Happy New Year! Well, ten days too late I suppose. Here’s part nine, in which a long-expected meeting finally unfolds. Take it away… um, me, I guess.
“You’ve caught me with my britches down,” said Etienne. In any other circumstance, that would have sounded suave – witty even, delivered in the surroundings to which he was habituated – but here, it was like yanking broken words out of the cracking throat of a gangly boy, squirming to conceal his obvious and embarrassing arousal in the presence of an alluring woman. And he could only squirm from the waist up.
“Britches are hardly your style,” said the witch, her amusement in his predicament as palpable as the ice in the air that preceded her. “You think them too fey for the menace a Commissionaire is meant to project.” Nightingale’s boots made no footfalls as she treaded upon the solid block that clenched him below his navel, and her breath remained invisible even in the cold. She circled him, a predator evaluating its helpless catch, deciding which succulent portions to eat first.
Etienne tried to steel himself against shivers. His was a strange and not altogether unappreciated state of desire laced with legitimate dread. At the least, he was afforded more than a fleeting glimpse of her. He could drink her in, sate himself with the sight of her, devour every fraction of an inch of that hypnotic face. Hers was a shaming beauty, one that could remind any man how small and unimportant he was, how existence was wasted on the lumpen hodgepodge of body parts that was the male, when it was possible for nature to birth such a divine creature ostensibly from the same raw materials. There was a slyness to her though, a discernible angle to her features hinting at mischief and mirth, and a raw confidence to her poise suggesting that above all else, she knew how immensely powerful she was, that the world and its men were very much playthings to be toyed with at her will. Every so often, tiny flashes of purple light would dance about her hands and fingertips like waltzing fireflies, as though mortal flesh could scarcely contain the waves of pure magic coursing within her.
Etienne’s lower half chafed against its imprisonment. Dizziness swarmed his head. He had to remind himself of the necessity of breathing.
“Depends on the occasion, I suppose,” he offered, struggling to maintain at least a metaphorical footing against her. “What have you done to my men?” He looked to shore, over the bizarre tableau of Corporal Valnier and the other soldiers frozen in time by a fire that itself did not move.
Lacerating eyes remained fixed on him, analyzing him from hair to stomach. He imagined she was perceptive enough to read all his weaknesses as easily as if he were to spontaneously confess to them. “Nothing permanent,” she said. “I’ve merely kept them from interrupting.”
“Considerate of you.”
“Hmm,” said she. Madness, thought he. Even mere consonants sounded exotic from her lips.
Etienne twisted his head to keep her within sight as she paced around him. He could not abide not seeing her, even for a few seconds. “Might I ask, though, what it is they are not permitted to interrupt? Presumably the accused has the right to know.”
Nightingale grinned. “You’re afraid I’m going to transform you into something… slimy?”
“I assume you could, if you so wished.”
She tilted her head, confirming his assumption. “Crawling the earth for a time might instill in you some much-needed humility,” she said. “But as entertaining as it might be for some, that is not why I am here.” The witch came to a graceful halt directly in front of him. Etienne’s head swam with her subtle perfume. It was not a floral scent, but one still indelibly of the bounty of the earth, and if its purpose was to lessen her ability to tantalize him, it was failing.
“To what, then, do I owe the pleasure of your visit?” he asked.
“About your type,” said Nightingale. “About a man who clearly revels in the company of women but has no compunction about condemning hundreds of them in the same breath.”
“I do not condemn women,” Etienne said, as forcefully as he was able.
Nightingale laughed, and though the tone of it was obviously meant to be derisive, she could not bury completely the enchantment inherent in her voice. “Of course. A witch is no woman, is she. Though she has blood, flesh and bone, hopes and cares and dreams and fears, though her heart can know love and weep at its loss, that which is most special about her is what finally denies her a soul.” She held up a palm, and a flicker of violet light rose from its center like a thin line of smoke from a snuffed candle, coiling itself into curves and spirals that sparkled and reshaped themselves before their eyes. As it brightened the light began to expand, coalescing into a defined form, a small, round body with wings. Etienne could not help but smile – it was a nightingale. The ethereal image sprang to life, chirping a few notes of its unmistakable song into a surprised darkness before flying straight up from the witch’s hand and bursting above their heads into a shower of purple sparks that tumbled gently around them like snow. “Such unspeakable evil,” she said quietly.
Training, experience, the ethos chiseled into granite in Etienne’s mind were screaming one truth to him while instinct and yearning whispered another, entirely different, and far more enticing. He knew he could, right now, surrender to whatever the witch wanted of him; abandon whomever Etienne de Navarre had built himself to become in a frenzy brought on by unrequited lust for the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen – and knowing that she would not likely return any affections he might offer to her did not really matter. Some part of him though, even on an unconscious level, still remembered his assignment, and the carrot dangling within a fingertip’s grasp, the only hurdle the same beautiful woman standing in front of him, enrapturing him further with her display of magic. Loyalty was stretched to a single taut string beginning to fray, thread by delicate thread.
“A Commissionaire’s duty is to enforce the law,” he said. He could think of no other response.
“The law is an abomination,” said Nightingale with a spiked venom he could almost taste. “Written by hypocrites and adhered to by blind cowards too enamored of their own meager power to comprehend the sheer inhumanity of their actions.”
Etienne swallowed broken glass. “Am I one of those cowards?”
The witch folded her arms and narrowed her gaze. “Are you?”
“I am in love with you,” Etienne said.
He wanted to catch the words as soon as he heard himself say them, but it seemed futile to belabor the point any longer. It wasn’t as though he was telling her something she couldn’t already divine from the ample evidence his body was providing. Indeed, Nightingale was not taken aback, though he thought he perceived a definite shift in her demeanor. “I’ve thought of nothing and no one else since I first saw you,” Etienne went on. “My life has fallen to tatters since you entered it. As I’ve struggled to try and understand why you chose to reveal yourself to me, how you could imprint yourself upon me with nothing more than a blown kiss. You have ruined me, and at the same time made me grateful to be ruined by you. If this is only the result of one of your spells, so be it, but I cannot believe that passions this deep and consuming could be anything but genuine. I will love you, then, whether with you or forever in your absence, and I will dream of an elusive day when you might return what I offer to you now. I am yours, fair Nightingale… do with me what you will.”
She crouched before him, reached out a hand, and touched the tips of her fingernails gingerly to his cheek. A charge leaped through him and goosebumps erupted across his skin. He could not quell the shivers now, even as his heart pumped a gusher of hot blood into his head. Etienne wanted so desperately to lean forward and taste the amaranthine lips, to lose his hands in the lush tresses spilling around her perfect face. But she kept a discreet, noticeable distance, and those soft fingertips could just as swiftly erupt with destructive power should he attempt an unwelcome advance.
Yet she had only a smile for him. “So… there is one part of you that is not cowardly.”
Baring himself had not granted him the relief from the inner torment he had hoped for. She was correct; who knows how many hundreds of witches like her had gone to their deaths on his order alone? And he had the gall to expect that this one would see him differently than what he was? A murderer of women? Even with her fingers against his cheek he felt more distant and disconnected from her now, sensing that this fiery moment would pass soon into memory and be lost. He felt small, and meriting absolutely nothing. “For whatever it may be worth,” he said.
And still, Nightingale retained among her many powers the ability to surprise him. “Much, perhaps,” she said. “If you are willing to help me.”
She stood, and Etienne felt the urge to weep as she pulled away. Nightingale held out her palm again. A flash of purple light bloomed upon it, this time becoming a shape that was very solid and very real. “You know what these are,” she said, dangling them from her fingers. Etienne nodded at the sudden appearance of the Bureau’s standard-issue manacles. Nightingale rubbed at the untarnished silvered metal with her thumb. “These trinkets have given your sort quite the advantage against those like me. Have you ever paused to wonder where they came from?”
Etienne shook his head slowly. Nightingale grinned. “This metal was forged with magic.”
She tossed the manacles onto the solid surface in front of him. He reached down to touch the evidence of the Bureau’s complete betrayal of its principles. The collars that held witches’ abilities in check. The dagger he had used on Le Taureau, the swords that generated those peculiar blue sparks when they struck. Every Commissionaire out there and every soldier under his command was waging a war against magic with magical weapons, by order of the very Directeurs who professed to consider magic a plague upon humanity that needed to be cut, violently when necessary, from its body. Etienne’s stomach twisted on itself. He thought of those three damnable men sharing decanters of wine and congratulating themselves on their supreme cleverness. Hypocrites all around.
Who, and what exactly, had he been fighting for all this time? All these long years?
For the first time tonight, he did not look up as he spoke to Nightingale. “How?” he asked.
“It is an alloy of silver and iron, bonded by a spell that obstructs magic. The manacles and the collar restrain a witch who wears them much as an anchor holds a ship. The swords, no doubt, will pierce any magical defense she might try to create for herself. Quite ingenious, really. Your Directeurs should be commended.”
“Liars,” Etienne said.
Nightingale laughed again. “Is it so difficult to conceive that Michel Ste-Selin might pursue something like this? Do you not think old Theniard Preulx cannot see an amusing irony in employing the very power he so despises against those he has devoted his life to hunting down?”
Beautiful, and logical to the last. Etienne had been content to use these same tools for years; there could be no doubt about their effectiveness against the enemy. Besides, you did not question the Bureau Centrale. You did your job with the armaments they supplied. It was never his place to question any of it. What good would it have done, anyway? Questions only caused problems. Do the job, collect the pay, lose it at the casino, go out again and commence the cycle anew. Such a simple life it had been, and as utterly illusory as any trick a witch could weave. He smirked at himself at his earlier notion of abandoning who Etienne de Navarre was. Clearly there was no “Etienne” to abandon. Everything had been taken from him now.
He looked up, into that impossibly beautiful face. “What are you asking of me?”
Nightingale crouched in front of him again. “The Bureau cannot make these weapons on their own. This is the work of witches. I need to know where they are being made, and by whom.”
“I don’t know,” said Etienne. “I’ve never been involved in supply or procurement.”
“But you know someone who has. Serge Meservey.”
“Serge? He is another Commissionaire, like me.” Correction required. “Like I was.”
“Recruited, purposefully, into the Bureau from the Gendarme Royale, where he served with distinction as engineer of arms,” the witch informed him. “He is currently on his way to the town of Charmanoix, where he intends to arrest a pair of sister witches who minister to the infirm there. He will arrive in three days. If you leave immediately on the morrow, you can be there in two.”
“How do you know this?” Directeur Ste-Selin’s warning loomed in his mind. We grow concerned that Nightingale may have compromised the Bureau itself, that she may have an informant or multiple informants within these walls… Etienne doubted he was the only Bureau man to find Nightingale’s charms so persuasive, to push him now over the brink of treason.
“It doesn’t matter. I will meet you again once you have spoken to Meservey.”
“Wait, I…” Etienne choked on the words. “This is very difficult.”
“You are fond of presenting people with a clearly defined choice, so allow me to do the same for you now,” Nightingale told him. “You can help a witch to tear down an utterly corrupt institution that has the blood of thousands of innocent women on its hands and has seen fit to throw you to the wolves for its own selfish gain, or, you can remain a coward, remain loyal to those who have betrayed you, and continue your fruitless pursuit of the mysterious Nightingale until old age turns your bones to dust. The only guarantee is that if you choose the second path, you will never see me again.” She leaned closer, her lips within reach of his. Dieux, how he wanted them so. “You have much to atone for, Etienne,” she whispered. And you owe those vile men nothing.”
“Tell me your name,” Etienne pleaded.
Nightingale only smiled.
A flash of light whited out the scene. Etienne fell. Warm water splashed over his chest as he plunged back into the lake, liquid once again. His arms steadied the rest of him, and his head bobbed on the surface as he looked around for her. But she was gone, vanished as easily as her magic allowed her. Beating down a simmering sadness at her absence, he looked to shore, to see the fire crackling as it should and his men milling about as if nothing had ever occurred. Resigned, Etienne paddled inward, in no great hurry to join them.
“Good swim?” Corporal Valnier asked him after he had reached shore and collected and donned his clothes. Etienne tossed him a disinterested nod. He sat away from the men and stared into the fire, thinking of her, wondering if it had been real, if he had become lost in a waking dream. If his exhausted, sun-stroked mind had conjured the perfect fantasy for him, the stunning, magical woman who was by turns both demure and provocative. Such a creature could not truly be real. The compulsion he felt towards her seemed to wane, and his head cleared enough for a modicum of sanity to trickle back inside. Where did his loyalties ultimately lie? Should he do as she asked, or should he turn tail back to Calerre? Whose argument was more compelling – the three Directeurs, or the witch they’d ordered him to bring back in shackles for imprisonment and likely torture?
What did he value more – his career or his soul?
“What’s next?” asked Valnier, interrupting his train of thought. The others all looked to him for the answer, to provide some purpose to this quest that had been, to date, too costly by far.
“Make sure you have your gear assembled before you turn in. I don’t want to waste time packing in the morning,” Etienne told them. “We’ll be heading out at first light.”
Corporal Valnier nodded to the men, who went off to gather up the remnants of the company’s supplies. “Where to?” he asked.
Etienne waited a long moment before answering. “Charmanoix,” he said finally. “I need to go see a friend.”
* * *
And it keeps rolling on… 26K words now, making this the single-longest ongoing blog project I’ve undertaken, bypassing last April’s A to Z challenge. Well, if it wasn’t fun, I wouldn’t keep doing it…