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.
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.”
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.
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.