Happy Friday the 13th! Will Etienne thwart the curse of that notorious day in this new installment? Read on to find out…
Etienne remembered the route back to the inn. It helped that everyone else in the town was hurrying the other way in a thunderous dirge of shouting and hollering, a typical response to the heralded arrival of the Commissionaire and his entourage. Etienne found it strange referring to someone else with his old title and thinking that under different circumstances it might have been himself sending the town into its tizzy. But he was only Citizen Etienne de Navarre now, and even that appellation was of dubious accuracy given his decision to warn the two sister witches of Charmanoix. So it was just as well no one else here knew who he was. He swerved with blessed anonymity through the crushing mass, wincing both at the audible sagging of the bridge boards beneath hundreds of panicking feet and the alarm bells which had blared in discordant persistence for what felt like hours now. Perhaps the men on their ropes were paid per ring.
Valnier and his men were waiting for him just outside the inn, the corporal’s perfected nonchalance symbolized by the raising of a single eyebrow as he saw his master drawing nearer. “Meservey?” he asked, with a nod to the metal clanging from the bell tower on the adjacent building.
“At least two dozen men with him, maybe more,” Etienne said. “I need you to do something for me.” He leaned in and whispered – relatively speaking, owing to the need to be heard over the background noise – a condensed briefing and further orders into his corporal’s ear. Valnier took it all in, processed it with a casual smirk and motioned for the rest of the men to follow him. They marched off in single file, leaving Etienne alone.
He imagined Nightingale’s delicate hand touching his shoulder, her soft hair brushing against his cheek as amaranthine lips imparted sweet recollections. You owe these men nothing, she sang to him. I will meet you once again. He remembered his own response: I am yours, do with me what you will. It was insanity, and he knew it, and still he wanted to wrap himself in it and let it permeate his very pores. A fleeting thought of her braced him with more dizzying pleasure than any real experience he could remember, and so the next step required no independent thought, no further tortured decisions. He could allow himself to be guided by his love for her. This path held a purity and clarity that was, even in itself, deeply alluring.
For you, my Nightingale.
Etienne began walking back toward the center of town. The bells pealed on but the bridges had grown quiet, the stampede having withered to a few stray wanderers like himself. Hardly a ripple disturbed the canals beneath, the great fleet of boats now docked and tethered. Those who had not flocked to witness the arrival of the Commissionaire’s party were hiding behind locked doors within their homes, praying to be spared the honor of a visit.
Etienne knew Serge Meservey well enough; that was to say he knew his manner and his methods, and where Etienne prided himself on being a chef’s knife making delicate, informed and precise cuts, his counterpart was a blunt hammer wielded in wild, careless swings. He would not put it past the man, in order to flush out a mere two young women, to set this entire town of three thousand people aflame.
You’re afraid, the spectre of Nightingale whispered to him.
Her breath was at his shoulder again. No longer satisfied with reiterating only the words he’d heard her speak, he began scripting new interactions in his mind, picturing her as a constant if invisible companion, a charming fantasy to tease him and spur him onward. She flitted about his head, laughing and dancing out of his reach like her winged namesake.
You’re perceptive for a figment wrought from my imagination, he answered, his awareness floating between wisps of her and the regular dull taps of his boot heels on the wood of the bridge.
I am exactly as you would envision me to be, she said.
Then tell me what I’m supposed to do.
What it is within you to do.
The absent crowd revealed itself now, collected in the open nexus of Charmanoix. Here individual paving stones in vivid shades of coral had been laid in a spiral mosaic over an adjacent series of longer, pile-reinforced bridges to create a bright and spacious square, ringed by equally color-splashed buildings containing Charmanoix’s most prominent shops and the offices of its maire. Unwelcome installations flanking the grand meeting place at its corners, however, were the humorless black-and-gold banners of the Bureau, penning the hapless townspeople into what had become a cruel arena. The great swell of bodies was being marshaled by uniformed men into two lines, one on either side of the open promenade. Soldiers patrolled the perimeter by horse and nudged the angry ends of steel pikes into stragglers. But it was not requiring much encouragement to get them mustered, given the motivational spectacle lying facedown in the very center of the square, a pooled, dark mass of sticky red staining the porous pink stones surrounding him. From the decorative sash draped over the shattered torso it was plain that the aforementioned maire’s office had suffered an abrupt vacancy, and that the methods of Commissionaire Serge Meservey had undergone no evolution since Etienne’s last encounter with him.
Is this you? asked the illusory Nightingale at his back. Is this what you wish to be?
She vanished, usurped by a soldier giving his shoulder a hard shove. “You, mangeur de vers!” yelled one of the men on horseback. “Get in line now!”
Mangeur de vers? Worm-eater? Etienne bit down on his usual quick tongue and committed the speaker’s obnoxious features to memory, assigning him some theoretical future retribution.
Without protest – without spoken protest, anyhow – he filed into the nearest queue of frightened villagers, blending into their ranks. Rank odors of fish and sweat wafted from bodies cooking in the unrelenting sun. A hum of agitated chat hovered over them. He could hear husbands reassuring their wives, mothers comforting their sons, and others whose natural trepidation at what waited at the end of the shuffling procession was escalating with each step forward to the edge of nervous collapse. Etienne imagined it would not be long before someone here with information on the whereabouts of the sisters decided to give them up for the sake of his own hide. Courage, or even mere intestinal mettle, evaporated when those dread banners were raised.
He had seen this sort of fear before. He himself had been happy to engender it when it suited his purpose. But never had Etienne felt so drenched in it, standing here, advancing with these innocents one precarious footstep at a time. The heat of a high sun aside, it was like drowning in a cold, murky pool, mouth only inches from air and light, not knowing that the surface was frozen over.
Would you be afraid if you were here? he asked her.
If I was here, she replied, none of this would be happening. Certainly not. Her magic would have swept Meservey and these men aside as easily as it had his own.
Then why aren’t you here?
Because this is not my choice to make.
Etienne’s queue veered into a deceptively aromatic bakery where the display shelves and tables in the front windows had been kicked over, breads and pastries be damned, to provide a clean desk for the thin, bland, balding Bureau functionary questioning each person prodded forward by the trio of soldiers attending him. He was asking three simple revelations from them: name, occupation, and the identity and location of any witches. Based on his opinion of the answers, those so interrogated were divided again into two more lines, one that led out the side door and presumably to freedom, and another that stretched through shadowed hallways to the back of the bakery where the ovens were located. Etienne did not want to picture what was being done back there; it was enough to know based on the hard heat and the smell of ash that the ovens were operating.
This is not my choice to make, Etienne.
“Name,” sighed the functionary as Etienne stepped forward. Ennui shaded the word. He did not look up from the bound ledger in which he was scribbling out near-illegible notes.
“Etienne de Navarre.” No reaction, just a pause from writing to dip his bird-quill into the tiny ink pot at the corner of the table. Etienne studied the long, thin brown hairs that had been yanked meticulously across the man’s crown in a vain attempt to stave off the end of the growing season, and create some faint, grasping hint of youth and virility. Only the sightless would be fooled.
“Honorable Commissionaire of the Bureau Centrale. On leave at present.”
The quill stopped. Ink pooled at the end of the word he’d just written. The man with the combed-over hair set his pen down and looked up at Etienne for the first time. “Impersonation of a Bureau officer is a hanging offense, monsieur.”
“As is willful or otherwise deliberate obstruction of Bureau business,” Etienne snapped back. “Tell Commissionaire Meservey that Etienne de Navarre is here and wishes to speak with him. Or, go see the tailor and have your neck measured for a noose.”
A few of those swept hairs deserted their last post as the man’s face lost at least three shades of its color. Without word he rose from his improvised desk and beat a humbled path down the corridor. The three soldiers remaining each edged a foot nearer to Etienne. Deliberately, he took no notice of them, and instead cast his glance down to the shame of a rather flaky mille-feuille lingering in the corner of the floor, reminding him that he had not yet eaten today. His stomach had obliged by remaining silent in the face of more pressing priorities.
Heavy boots preceded the next arrival, their echo stomping into the room well ahead of their owner. Serge Meservey, his uniform jacket discarded, sleeves rolled to the elbow, cravat missing and buttons undone to mid-chest, looked less a Commissionaire and more as though he had just come from shoeing his horse. Sweat and grease dappled a granite, creased, rectangular face and callused hands, which he was wiping with a stained towel. His hairline was shaved to a receded crop of gray stubble, and a day’s worth of beard showed at his chin. Etienne had never been certain why Meservey had wanted the post of Commissionaire and its assorted paperwork; his love was the exuberance of leaping into the mud and unleashing his fists. The Directeurs played to his strength by sending him on those assignments without nuance or need of the refined reason that Etienne considered his own specialty.
“Navarre, you fils de salope,” he bellowed, and though the tone was jovial, Meservey could never shed the essential glacier at his core, not completely. “The hell are you doing here?”
“Good to see you too,” Etienne said. He extended a hand, and as Meservey clasped it, he noted blood and bruising on the other man’s knuckles. “Sorry to have interrupted.”
Meservey shrugged beefy shoulders. “Welcome change to talk to someone who isn’t whimpering and begging.” He tossed his towel to the functionary, who recoiled at its stains and retreated from view. “You’re a long way from home.”
“I go where the excitement is,” Etienne told him.
“Need a better map, Navarre.” Meservey threw a scowl at the doorway, and at the townspeople waiting anxiously to be questioned, whom Etienne suspected would find this pleasant exchange quite bewildering given its proximity to the corpse of their maire lying in the square. That was, if they could spare a thought from fretting over what was about to happen to them. “Overgrown barnacles wouldn’t know excitement if it bludgeoned them in the conneries. Hold their tongues well enough, though.” He rubbed at a dark crust of blood on his knuckle.
“Well, if I can tear you away from scraping them off your boots for a few moments, I wondered if I might have a word or two with you, in private.”
“Of course,” Meservey said. “Must be a decent drink somewhere in this floating trou de merde.” He pivoted to deliver orders to his men.
Pity he killed the man who could have recommended a place, said Etienne’s vision of Nightingale. He pictured her with a contemptuous sneer curling the perfect amaranthine lips, a pointed soft hand poised to release a spear of light into the other man’s back. It made him smile, and he squelched it quickly before Meservey looked back at him.
The other Commissionaire led Etienne back into the square where the two large lines had begun to thin as citizens were processed and either held for deeper questioning or sent on their way, suitably chastened. They strode across the scene as casually as two old friends on a nostalgic walk through the environs of shared and vanished youth – flanked by two of Meservey’s guards, lest some villager locate his courage and attempt a spur-of-the-moment assassination. Etienne ensured his eyes did not stray to the body of the maire again. His gut was troubled enough.
“Heard you were dismissed,” said Meservey.
Etienne nodded. “I lost a subject. The Directeurs wanted to make an example.”
“Bit harsh of them. Lost subjects before. It happens.”
“This was different.” Because you fell in love with the witch who freed her, sang Nightingale.
Meservey let out a chuckle. “They’ll have you back. You’re too good at what you do.”
Do you really want to go back, Etienne?
L’Aiglefin Soif, a small tavern on the opposite side of the square, was abandoned and silent when it should have been bustling, thanks to Meservey’s intrusion into Charmanoix’s day. The two guards went ahead to secure the inside before Etienne and his colleague were permitted to pass over the threshold. Meservey treaded noisily to the pitted oak bar, selected a dusty bottle of cheap, indifferently-blended Armut whisky from sagging shelves, pried off the cap with his teeth and emptied the contents into a pair of tumblers. “Salud,” he said, raising his to Etienne.
Etienne nodded and threw the drink back. It scorched his throat, and he swallowed a cough. Meservey grinned. “Sure they pissed in it when they saw me coming,” he said. He drank his share and poured two more. “So,” he added, “how many of these do I have to force down your gullet before you tell me why you’re really here?”
Etienne hesitated before reaching for the second glass. Now, of all imaginably inconvenient moments, his stomach decided to verbalize its complaints regarding its empty state. The barely palatable Armut would be just the ideal balm. “I was looking for you,” he said. “I need some counsel, and I figured you were the best man to provide it.”
Meservey roared. “I’m hardly the man to help you get your job back.” He took the half-empty Armut and a bottle of imported Fián an Thraudh and circled from behind the bar to claim a seat at a small table. Etienne took the chair across from him and spun his glass slowly, trying to stretch out his sips while Meservey, it appeared, was content to get himself inebriated. Etienne could see the pores in the man’s forehead and cheeks redden with each gulp.
“That’s not precisely what I was talking about,” Etienne said. He leaned forward. “Do you know any more about why I was dismissed?”
“None of my business. Figured the Bureau had its reasons.”
“They usually do. Have you heard of Nightingale?”
“Here and there. Supposed to be some all-powerful witch.” Meservey shook his head and took another deep swig of the Armut. He’d gone through most of the bottle on his own already. “What do you know about it?”
Etienne thought he caught a taste of her perfume on the tavern’s stale air.
“She’s been freeing captive subjects all over the country. She ambushed my men and let loose a shapeshifter we’d taken, and we couldn’t do a dieux–damnés thing to stop her.” Etienne allowed himself more of his drink. It did not sit any better on this attempt, setting every inch of his throat aflame on the way down. He did his best to pretend it did not bother him. “She is targeting us. She wants to destroy the Bureau.”
“Doesn’t do much for your career prospects, does it?” said Meservey.
“You don’t seem concerned.”
“Witches don’t scare me. Never have. Know why?” Etienne shook his head. Meservey set his drink aside. “Forget the talk about the law, morals, religion, this god versus that. Only constant in the world is fear. Little animals are scared of the big ones, because the big ones eat them. Big ones don’t need to be afraid of their dinner. Think about it, Navarre. They’re so mighty with their magic, what the hell are they hiding for? Why aren’t they fighting back? Because they’re afraid. They’re afraid of me. I’m the big bear. And I’m not scared of anyone who’s afraid of me.” Meservey concluded his oration by seizing the Armut and finishing it straight from the bottle.
You haven’t met me, little cub, whispered Nightingale.
“I don’t know,” Etienne said. “If they’re so afraid of us, why do we see them as such a threat? Why have you and I devoted our lives to hunting them?”
“Beats real work,” muttered his counterpart, reaching for the Fián an Thraudh.
Etienne intercepted Meservey’s hand and poured the Fián himself. It was marginally less pungent than the Armut, and infinitesimally smoother on the stomach. Between the bells from earlier, the lack of food and two full tumblers’ worth of undiluted whisky, his skull was beginning to emit a percussive, aching throb. Apart from the increasing amount of crimson in his face, Meservey seemed unaffected.
“I worry,” said Etienne. “I worry that the Bureau is losing its way, that we’re becoming what we profess to despise.”
“What makes you say that?”
Etienne let a thick pause hang between them for a moment. “The weapons, Serge.”
The granite in Meservey’s face and the coldness behind his eyes revealed nothing. If this had been route de perle, Etienne would have just dared to augmenter with an irretrievably weak hand, and with the croupier only a single draw away from a flotte. What transpired next would depend on how expert a gambler Serge Meservey fancied himself to be, and how deeply that Armut had infused itself into his blood.
The Commissionaire only clucked his tongue. “Gone soft, Navarre.”
“You designed them,” Etienne said. “You–”
“Someone’s coming at me with a sword, think I’m going to defend myself with a stick?”
“It’s using magic, Serge. Not only is it against the law, but it goes against the principles on which the Bureau was founded. The principles you and I swore an oath to defend with our lives if need be. If we’re using the same forbidden powers then how are we any better than the ones we’re chasing?”
“Difference does it make if it’s witch’s magic, or Qarceshi steel, or baby’s candy beans? This is war, and when I walk into a battle I’m making damn sure I have the strongest arms. Send a thousand Nightingales against me and I’ll still be the last man standing.”
“Who’s making them?” Meservey sat back instead of responding. Etienne leaned in again. “Come on, Serge, you’re not a witch. Who’s making these things for you? Hmm?”
Meservey’s lingering joviality vanished, and Etienne knew he had overplayed what feeble cards he had. “What’s it to you?” the Commissionaire asked him, icicles dangling from each syllable. Etienne felt the eyes of the guards lock onto his back, and an oppressive silence seize the air.
Nightingale, too, was gone from his thoughts. He was alone.
Etienne was spared answering by an urgent knock at the door of the tavern. One of the guards opened it, and the functionary from the bakery appeared. “Monsieur,” he announced.
“Have something?” Meservey asked.
The balding man hurried to his master’s side, bent low and whispered into Meservey’s ear. Etienne could hear only hushed fragments, and studying Meservey’s face for clues was fruitless. Abruptly, the Commissionaire stood. “Knew these people had no spines when I first rode in here. One of them finally proved me right.” He looked to his guards. “Get my horse and tell the rest of the men to meet us at the Pont d’Eglise.”
Sobriety smacked Etienne with a brick. He chanced ignorance. “What’s going on?”
“Two more for the trophy case,” said Meservey. “Kathaline and Adelyra Belleclain.” He smiled to himself. “Never taken a pair of sisters before.”
Exactly as Etienne had predicted. One of their friends or neighbors had given them up, out of the understandable fear at the consequences to themselves and to their families, to say nothing of whatever physical coercion Meservey and his men were applying in that part of the bakery he hadn’t been able to see. It had been, truly, only a matter of time, and the sisters, whose sole crime was easing the passage of the dying, had run out of it.
Meservey made for the door, his functionary and guards in tow. He stopped and looked back at Etienne, who had not moved from their table. “You,” he said. Not his more congenial ‘Navarre,’ just ‘you,’ as if Etienne was another of the barnacles he took limitless delight in crushing beneath his heel. Accordingly, the next words out of his mouth were not an invitation, they were a command, and Etienne had no choice but to obey. “Come with me. I want you to see this.”
* * *
Of course there will be a Part Twelve. Just wish that I could write it faster…