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.

“I would not abandon you,” she replied.  “You give me hope.”

“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 dieux-damnés 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.

Vintage, Part Nine

vintagetitle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Considerate of you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Curiosity.”

“About me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course.

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

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

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

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

“Liars,” Etienne said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tell me your name,” Etienne pleaded.

Nightingale only smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

The Pact – A Short Story Collaboration (Compiled Post)

Graham Milne:

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

Originally posted on Nillu Nasser Stelter:

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

JessPic

Nillu Nasser Stelter

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

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

View original 4,878 more words

2014: The Year That Was and Will Never Be Again

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

Here’s an excerpt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vintage, Part Eight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bite du diable.  They had found him.

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

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

Etienne.  “Etienne.  Etienne!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clad in a hooded cloak.

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

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

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

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

It’s her.  Mes dieux, it’s her.

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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