Vintage, Part Five

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

“Encore une autre, monsieur?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Etienne had not argued the decision.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Augmenter complet,” he said.

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

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

Mermaid of moons.

“Flotte,” announced the croupier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valnier shook his head.  “The Bureau.”

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

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

“What kind of assignment?” asked Etienne.

Valnier took a step forward.  “Retribution.”

*  *  *

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

Vintage, Part Four

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

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

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

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

He needed to reach the road.

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

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

A witch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The witch turned.  She looked straight at him.

Etienne stopped.

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

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

She was that beautiful.

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

With seductive amaranthine lips, the witch smiled at him.

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

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

*  *  *

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

Vintage, Part Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Salut, mademoiselle minette,” Etienne said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I would never–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The corporal shrugged and spat.  “Doubt it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quelqu’un nous sauver…

*  *  *

To be continued… right here!

Vintage, Part Two

vintagetitle

To read Part One, scroll down past this post.  Otherwise, soldier on.

Only a poor man would have called it a feast.  Etienne had attended enough lavish banquets back in Calerre to have etched his expectations for that honorific far too high for a modest, forgotten place like Montagnes-les-grands to even approach.  He was not, however, so closed off that he could not at the least admit that Maire Bernaud Joyal and his gathered citizenry were trying their best to keep him and his detachment sated with the meager selection it was within their capacity to offer.

They sat at the long, plain, pitted dining table in the salle publique, the venue here most suited to accommodate a visiting Commissionaire and his entourage, even if it reeked of horse and a hint of years-old vomit.  Etienne leaned back in his chair at the head of the table, sipping at a red served inelegantly in a glazed wooden goblet, and grinning at the mortification souring the put-upon maire’s round face to his immediate right.  They were fourteen at the table, swarmed by twenty hurrying to clear used plates and replace them with dishes fresh and hot.  The din of base conversation and the constant clanking of cutlery was troubling Etienne with the beginnings of a headache.  Or it could have just been the cheapness of the wine.  EIther way, Etienne winced and took another sip – in for a sou, in for a livre.

Amuse-bouches of spiced bean soup with ginger root and appetizers of tartes flambée with smoked bacon and caramelized onion had been first, followed by a small mid-meal dish of brandied pears.  Valnier and his men were gobbling the food down as fast as the villagers could ladle it out, with the crass single-mindedness – and flagrant ignorance of table manners – one would expect from career soldiers.  The aging villagers were not the most nimble in keeping up, either, and three times the persistent hum of the meal had been shattered by an errant plate spreading shards of itself over the floorboards, followed by Joyal’s effusive apologies.  A stringy tortoiseshell cat roamed the mise-en-scene, wandering amidst legs and licking at the occasional scrap tumbling from crude forks.

“You are not a young village, are you, Bernaud?” Etienne said to the maire, with a nod toward the sun and year-scarred cracks in the face of the hunched man who refreshed his cup.

“N-no, Monsieur le Commissionaire.  Many of our young were lost in the war, and the rest do not stay.  There is very little to fire a young man’s soul in Montagnes.”

“Oh, come now,” Etienne said, lifting the goblet to inhale the bouquet, which reminded him distinctly of a charred, wet bucket full of rotting apples.  “Opportunity is where one creates it.  Did you know that Gysbert Lashace composed fifteen of his greatest arias before he had set foot outside Fauniere?  And Fauniere has not the fortune to reside in the shadow of the Araquogne as you do.”  Fauniere had little fortune at all; it was a backwater slum of maybe a hundred bedraggled peasants cobbled from the remnants of a remote border garrison that had not had the good sense to be overrun during the war ten years prior.

“W-with respect, Monsieur,” Joyal said softly, “Grand Duc Lashace grew up at his family’s lakeside summer retreat ten miles from Fauniere and was apprenticed by esteemed composers who had studied at the Conservatoire Royale.  He did have a certain advantage that we here do not.”

Etienne smiled at the maire’s impressive display of trivia.  “Yet would he have been able to invest his work with such a poignant sense of melancholy from amidst the velvet and frills of the capital?  The nobility of the suffering he portrays could only come from having walked with the common people, listened to their stories, shared in their prayers.”  Etienne set his cup down and leaned forward.  “You see, my fellow Commissionaires often miss this point.  They are slow to volunteer for the assignments that take them far from home.  I tell them, the true spirit of a people is found not in its cities, but in the farthest reaches where convenience is but a dream and ceaseless toil the ultimate measure of one’s life.  Out here is where one finds the honor one professes to seek.”  He leaned back and cast a glance toward Valnier, seated next to the maire.  “What say you, Corporal?”

The gruff soldier looked up from his soup bowl.  A bead of thick amber trickled from the corner of his mouth.  “Good food,” he grunted.

Etienne grinned.  “There, you see, Bernaud,” he said, “praise does not come any higher.  And Valnier has been with me for five years now in our journey across the country visiting communities like this one, serving the government of His Majesty the King.  Occasionally having the opportunity to enjoy a fine meal in good company.  Speaking of which–” He slid his disappointing cup toward the maire.  “When are you going to open your better selections?”

Joyal swallowed hard, looked over his shoulder and threw his arm into the air.  Half the servers crowded forth to tear away the remnants of the tarts and brandied pears while the others retreated to the kitchen to bring out the mains.  Etienne watched Corporal Valnier fume silently as his soup bowl was taken from him; the man was as deliberate in eating as he was vicious in swinging a sword.

The kitchen doors swung open and the aroma of braised meat filtered into the salle.  “Entrecote marchand de vin?” guessed Etienne.  Joyal nodded.  “Splendid,” said the Commissionaire, and he leaned back to watch the procession of elderly servers try to stay vertical as they slid the heaping plates in front of his eager men.  The servers were a nervous lot, with a hefty dose of fear driving their arthritic limbs past capacity, apart from one:  a short, plain-faced woman with wild, wiry gray hair, reminding him of brambles.  Her movements were languid where the others were rushed, her demeanor placid where her colleagues could scarcely contain their desperation for the night to end.  Curious.  The hag seemed to be without fear.  Etienne might have even guessed that she was bored.  Bernaud Joyal could stand to take a cue from her; he might gain a few more years of bureaucratic ennui.  Right now though, Etienne preferred the maire where he was; teetering on that precarious edge of complete nervous collapse.

Etienne felt the cat brush past his boot.  It wandered beneath the table, tucking its tail away from the threat of stumbling old feet.  Lucky thing to be residing here instead of a town like Fauniere, where the drought might have seen it carved up and served with a tumbleweed as garnish.

Joyal located a modicum of courage beneath his hairless pate as the last of the servers withdrew from the table.  “I-if I may be permitted to inquire as to the purpose of Monsieur le Commissionaire’s welcome visit to Montagnes-les-grands?”  Etienne glimpsed the bramble-haired woman, standing back by the now-closed kitchen door, watching them with an even, expectant stare.

The Commissionaire looked to Corporal Valnier.  Valnier stopped eating and threw a glare at his men, who responded as they had on scores of similar occasions.  Silence cut the conversational din as swiftly as a knife far sharper than those which could barely hack through the leathery cuts of meat on their plates.  A nerve pulsed beneath the pink skin of Joyal’s forehead.

All attention was on Etienne now, and he knew how to play it as well as any performer he’d seen on the stage.  He often joked to himself that watching opera in Calerre had taught him more than the reams of texts the Bureau had thrown at him in the course of his official training.  People were predisposed to be an audience; easily manipulated by theatricality, desperate to bestow their admiration upon someone they considered famous, or merely their superior – even if that person wasn’t.  The rank of Commissionaire was mere formality, really.  Etienne could have limped into this village on the back of a manure cart and still had them begging to listen to him.

He met Joyal’s frantic gaze, locked and directed the maire’s eyes to the empty wine cup sitting between them.  Joyal shook his arm into a waving blur and the bramble-haired woman stepped forward, a glass decanter clutched between gnarled fingers.  Etienne sat back and allowed her to pour.  He could tell by the color alone as the decanter emptied that this was what he had come to sample, not whatever glorified donkey urine they’d fobbed off on him earlier.  The maire probably thought he was being clever by choosing this moment to lavish gifts upon the Commissionaire.  It wasn’t an unrealistic ploy; certain less scrupulous bearers of the title had been known to look the other way when a sufficient bribe crawled into their pockets.  But here, Joyal was merely sealing his village’s fate.

“M-may I present the fruits of our summer harvest, our cuvée speciale,” the maire said.  “I h-humbly hope Monsieur le Commissionaire will find it a bold, inspired choice.”

The old woman took a discreet step back to watch Etienne lift the cup to his lips.  The bouquet had the expected frame of oak surrounding a distinct flavor of plum.  He allowed the first taste to slide over his tongue and into his throat, evaluating each of its nuances as a man of science would pore over the results of his experiment.  Searching for commonality, for contradiction, establishing connections, analyzing those elements that remained separate.  Testing his hypothesis to its limits and arriving, presently, at the inescapable conclusion.

C’est vrai.

Etienne set the goblet back on the table.  “Monsieur le maire,” he said, abandoning both familiarity and any semblance of a regional patois, and reassuming the scholarly tones of upper class Calerre, “there is but one purpose for our visit to Montagnes-les-grands.  Indeed, from the instant you glimpsed the approach of our company you would have known our purpose, and it is something of an exercise in pedantry for you to ask me to state aloud that of which every person in this room is already quite cognizant.  The time we are granted to walk this world is brief, and I am not renowned for my patience with having mine polluted by unnecessary conversation.”

“M-monsieur–”

Etienne slammed his hand on the table.  Plates and glasses and people alike jumped – it was as if for half a second the contents of the entire room suddenly shifted upward, and came to rest again, slightly off-kilter from where they had been before.  A change that could not be reversed.  “Don’t interrupt,” the Commissionaire said evenly.  In that instant, Joyal looked to have lost a few inches from his height and a few dozen more hairs from the limited reserve upon his head.  The indifference on the old crone’s face began to wither as well, usurped by the creep of dread.

“So,” Etienne went on.  “This country, of which we are proud to call ourselves citizens, is a land of rich and noble traditions, protected by a fabric of laws and governance which protects those traditions in much the same manner as a blanket protects the sleeping child on the winter’s night.  So long as the blanket remains intact, the child remains safe and warm.  Yet as any weaver will tell you, the finest cloth will be reduced to tatters in time, if it is not mended with vigilance and care.  Threads may snag on the edge of the bed frame, moisture and dirt may rot it from the inside, moths may devour patches greedily until the blanket is destroyed and the child freezes.”  He glared at Joyal.  “You are the moth, Monsieur le maire, and I… am the needle.”

“Monsieur le Commissionaire, I truly must protest–”

“You’ve lost your stammer, Bernaud,” Etienne noted, “if not your capacity for interruption.  Valnier?”  The corporal stood.  “If our benevolent host speaks again before I give him leave, kindly break his face.”  Joyal’s protests turned to water and fell silent once more.

“There is witchcraft in this country,” Etienne said, raising his voice to ensure he could be heard even by those cleaning pots in the kitchen – though they dared not move now.  “It is a merciless, clawed and fanged demon, tearing relentlessly at the blanket which keeps us safe, seeking to leave us naked before the storm.  And no matter how many demons we slay, more rise to take their place.  Why?  Because of villages like this one.  You, who think that you are too remote to be noticed, that the matters of the rural communities mean nothing to the bureaucrats sitting on their silk-swaddled culs counting tax revenue in Calerre.  You think you are exempt from the law.  From reason.  From sanity.  The Bureau Centrale, and its Commissionaires, are the first defense against what you would seek to spread across our homeland like the plagues of centuries ago.  Like expert winemakers, we are tasked to separate the rotten grapes and ensure that the resulting vintage is of the most impeccable quality.”  He removed his timepiece from his pocket, exposed its face and placed it on the table between himself and Joyal.  “Now, Monsieur, you have sixty seconds to explain to me why I am wrong, and I why I shouldn’t have you and the entire population of this village macerated into must.”

The tortoiseshell cat chose that moment to leap onto the table, startling a few of Etienne’s detachment into snickers of accidental laughter.  It parked itself in an empty section between half-finished dinner plates and tucked its paws beneath its belly, diamond-shaped eyes following the room’s only conversation.  Etienne kept his eyes on the movement of his watch’s second hand, each passing tick one fewer chance for Bernaud Joyal to save his community from a torrent of sword and flame.

The flushed red in the maire’s cheeks approached that of his cuvée.  “This is an outrageous accusation,” he said, jowls shaking out flecks of spittle.  “We are a poor village.  There are no witches here.  The law is the law.  We would not dare offend His Majesty by offering harbor to such people!”

The Commissionaire closed his watch.  “With thirteen seconds to spare, no less.”  Etienne cast his glance to the bramble-haired woman standing just behind the maire.  She was attempting to inch back to the shadows, clearly out of hope of escaping notice.  Her look of boredom had been replaced entirely with fear.  “I’ll take another glass, my dear,” he said to her.  Joyal eyed her nervously as she took a halting step forward and tilted the decanter over Etienne’s cup, spilling more than she poured.  “Oh, shame,” said Etienne.  “Fitting, however, because this is what tipped your hand.”

Joyal’s stammer returned.  “I-I don’t understand.”

“The life of a Commissionaire affords one the privilege of travel across the entire country, the chance to sample selections from vineyards both majestic and meager.  To develop a palate that can identify the origin of wine down to the singular patch of earth from which its vines sprang.  Your cuvée, monsieur, bears the signature taste of plum that marks every wine from the southern slope of the Araquogne, as indeed it should.  Yet you are remiss in thinking a seasoned connoisseur cannot tell the difference between a grape grown in a wet season and one in a drought.  When vineyards are drying out left and right beneath this punishing sun, you present me with a wine from soil so damp it might as well have been cultivated at the bottom of the ocean.  Bold and inspired indeed.”

All color washed from Joyal’s complexion like an ebbing tide.

Etienne favored the maire with a smug grin.  “Your village is using witchcraft to boost the productivity of your fields.  How many harvests did you enjoy this year?  Four?  Five?  Wines from Montagnes-les-grands are turning up in towns and bourgs as remote as Leunais and Doyen, providing you with a steady stream of revenue to see you through the drought, and fulfill your tax obligations to the last sou.  A fine scheme, worthy of a grandmaster.  Yet painfully obvious to anyone who knows his wine.”  He raised his cup in a mock toast, and drained the last dregs.  “Alors, monsieur, like the habitual gambler we find ourselves down to the last of our chips and only twos and threes in our hand.  Shall you reveal the witch to me and my men, or shall we put each of you to the question in turn until severed limbs drag the truth from bruised lips?”

Joyal’s voice cracked into the whisper of a mouse.  “M-monsieur, I-”

“No matter,” Etienne said.  “In point of fact, the witch is here in this room.  Too curious by half, it seems, to safeguard herself.”  He slipped his watch back into his breast pocket and rose.  Valnier and his detachment followed suit.  Etienne turned to the bramble-haired old woman standing behind the maire.  “Corporal Valnier,” he said.

“Sir.”

The crone was trembling now.  The corner of Etienne’s mouth turned up into a smirk.  “Arrest the witch,” he said.

A wail tore through the room as the corporal’s gloved hand coiled itself around the neck of the cat.

*  *  *

Much more to come.  In fact, you can read Part Three by just clicking in this tender spot.