We humbly present our newest installment. From the writer’s perspective, it’s fascinating to watch an idea that grew from a single image flesh itself out and bring in new characters and situations that were never part of the initial conception. This part contains such a creation. Enjoy…
“Where is Nightingale?”
Etienne had lost count of how many times he had asked that question. The permutations in which one could use the same three words were limited, the range of tone confined to a scale from mildly inquisitive to angry and accusatory, and it felt as though he had exhausted them all by the conclusion of the first week on the hunt. The answers, also, were entirely variations on the negative, whether offered with formality across a posh dining table or squeezed from a stubborn neck. Oh, they had all heard rumors equal in vagueness, but specifics were as elusive as the object of the quest herself. It became plain to Etienne, though he was hesitant to share his revelation to Valnier or his new crop of recruits, that Nightingale would be found only if she wished to be.
The search took them back into the vast stretches of the province surrounding the wilds where they had first seen her. Enough miserable and often nameless villages dotted this portion of the country to occupy Etienne’s detachment a good twenty years if they had the means to check through each one. Though it had gone unsaid at his meeting at the Bureau, Etienne understood that expediency was expected, that the Directeurs demanded a swift victory to repair the damage to the Bureau’s image that Nightingale had caused. But it had been like sending a captain on a sea voyage without a sextant or a map, or, as it sometimes felt, even a sail or an oar. Certainty had always guided Etienne’s assignments in the past, and he was not accustomed to fumbling about in the darkness.
This next town was called St. Iliane, and if Montagnes-les-grands had been a dunghill, St. Iliane was home to the flies who would have gleefully swarmed over it. Befitting its deceptively holy name, it had once been a monastery, and at some point in a forgotten page of history had been overrun by a band of brigands who had slaughtered the peaceful friars and planted their flag in the blood and the ruins. What remained of the monastery, a few brick walls infested with weeds shriveled and browned from the drought, teetered on a hillside overlooking a distasteful hodgepodge of ramshackle lean-tos cobbled together from whatever rotten wood was available. It was the last place in the world anyone could expect to find witches hiding – let alone women, for that matter – but Etienne was leaving nothing to chance. Montagnes-les-grands had also presented itself as a routine assignment.
His new entourage rode into the village with customary bluster, yet the deference and fear Etienne had come to expect was absent from the crusted faces of the ruffians stumbling along the pitted, bending road that divided St. Iliane in two. Most ignored them. A couple of tattooed bruisers pointed and snickered. Of course, neither Etienne nor any of his company bore the usual trappings of representatives of the Bureau. No uniforms, no insignia, no formal carriage flying the ensign. In their weathered, nondescript civilian garb, Etienne and his men might as well have been a visiting company of jesters. Certainly, they did not look like anything for the hard-living men of St. Iliane to concern themselves with. They did not even look worth robbing. Pity, for the cache of weapons concealed inside each man’s saddlebag would likely fetch a considerable price.
The Directeurs had promised an arsenal to even the odds, and they had delivered a handsome supply of swords and arrows crafted of the same strange, non-tarnishing silvered metal that formed the collars and manacles so useful in blocking a witch’s access to her magic. Etienne had never been a swordsman so he could not vouch for the blades, but Corporal Valnier had been dutifully impressed by their light weight and the sharpness of their edge. “Feels good,” he had offered by way of comprehensive review. The other men had derived tittering amusement from the blue sparks that burst forth each time the blades touched during sparring practice. The arrowheads, too, were atypical, long and slender with rounded rather than pointed tips designed to wound, not to kill. For himself, Etienne had procured a new dagger which sat sheathed inside his vest, though for the moment he could not imagine bringing himself to use it.
He still dreamed of Nightingale, when he could still his mind enough to achieve sleep, that is, and the dreams were growing more intense the longer the search took. The contour of her perfect face became ever clearer amidst the hurried flotsam of thought and image, even as the moment of their single encounter receded with the passing of weeks. It was the very opposite of the custom of memory, and it only deepened his fascination. He craved understanding how she could so imprint herself upon him – but mostly, he craved her, the very shape and idea of her. A hollow ache that he could not salve gnawed at his soul, and the dreams were torturous reminders of what remained teasingly absent. He thought he had been overstating the matter when he confessed to himself that he was in love with her, and he could reel off a litany of reasons why: it had only been one sudden, brief meeting, he was mature enough to know better what love was supposed to feel like, and it could all be very well merely a dark spell she had cast upon him, but he did not care. He had tasted the greatest vintage imaginable, and the only answer to the madness was more.
Etienne raised a hand and bade his company to a halt. Pausing first to pat the dagger next to his breast, he tossed his horse’s reins to Valnier, then lifted himself from the saddle and stepped down onto the road. He took a few cautious steps forward and waited. No one emerged to greet him. The people of St. Iliane affected a remarkable indifference to the presence of Etienne and his men. It was difficult for Etienne to quash a rising of bile. Common courtesy demanded that attention be paid to arriving strangers, yet these louts could scarcely be bothered to fling a glance in his direction. For a moment he missed the yoke of a Commissionaire’s formal wear. The simple pleasure of a loosened collar had brought with it such disrespect as he was unaccustomed to experiencing.
“Excusez-moi,” he said, largely to the air as the St. Ilianeux brushed past him; the hot, dry breeze seemed to be a more receptive audience. “We wish to speak with whoever is in charge.”
From a window, someone let loose a broad, belly-shaking chortle seething with mockery. Etienne looked up, scouring the edges of the scene for whomever had found his legitimate question so risible, but said culprit obviously lacked the courage to deliver such a broadside in person. Etienne had long ago learned that it diminished the value of his time to spend it concerning himself with the actions or opinions of the worthless, so he shrugged off the slight, raised his voice and and repeated his question, embellishing it now with invented details: “My name is Amaury Léand, I am an agent of La Première Société de l’exploitation minière et le commerce, and if you would prefer not to hear what I and my colleagues have to say, we will gladly take our business elsewhere.”
That would snare their attention. ‘Amaury Léand’ was meaningless, a portmanteau of the working-class names of a pair of long-forgotten distant cousins, but PremSoc was the largest private mining and trading company in the country, and their appearance in a new town meant jobs and wealth were soon to follow. Etienne gave blithe ears a moment to digest his words. Sure enough, two men off to his right ceased what appeared to be drunken meandering and begin whispering to one another in cold sobriety. They exchanged nods and started in Etienne’s direction, and their pace suggested that either they had realized the fleeting nature of the sumptuous opportunity that was presenting itself, or remembered that PremSoc had once flattened their mother’s house in the course of its mining operations. Either way, Etienne did not turn to face them. He kept his feet planted. They would talk on his terms, not theirs.
The clothes of these two were as patchwork as the homes throughout St. Iliane, stitched together from the remnants of a variety of outfits that might at one point have been considered fashionable in their own right: two-thirds of a leather vest punctured with rusting studs, one cotton pant leg and one wool, dangling, stringy scraps of a fur scarf wildly unsuitable for a drought but worn apparently for lack of anything else. Their faces bore the warts and deformities of poverty, malnutrition and general apathy regarding personal hygiene, and Etienne had to saturate his thoughts with the sheen of Nightingale’s perfect skin to stomach a glance even at the less afflicted of the pair. “You,” one of the rubes barked at him. “What do you want?”
“Not to have to repeat myself to someone in no position of authority regarding what I have to offer,” Etienne said, turning his head away.
“You are really from PremSoc?” asked the second man, a rather stupid expression warping further an already damaged face.
“I would show you credentials,” Etienne said, “though it would do little good as I suspect neither of you gentlemen are the reading sort.” Baiting them probably wasn’t the sharpest approach, but Etienne doubted they comprehended half the words he was using. “Do you have a leader here, or do I turn my company around?”
“You want Le Taureau,” said the first man.
“Le Taureau,” Etienne said. “You gentlemen are his executive appointment secretaries, then?” He thought he heard Corporal Valnier stifle a snicker.
“They’re my brothers,” announced a fresh voice, belonging to an imposing man who appeared from one of the huts, flanked by a quartet of sycophants. Truthfully, imposing was understating it; he was imposing in the way a waterfall would be considered imposing by a minnow. He had the broadest shoulders Etienne had ever seen – that or he was sporting a curtain rod beneath the tanned deer hide draped around his neck – and a ridiculously barrelled chest that preceded the arrival of the rest of him. There was a robust, peaty odor of whisky about him, probably from those very barrels on his chest, and his skin was rosy with untreated sunburn and untempered drink. A full but unkempt beard dangled from his chin, matched in unruliness by dark eyebrows the size of most men’s mustaches. Valnier was the best fighter Etienne had ever known, but this new player looked as though he could dice the good corporal into mirepoix with his left hand, providing he could stop that hand from shaking with sot’s tremors. Yet his eyes were so dark as to be almost without color, and Etienne could see no light behind them. It was like being stared at by a corpse.
At least, the nickname made immediate sense.
“Monsieur Le Taureau,” said Etienne. He affected a slight bow of acknowledgement.
“Same question, tête de cul, asked by the gentleman it concerns,” Le Taureau said back. “What do you want?”
Etienne offered up a salesman’s smile. “A cool drink, perhaps, and a more shaded venue in which to discuss my company’s proposition? I think you will find it to your liking.”
Le Taureau looked over the faces of Etienne’s men. He and Corporal Valnier locked eyes for a longer moment than the others, as if the two were sizing each other up. It was plain from the sneer curling Le Taureau’s scarred lip that he did not think much of the good corporal. “Inside,” he grumbled. “We will take charge of your horses. Leave weapons behind.”
“Monsieur,” said Valnier, registering his objection.
“It’s all right,” Etienne said. “We’re here to do business. These are reasonable men.” He had no intention of surrendering his dagger. It remained concealed inside his vest as the rest of his entourage dutifully handed over their swords. Valnier’s face was that of a man being asked to sever his own arm with a rusted spoon, and the slight villager who accepted his blade noted the corporal’s displeasure and scampered away before Valnier could change his mind. Fortunately every curse Valnier knew was fewer than two words, and Etienne detected more than a handful of them muttered beneath each breath.
Once inside Le Taureau’s preferred meeting hall, or meeting hovel, as it were, it became apparent that the amenities offered by this place were as lacking as the appearance and the manner of its inhabitants. The cool drink Etienne had requested was lukewarm brown water he was certain would infect him with nine kinds of intestinal ailments, so he left it untouched on the pitted table in front of him. Le Taureau had no cup for himself. He explained, brusquely, that he did not drink with men from the city, and would break his custom only if they concluded a deal. He sat, said nothing further, and attended on Etienne making his pitch.
The challenge for Etienne, then, was to get to the business at hand. He took a swift survey of the room: Valnier and the dozen-odd, silent men of his company gathered on his side of the long, narrow table, Le Taureau and a handful of scruffy, chattering Ilianeux on the other. Etienne felt his confidence swell at the meager opposition, and he launched with verve and volume into what he considered to be a finely crafted speech of complete and utter gibberish.
It was symphonic in its flow, with themes based on key notes introduced boldly and repeated for emphasis, varied with each iteration but adhering always to his main point: the (entirely fictional, naturally) notion that PremSoc wished to build a new major trade route to the northern border that would pass conveniently through St. Iliane, and wouldn’t there be such bountiful opportunities for the locals to establish inns and other merchant ventures to ensnare the heaps of cash flowing over the coffers of those passing through. Etienne was careful to hold this specific nugget back until he had first laid out the basic details and built upon each layer like a confectioner perfecting each layer of cake before frosting it. The men listening could draw the desired conclusion and congratulate themselves for being clever, and only then would Etienne affirm what floated unsaid. The best way to sell anyone anything was to lead him to convince himself it was his idea to buy it in the first place. Etienne wondered, as Le Taureau’s goons fell quiet in turn, enraptured by his presentation, if he had not misspent what could have been a lucrative career in mercantilism, or the practice of law.
Le Taureau himself, however, remained the immovable object. When Etienne concluded the concerto, he sat motionless behind his beard and his enormous chest for a long moment, hurling an enforced silence into the air. Finally he leaned forward, and the table creaked and sagged beneath the weight of gauntleted arms. “What do you need us for then?” Le Taureau asked.
Etienne was impressed by the question. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“The mighty Première Société doesn’t need our permission to build this grand road.”
“That’s true. No, we could probably build it right through your kitchen and there would be little you could do to stop us.”
Le Taureau narrowed lifeless eyes at him. “Then why are you wasting my time?”
“Safety,” Etienne said.
A smirk. “Safety. Ours?”
“Ours.” Etienne leaned forward himself, close enough to be greeted by a fetid waft of Le Taureau’s stale breath. “My superiors are concerned about, well, it seems strange to say, but they are worried about the unusual happenings in this part of the province, if you take my meaning.” He lowered his voice. “You must know about her.” Le Taureau’s face went blank. “What is it they call her…” Etienne feigned a foggy memory and threw a look to Corporal Valnier to sustain the ruse. “Ah, yes. Nightingale.”
“You’re worried about a bird?” Le Taureau said. “Tête de cul indeed.” His men exploded into fits of laughter. A murderous frown twisted Valnier’s lips. Etienne might have fretted that they had wasted their time here, but for one miniscule detail that only he managed to notice: Le Taureau curling his meaty fingers into a tight fist to stop them trembling.
The instant he had spoken her name.
Etienne smiled. “Yes, a bird. A rather rare bird, with an unusual, unique call. And terribly lovely feathers.”
“And if I’ve seen this bird of yours,” Le Taureau said, “what can I expect in return for the favor of helping you cage it?”
“I think you’d find there would be few requests we could not accommodate. Certainly enough to reverse the fortunes of every man in St. Iliane. Dramatically.”
Le Taureau shrugged. “A dramatic offer deserves a dramatic response.”
Metal against leather has a distinct sound, like a shriek, as if the sharpness of the blade can yet wound what is already dead, and send a warning to those nearby. As Le Taureau’s men leaped to their feet and drew swords from their scabbards to point at Etienne and his company, that same damnable shriek cut into Etienne’s ears and transformed itself into a dizzying wave of fear that plunged straight to the pit of his gut. The doors burst open and twenty more men brandishing weapons poured in to surround the table. Etienne did not move. It was the best action he could take under the circumstances, but it had the happenstance to be born of a moment of pure indecision. His men had surrendered their swords and bows. They were better trained that these ragtags, professional soldiers to the last man, but training was of limited use with the tip of someone else’s blade aimed between your shoulders. Instead, Etienne stared ahead at Le Taureau’s satisfied grin, and fear evolved quickly into loathing. Le Taureau’s eyes suggested that the sentiment was mutual.
“What say you now, Monsieur le Commissionaire?” said the large man, gesturing to his mustered forces. “Still want to build me a road?”
At this juncture it did not matter how the man had deduced his identity. That could be puzzled out later, if they managed to escape this room. Etienne spoke slowly. “You have no idea what you are risking here.”
Le Taureau sneered at him. “Oh please. You Bureau types. You come into our homes in the middle of the night, you take our sisters, our wives and our daughters from us, and you expect us to thank you and sucer vos bites for our trouble. What am I risking? Look around. Because of you, we have nothing more to lose.” He leaned closer. “And if you think I am going to help you lay a murderous hand on a beautiful goddess, your Bureau has reached a new plateau of insanity.”
Etienne saw it then in Le Taureau’s eyes: a flicker of life. A sudden infusion of youth and vigor and blood running hot inside the veins. And he knew exactly what it was.
The man was in love with Nightingale as well.
Le Taureau stood back and addressed the rest of Etienne’s company. “Here is what is going to happen now,” Le Taureau said. “Your men will surrender the last of your valuables to us, and then you will strip down to your breeches and march in single file back to your Bureau. You will tell those cowards of Directeurs that they can put the men of St. Iliane to the most dreaded of their many infamous tortures and we will still never, ever betray her.” He planted his fists on the table and fixed his stare on Etienne again. “You cannot stop what she has begun. She is the wind and the ocean, and your Bureau is a castle of sand. And you know it.” Le Taureau smiled, the smile of the condemned man recognizing another who shares his fate.
His knees became water as a moving veil of sparkling purple mist enveloped him and permeated deep into his skin…
“Well,” Etienne said. “I for one won’t mind being rid of these clothes. It is so frightfully hot today, don’t you agree?” Valnier raised an eyebrow at him. Deliberately, Etienne pushed his chair back from the table and rose. Le Taureau’s compatriots followed him with their swordpoints. He reached a hand inside his vest. “Though I’m not sure this will fit the way you like.”
Metal made no sound scraping against cotton as Etienne snatched the dagger from its concealed sheath. But everyone heard the crunch and squish and ensuing scream as he plunged it straight through Le Taureau’s hand.
* * *
Like the Energizer bunny, this just keeps going. Unlike batteries, however – and hopefully – the energy won’t run out. Part Eight is on its way.