Vintage, Part Ten

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No intro this time.  You’ve waited long enough.  Just on with the story.

The old joke was that Charmanoix was the only town in the entire country where you could get seasick in your own bed.  It had been constructed entirely on an uncountable array of wooden pillars to span the mouth of the lethargic Sept Frères River, as the miles of marshland on its banks had a tendency to swallow buildings whole.  It was, in fact, a rather remarkable feat of engineering, comprising an intricate mazework of canals and bridges connecting a thriving community of over three thousand across a quarter-mile span.  The locals had learned to tolerate the swaying of their homes and shops when the river awoke and tickled the aging pillars, but visitors would still find themselves scrambling for the nearest lavatory, or, failing that, a convenient railing over which they could discharge the contents of an upended stomach.

After two full days of hard riding, Etienne and the rump of his detachment trotted into Charmanoix by the only viable road through the marsh, just after sunset.  Determined to call as little attention to themselves as possible, Etienne led them to a small inn and bartered a pair of rooms in exchange for a livre and a sample of their dwindling supplies.  He was grateful for the meager comfort of a dry straw bed and hard pillow behind a locked door after too many consecutive nights left at the mercy of the elements, but he did not sleep.  Instead he relived his encounter with Nightingale over and over again, running the words in his head like an actor learning his lines.  In a way, the comparison was apt, in that he found himself cast for the first time into a role he did not instinctively know how to perform:  friend of the enemy.

As he stared at the ceiling and tried to ignore the rumbling from Valnier’s bed across the way – even the man’s snoring was limited to two harrumphs at a time – Etienne thought on the choice Nightingale had offered him.  Yes, he had done as she had asked and come to Charmanoix, but he had not yet fully committed to her and to her cause.  He had not done anything to compromise or sabotage his longtime employers.  He still had the option to walk away, and a small lingering part of him apparently immune to seduction was prodding at the rest to remain true to what he knew and what he valued.  The larger, more persuasive part was recalling his admittedly syrupy confession to her back there at the frozen lake and still finding it impossible to regret a single word.  He could not deny that what he felt for her was deeper and more intense than anything any other woman had managed to stir in him, including those with whom he had carried on extended physical relationships.  He had always been able to keep his heart closed, but Nightingale had batted those defenses aside with the flick of a magic-wreathed finger.  As nonsensical as that would have sounded to anyone on the outside of it, to him it was agonizing truth.  The fact that he had not carried out any deeds that might officially be deemed traitorous was irrelevant – the betrayal that mattered had already occurred.  The former Commissionaire remained, irrevocably, in love with a witch; with Nightingale.

How he longed to know her real name, and to hear her whisper his again.

Etienne rolled onto his side, his eyelids increasingly untouched by even inklings of slumber.  You owe those vile men nothing, she had said.  That had been hard to reconcile, even with the revelation of the Bureau’s use of magic in the construction of their weapons.  He understood the need to be able to battle one’s opponent on an equal or superior footing, but what did it say about the Bureau’s endless pronouncements on the mortal dangers of magic and the urgency to stamp it out?  Was it a case of do as we say, not as we do?  The rank stench of duplicity and hypocrisy churned the acid in Etienne’s gut.

His father had not been long in Etienne’s life, but Reynand de Navarre had been a staunch believer in remaining truthful to one’s ideals and morals no matter how challenging the circumstance.  He had also hated the Bureau with robust vitriol, so it was probably for the best that he had died of excessive drink long before he would see his son walk up those horrible steps for the first time.  In the void left by his father’s death, Etienne had craved clarity of purpose, and the Bureau had offered it to him.  For many years the arrangement had been mutually beneficial.  The problem, Etienne reasoned, was that he, like so many of his countrymen, had devoured and regurgitated on command the bromide that the Bureau was infallible, that it knew best, that its cause was just, no matter how many lives, innocent or guilty, that cause claimed.  But if the cause could not be followed to its end without betraying its founding principles, how could it be just?  How could one defend it?

You have much to atone for, Etienne…

Fingers of light pried apart the cracks in the walls, and Etienne realized that the night had gone and he had not once closed his eyes.  He had not had a proper rest ever since meeting Nightingale on the road outside Montagnes-les-grands.  Love, it seemed, made no allowances for sleep, nor did crises of conscience.  He sighed, stretched the stiffness from his arms, threw off his blankets and swung his feet to the floor, taking care not to generate any noises that might alert the fairly comatose yet annoyingly vigilant Corporal Valnier.  Etienne donned his clothes in silence, laced his boots and turned the latch in the door, always watching the corporal for any sign that he’d noticed him.  Seeing none, Etienne stepped out through the halls of the inn onto one of a thousand ponts in Charmanoix and waited for the sun to offer a proper greeting to the day.

Sticky heat spread its tentacles through the air as the merciless yellow menace hauled itself into the sky, and the salt-and-seaweed-flavored breezes rising from the river were no balm.  Sweat had become a most tedious companion as the drought lingered on, month after punishing month.  Etienne grimaced as he felt the first beads of the day pooling on his brow.  Head low, he ambled without direction, ducking around buildings and crossing bridges, listening to the rhythms of the locals.  Eventually, he found a quiet bridge and a railing on which he could lean and stare out into the world to watch it wake up.  Beneath him, a navy’s worth of longboats, barges and canoes bulging with wares and fellow wanderers navigated the canals, stopping at creaking jetties to heave out their passengers and cargo.  Children splashed in the shallows and old women with gnarled hands wringed out their laundry, and hollered at the children getting their clothes all wet.  Gulls circled overhead screaming out their hunger.  Men argued, ladies gossiped and everyone carried on with a perfectly ordinary little day, no different than the thousands that had preceded it and the thousands more that would follow after this one had been lost amidst more interesting memories.

The ordinariness of life was what Etienne had joined the Bureau Centrale to help protect.  The freedom to wash one’s clothes in the river or to sail a little boat along it on a sunny morning without fear of the dark powers of the witches tearing everything asunder.  As he cast his gaze along the canal at the scores of strangers crowding its edge, he paid particular attention to the women:  the elderly, the young, the comely, the plain, and he knew, instinctively, that at least a few, if not more of them down there, would have an unusual ability.  Perhaps that one lingering quietly behind the chatty fishmonger knew what others around her were thinking.  Perhaps the moods of the girl chasing her brother past the cloth vendors could disturb the weather.  Perhaps the woman sweeping off the doorstep of the tea house could see flashes of the future, or perhaps she was unusually lucky in gambling and in love.  Perhaps, to a certain degree, they were all witches.

It was an unspoken admission among the higher echelons of the Bureau that magic was far more widespread than they would care to admit to the general public, though it was not always as potent and theatrical as a radical exception like Nightingale made it seem.  Consequently, even with its unlimited financing from the Crown, the Bureau could not hope to capture every single woman out there who exhibited some minor sign of supernatural awareness.  Instead, efforts and attention had to focus on the “subjects” whose abilities presented the greatest and most immediate dangers, and it was left to fear to intimidate the remainder into denying their powers and remaining good, docile citizens, lest they be the next to be taken away.  What the Bureau Centrale dreaded the most, what would render it toothless, was the idea of magic becoming accepted, and ordinary.

A most un-ordinary ruckus clattered over the boards to his right as a passing girl stumbled on a twisted plank and spilled her enormous, overloaded basket of vegetables.  “Oh no!” she cried, struggling to race after the carrots and turnips rolling away from her.  Etienne turned and planted his foot in the path of a turnip as it tumbled toward the edge of the bridge.  Twisting and stomping about in what from a distance probably resembled a drunkard’s imitation of a provincial folk dance, he blocked vegetable after vegetable until the entire collection had come to a halt.  He bent to scoop up the escapees and return them to their warden, who was kneeling and loading them slowly back into her basket, trying to quell flustered cheeks.  “Thank you,” she whispered.

“Not at all,” said Etienne.  “Are you all right?”

She shrugged.  “I suppose.  Serves me right for trying to do it all in one trip.”  She was young and flaxen-haired, with not a line to be found in her pleasant, perfectly oval face.  Her hands were tiny, scarcely able to stretch the fingers around some of the larger turnips, and she was so slight of build Etienne was amazed she had been able to lift her burden.

“Might I be of some help?” he asked.  It was not as though he had any pressing plans.  Nightingale had told him that Commissionaire Meservey would be arriving tomorrow, so he had all today to wander wherever the winds saw fit to carry him.

“Oh no, it’s all right, I couldn’t, I–”

“It’s no inconvenience, I assure you,” Etienne said.  He did not wait for permission to place the last of the carrots back in the basket and hoist it under his arm.

The girl smiled as she stood and shook out the folds in her long skirts.  “Well, thank you very much,” she said, and offered him a brief, country curtsy.  “I’m Adelyra.”

He debated giving her a false name, but thought better of it.  “Etienne.”

“Very nice to meet you.  It’s not far, just beyond the Pont d’Eglise.”  A blank expression betrayed his unfamiliarity with the town’s byways.  “I didn’t think I recognized you,” Adelyra said with a smile.  “You’re visiting?”

“Just passing through.”

“How’s your stomach?”

“Better than your balance, I think.”

She laughed.  “Oh, you’re cheeky!”

“I’ve been called worse,” he admitted.  “Shall we?”

Carrying her basket of vegetables, Etienne fell in behind Adelyra and kept to her brisk pace across bridges and walkways and up and down stairs, a course he struggled to keep track of, knowing he’d eventually have to find his way back to the inn.  Their conversation was innocuous and irrelevant, characterized by the usual banter about the weather with a few tips from the cheerful girl on scenic spots throughout Charmanoix he should take the time to visit before moving on – apparently the sunsets on the Pont des Amants were the stuff of poetry.  He smirked at that, allowing himself to fantasize about experiencing such a setting with Nightingale at his side.  Though Adelyra’s verbosity grew a bit wearying, Etienne did appreciate the opportunity to converse with a stranger without preconceptions about the arrival of a Commissionaire tainting the exchange.  It felt human.

The Pont d’Eglise, which they reached after a good fifteen minutes’ walk, delivered them as its name suggested to a great church of carved stone walls and sculpted plaster finishes scraping at the sky.  Morning services were underway, and from behind closed and rather unwelcoming lacquered wooden doors drifted the choral monotone of a congregation united in prayers.  Etienne and Adelyra marched onward, the girl finally suspending her stream of chatter, out of deference, perhaps.  Past the church, buildings grew smaller and modest until they reached a decrepit row of stacked tenements – home, no doubt, to the poorest families of Charmanoix.

Stains and peeling paint marred sagging and crumbling walls.  Windows were boarded up or smashed, and the persistent salt scent of the river was overcome by a general whiff of decay.  An outside staircase pitted with rot connected the first level to the top, and Adelyra gestured to Etienne to follow her up.  For the majority of his life, Etienne’s experience of poverty had been confined to mere glimpses, from the lofty perch of one secure enough to know he would never be touched by it himself.  His visits to slum towns had always been blissfully temporary, with Calerre’s welcoming gilded edges never more than a few days’ ride back.  He knew, at least in theory, that places like what he was stepping into had to exist, though the idea of him ever setting foot in one had always been risible.  As Adelyra opened the door for him, he was struck in the face with a most distressing fusion of cold, of hopelessness, and of death.  It coiled itself around him like a serpent and squeezed.

What had once been a long attic shared by the narrow homes beneath had been converted to house two rows of single beds, each draped with a white blanket so that the lot resembled gapped teeth hanging apart in a final, desperate cry for breath.  The occupants of those teeth were men and women withered by more than their share of decades, confined here now as their ability to look after themselves had long since been stolen by their years.  Some of them slept, others moaned, a few kept up fervent dialogues with invisible friends.  The room smelled of sick and linen.  Sunlight flooding in from a large window on the rear wall did little to alleviate the dour and gray, providing only a suffocating warmth.  There was a sense of inevitability here, that the inhabitants of those beds entered them understanding they would never leave.

The only sign of anything resembling life was the much younger woman stamping towards Etienne and his new acquaintance, her eyebrows wrenched downward with dismay.  She was of a broader build than the wisp-slight Adelyra, and perhaps an inch or two shorter, but possessed of the same flaxen hair, tied back in a severe, strangled braid.  She parked herself before them and spat interrogation into Adelyra’s face.  “Where the hell have you been?”

“Gathering ingredients for the broth,” Adelyra said.  “I told you I would–”

“And who is this?”  The other woman tilted her head at Etienne but did not shift her eyes.  “What are you doing bringing him here?”

“This is Etienne.  He was helping me.”  Adelyra smiled.  “Etienne, this is Kathaline, my sis–”

Kathaline stomped on the last word.  “It’s Monsieur Hurland,” she said.  “It’s time.”

The cheer tumbled from Adelyra’s countenance like a painting falling from a loose nail.  “Wait here, please,” she mumbled to Etienne, and hurried to follow her sister to the last bed on the left side of the room.  Etienne set the basket of carrots and turnips on the floor.  Common decency demanded that he excuse himself without additional fuss and be on his way, but if there was a single adjective most unsuited to characterizing Etienne de Navarre, it was “common.”

Besides, the sisters were ignoring him, saving the balance of their attentions for the elderly man shivering in the tiny bed, his embers beginning to go out.  Etienne did not recall the last time he had seen a face so sad.  Even at first glance, he could tell that Monsieur Hurland was a pitiable old man ruing a misspent existence and innumerable wasted chances to change.  His skin was crumpled by regrets long unresolved, and his eyes needed to cry a thousand more tears.  Adelyra and Kathaline sat on either side of him, saying nothing, simply providing him the courtesy of not having to die alone.

Etienne remembered his father Reynand lying in a different bed, staining its blankets dark red with lumpy blood coughed from a stomach shredded by regular doses of whiskey and gin.  A greasy gurgling would rumble in his throat before uncontrollable spasms would send up another salvo, and though Reynand would try to cover his mouth there was just too much of it, his body quite literally devouring itself and expelling the digested pieces.  Etienne recalled few of his father’s last words to him, but he could not forget that terrible wet sound, a requiem for a small man undone by his failings.

Monsieur Hurland remained coherent enough to form words, though the effort was becoming too much for him.  “Where is my boy?  Where is Jacquot?” he pleaded.

“Jacquot is with you,” Adelyra said.

“Liar!” screamed Monsieur Hurland, flailing at a dwindling reserve of strength.  “Oh, mon petit fils.  Do you know where he’s gone?  He needs to wear his belt.  He always forgets to wear his belt.  The other boys, they pull down his trousers.  They want to shame him in front of the girls.”  He broke down into sobs.  “I couldn’t save you, mon fils.  I couldn’t stop the sickness.  I’m so sorry.  Jacquot, I’m so sorry.”  More words bubbled out, but they devolved into slurred, incomprehensible wails.  Those too began to lose volume and falter, and soon Monsieur Hurland could only move his jaw and try to force out confessions that now would go forever unheard.  Etienne’s mouth dried up.  Death had slipped inside the walls and would not depart without claiming what it craved most.

He had not been present when his father hacked out his last breath.  Etienne had been unable to bear the stench of a man’s flesh rotting away while his heart still beat.  He had run until his legs gave out, down to the harbor where he’d once held his father’s hand and watched the ships come in, secreted himself in an alley in a tight ball of young boy and cried.  As an adult, Etienne had seen the lives of hundreds of men be snuffed in an instant, at the point of a sword blade or the edge of an executioner’s axe.  So many had been on his order.  He had grown indifferent to watching death when it was quick.  When it was drawn out like this, when one could see life departing the body one spark at a time, the beautiful and tragic fragility of existence became a cold reminder of one’s own limits, and the utter helplessness of men in the face of fate.

Etienne wondered if Nightingale, with her magic, her incredible capacity to bend reality to whatever shape she desired, felt the same.

Adelyra and Kathaline shared a knowing look with each other.  They reached across the bed to clasp hands.  Eyes closed, and where their fingers intersected, a warm white glow began to shimmer.  It grew and spread over the form of Monsieur Hurland, the gentle lap of a calm tide brushing the shore, urging those straying in the shallows to journey with it now into its depths.  As the light traveled up his withered body, his shivering stopped, and as it touched the crown of his head the agony vanished from his face, those thousand unshed tears forgotten.  He stopped trying to speak, stopped scratching at the last seconds of his life, and turned his gaze upwards.  Etienne felt himself leaning in closer, searching dimming eyes for the absolution the old man must have longed for, and realizing that a part of him wanted this total stranger to find it.  Ignored was his training, the proper procedure of gathering his men and returning in force to haul these two sister witches off in chains for re-education.  Instead he stood with them, keeping silent, respectful vigil.

Monsieur Hurland seemed to focus on something beyond the ceiling, far beyond the perception of those bearing witness.  He looked as though he was embarrassed to have never noticed it before.  The white light embraced him completely now.  Serenity danced across his face, and he smiled.  Fear had become courage, regret anticipation.  “My word,” he breathed.  A joyful schoolboy’s giggle fell from quivering lips.  “It’s so…”

And he was gone.

The white light swept Monsieur Hurland’s body away with it, leaving behind an empty bed with the sisters still sitting on it.  They released their hands and Adelyra dabbed a tear from her eye.

Silence fell heavy on Etienne.

Such unspeakable evil, Nightingale had said, mocking his comfortable, indoctrinated prejudices.  Was there evil in helping a sad, dying man pass with peace and promise?  How would the Bureau Centrale have treated Monsieur Hurland?  To what fate would they have condemned him?

He did not notice Kathaline standing in front of him, fists balled on her hips.  “What are you still doing here?” she demanded.

Etienne understood now why Nightingale had sent him here.  It was for far more than just a chat with an old friend.  He had reached that moment he had fretted about all night, the point where he would have to commit to this terrifying course or turn back to the safe and the known.  The Etienne de Navarre of only a few short weeks ago would say nothing and merely walk out of this room, but he was compelled by whatever drove this new Etienne – love for Nightingale, a desire to atone, perhaps at some level a wish for his late father to be proud of him – to remain, and opt for the most honest path available.  Betrayal in the heart would now be matched by a betrayal in action.  He returned Kathaline’s aggressive stance with a composed and even stare.  “You are in danger,” he said.

Adelyra joined them.  “What are you talking about?”

“You need to go,” said Etienne.  “Both of you.  Get out of Charmanoix.  Get far away.  You haven’t much time.”

Kathaline rolled her eyes.  “This is ridiculous,” she said, and shot a glance at her sister.  “Who is this person?”  Adelyra did not respond.  She tugged nervously at her hair instead.

Bells chimed in the distance – low, sonorous, ominous bells.  Etienne pushed past the two young witches, cranked open the large window and looked out over the townscape.  Squinting both at the hot sun and the deafening peal pouring in, his eyes darted over the buildings and canals, hunting for the source of the alarm.  He located it on a bridge not far from here, a procession of men and horses advancing up the main waterside street, unmistakable high-flying black-and-gold banners portending the same story he’d reenacted himself countless times in communities just like this one.  Etienne cursed the signature efficiency under his breath.  “It’s too late,” he said.  “He’s here.”

*  *  *

Part Eleven – sheesh, never thought it would get this far – is in the works.

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