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!