers tumbled from the air like falling leaves. “Nicely done,” said Etienne.
Nightingale slapped him.
“Ow!” gasped Etienne. He clutched at the swelling bruise left by Valnier’s fists.
“Oh! Sorry,” said Nightingale with a sheepish grimace. She held up her palm. A soothing glow radiated over Etienne’s wounds, erasing them from his face. He stretched out his jaw approvingly. “Seriously, though?” she added. “You couldn’t have told me that the chains weren’t real?”
Etienne shrugged. “I needed a convincing performance. Everyone needed to believe you were harmless, especially you. Lest they notice and put the genuine article on you once we arrived.”
Nightingale rested her hands on her hips. “Well then, what in the world were you waiting for? Your blood to start spurting in the air before you thought to say something? You know, there are some wounds magic can’t heal.”
Etienne wandered over to where Valnier’s body lay, under shattered wood panels and crumbled ceiling tile. The corporal had taken the brunt of Nightingale’s attack, and even his painstakingly honed physique had not been able to endure the infusion of that much raw power. Etienne bent down, swept away the fragments and looked at his old friend’s silent face one last time, letting himself think fleetingly of better days, of the many times Valnier had saved his life. He could not return the hatred that Valnier had shown him in his final moments. He felt only pity. “All too true,” Etienne said.
“You never really trusted him,” said the witch.
Etienne stood. “The world you and I want isn’t one he could live in. Maybe it’s just as well.” He unbuckled the scabbard from Valnier’s belt and slung it around his own waist.
Nightingale nodded to the far end of the room. “And what about them?”
The three Directeurs were still conscious, and huddling among the broken remnants of their presiding table, pressing back against a rear wall which afforded them no further space to retreat. They were like a trio of weepy schoolboys who’d been caught wetting their collective pants, and, judging by the rank odor wafting Etienne’s way, he surmised that at least one of them, old Preulx perhaps, already had. Nightingale ignited swirls of purple energy in her palms and strutted towards them, and petrified gasps went out at her approach. Etienne smirked as he wiped Valnier’s sword with the tail of his jacket. “Don’t worry about them. They’re not what we’re here for. They’re actors.”
Nightingale raised an eyebrow. “What? You said the Directeurs were–”
“–the leadership, yes, I did,” Etienne finished. “That’s what the Bureau wants everyone to believe. I also told you that the Bureau uses subterfuge and misdirection to prevent the three of them being targeted at once. But why make that public knowledge? Why force the world’s attention on three specific individuals unless it is a calculated bluff to draw attention away from the true power behind the Bureau? These men are just mouthpieces for the real leader, and not very good ones at that. I mean, really, I’ve seen enough opera to recognize bad acting from a mile away. And the scenery-chewing clichés bubbling out of these three are textbook Hackneyed Stage Villain Academy.”
“Then where is the real leader?” Nightingale asked.
“He is here,” Etienne said, “and at least one of them probably knows where.” Etienne joined her and let his gaze simmer slowly over the frightened faces, commanding the moment, stretching out their torment. He could not deny the certain degree of enjoyment in it. “You,” he announced finally. He grabbed Michel Ste-Selin by the lapels and dragged him away from the other two. Preulx and Duforteste squirmed, grateful they hadn’t been chosen. Nightingale stared them deeper into their corner.
Etienne had frequently stood in awe of Ste-Selin and been intimidated by the weight of his position and presence. He had envied the man’s perceived achievements and craved them for himself. Yet he had never been able to shake the nagging sense that Ste-Selin was speaking another man’s words. Perhaps it was that heightened awareness that Nightingale had once told him belonged to men who were born to witches. The coward revealed, trembling on the ground beneath him was no more than a tone-deaf singer without an orchestra, a second-rate performer without a script.
“All right, Monsieur le Directeur,” said Etienne, nudging the tip of Valnier’s sword at Ste-Selin’s throat, “one question. Sub-level six. How do I access it?”
“P-please,” whimpered the ersatz Directeur, “I d-don’t know anything about it!”
“You take your instruction from someone who takes great pains to keep himself out of the light. I’m guessing it’s in the same place the Bureau is making its forbidden weapons.” Etienne tilted his head toward Nightingale. “You can either tell me, or let her rip the information out of your skull.” Nightingale punctuated her glare at Ste-Selin by lining her irises with swirling purple light. Etienne grinned. “That’s good, I like that. Scary.” The witch smirked.
Ste-Selin slumped. “The lift in the pillar of heaven,” he said.
“What’s the sequence? Which levers do I pull?” demanded Etienne. He pushed the sword tip a little further, creating a tiny cavity in the skin, just shy of breaking it.
“I can show you. Just k-keep her away from me.”
“Having to breathe the same air as you is nauseating enough,” Nightingale said.
Etienne patted Ste-Selin’s cheek. “Good boy. Let’s go then.”
Sirens and bells began screeching at them from every angle, loud enough to feel like the noise was coming from inside their very heads. Etienne and Nightingale spun as one to see Theniard Preulx slumped against the wall, his gnarled hand pressed against a hidden panel. Etienne’s rejuvenated spirit sank as he recognized what was happening, and as the withered cretin giggled like a naughty child one-tenth his age. “Catastrophic Emergency Protocol Rouge,” Preulx barked, finding a degree of menace to add even when faced with exposure and defeat. “You can’t stop it. You’re all going to die.”
Nightingale winced at the hammering peal of the alarm. “Can we stop it?” she asked.
Etienne shook his head. “Too late. Once the signal is sent, the emergency beacons atop the building are lit. There are sentries whose entire job is to watch for them every minute of every day, and wait to see if they go up. The whole city will go under martial law immediately. We have twenty minutes. Maybe twenty-five at the most before the army gets here.”
“Oh good, I thought this was going to be hard.”
Unnoticed, Ste-Selin scrambled to his feet and ran for the door. Etienne sighed and nodded to Nightingale. The witch raised her arm and hurled another stream of lightning from her fingers. It struck Ste-Selin in the shoulder and pitched him over onto his side. He groaned at the sting of it as he writhed on the floor, but she hadn’t hit him hard enough to do any permanent damage.
Etienne hoisted him up and prodded him in the back with the sword. “Come on.”
Behind them, Theniard Preulx had collapsed into breath-spare, mad laughter, pushed at last over the perilous edge of senility upon which he’d been teetering. Maybe in this new madness he truly thought he was a Directeur now, not a puppet reciting dialogue. The comparatively unassuming Kadier Duforteste was clutching his knees to his chest, rocking back and forth and weeping. Perhaps, Etienne thought, he should have killed them both, even if their crimes had merely been the unthinking relaying of orders from the unseen master. But executing a pair of snuffling, sobbing failed actors seemed tasteless, even if a wag might dub it a favor to the cause of theater. Instead, Nightingale waved her hand and both men fell unconscious. Their fate would be decided by someone else.
Etienne shoved Ste-Selin out into the hallway as the alarms continued to blare. A peculiar scent wandered on the air at the edge of his perception, something foreign to the usual odors of varnished wood and writing ink, something sharp and chemical. Adjacent the entrance to the stairwell at the opposite end, shouts and the scuffling of boots rose and faded away again. More reinforcements, perhaps. Etienne held out his arm to caution Nightingale to remain back.
She frowned at him and pointed at her chest. “Um, witch, remember?”
Etienne smiled. Nightingale stepped out ahead of him, her arms raised and her open hands filling with gathering charges of light, ready to strike. Etienne kept his sword at Ste-Selin’s back, his arm on the Directeur’s shoulder.
The shouting erupted again, this time much closer. Etienne and Nightingale both tensed.
A single soldier burst from the stairwell, weapon in hand. He waited there.
The magic in Nightingale’s hands flared, but she did not release it.
The soldier raised his eyes to them. His look was not one of threat or of steeled engagement, but bewilderment. A staggering inability to understand the obvious truth of his situation.
His lower lip sank open. A thick line of blood emptied out of it.
The soldier slumped facedown to the floor, and from the shadows emerged the very last person Etienne had expected he would ever see again, bellowing at the fresh corpse in his inimitable fashion, “Out of my way, tête de cul.”
“Le Taureau!” Etienne called out. “What the hell are you doing–”
“Alive?” Le Taureau interrupted. He kicked the dead soldier from his path and stomped over to join them. “No thanks to those mercenary connards you stuck in my unit.” His false army uniform was torn and stained with sweat and ash and blood, but none of the latter appeared to be his own. And he still had the medal he’d liberated from the leader of the squad they’d ambushed back in the Bois Jongleurs. Nightingale gave him a friendly embrace. “We followed your plan to the letter,” he told them, gathering a shaken composure. “Made it through all the security with the fake credentials, replaced the night shift and found the archives. We got inside, we were preparing to torch it, and then suddenly your men were attacking mine. You certainly have interesting taste in friends.”
“It was Valnier,” Etienne said, a note of regret touching the name. Le Taureau was intelligent enough to detect the finality in Etienne’s voice. “How many did you lose?”
“Seven,” said Le Taureau, “but they fell as men. And they accomplished their mission.”
Etienne plucked the strange smell from the air again. “That’s what that is. The building is on fire.” The reams upon reams of paper in the archives would be a potent fuel for the flames to spread unchecked from those three central floors throughout the rest of the building.
“As instructed. What about you?”
Etienne shared a glance with Nightingale. “We took care of the Directeurs, but they managed to activate Emergency Protocol Rouge.”
“The Armée Royale,” Le Taureau mused.
Etienne nodded. “All of it. In less than twenty minutes.”
The big man eyed the humbled Michel Ste-Selin slouching next to them and exhaled a gale’s worth of resigned breath from cavernous lungs. Le Taureau had known there would likely be no coming back from this battle, but that would never stop a man from hoping the opposite. “Then you two had better hurry up and finish this before they get here.”
“You’ll hold them off for us?”
“As long as I can.” Readying his bloodied sword, Le Taureau moved off toward the stairwell, then paused to look back. “I’m not going to say goodbye again. Just… don’t get killed.”
“Nor you,” said Etienne.
The corner of Le Taureau’s mouth curled into a grin. “En aucune. Putain. Façon,” he boasted. And off he went, eager to ram his blade through as many Bureau stomachs as dared obstruct his way.
“Nous ne verrons pas son pareil,” Etienne whispered to himself. Then he turned and shoved Ste-Selin against the section of the hallway that concealed the secret lift. “Open it.”
The Directeur reached up and pushed his thumb against a screw protruding from a candle sconce. The panel next to it creaked and rolled open, revealing the empty, waiting lift chamber. Etienne marched Ste-Selin inside and positioned him in front of the arrangement of levers. Nightingale followed.
“Enter the sequence for sub-level six,” Etienne instructed. “She’ll know if you’re lying.”
Ste-Selin complied, pulling at a permutation of levers as Nightingale watched. A small bell chimed as the sequence completed. “Thank you,” Etienne said. Ste-Selin swallowed, obviously terrified of what was to become of him now that he was of no further use. But again, Nightingale showed herself to be every bit as enlightened and merciful as her enemies were backward and brutal. Without more than a moment’s consideration, she simply pressed a gentle finger to Ste-Selin’s forehead. His eyes rolled back into his head and he collapsed into a slumbering heap.
Etienne shoved him back into the hallway as the doors began to close, shutting out the sound of the alarm bells as they sealed shut. The chamber shook as it had before, and Etienne felt his stomach knot as it began to descend. The candles illuminating the chamber flickered madly. It was moving much faster this time. “I’ve never seen any device like this before,” he said. “I wonder where they found it.”
Nightingale drew her fingertips across the wall panels. “This is not mechanics,” she said. “There is magic here. It’s…” Her gaze lost focus and trailed off into a void.
“What is it?”
She frowned. “It feels… familiar.” The witch looked unsettled. Worried, even. Most unlike the Nightingale he’d come to know.
Etienne moved closer and lay his palm against her cheek. He stroked at strands of her hair with his thumb. “Whatever it is, I’m sure we can handle it.” He leaned in and kissed her. Nightingale pressed herself against him and slid her arms up his back. It would be so easy to go now. To ask her to whisk them away, to their island. And yet, duty and honor demanded otherwise. For while the Directeurs had been dealt with, and the burning archives were losing decades of vital, irreplaceable records, the most important element yet remained. So long as those weapons existed, none of the world’s witches could walk without fear. While the Bureau had certainly been dealt a blow, it was not yet fatal, and they could rebuild on their arsenal and continue to sow their plague of fear, continue to push witches toward extinction. Etienne was content enough for a momentary reprieve, and another sumptuous taste of Nightingale’s amaranthine lips. His love for her insisted that he keep going.
The lift must have passed the first five sub-levels already, yet it continued, and the rattling of the walls suggested it was speeding up. Etienne and Nightingale held each other and waited, waited for the chamber to deliver them into the very mouth of the abyss.
The rattling stopped. The floor settled. The tiny bell sounded again, indicating at long last, arrival.
The doors opened onto a cold ocean of black.
* * *