Always hate when I have to make you wait for it. Allons-y without further ado then. (This is a lengthy one, so settle in a comfy chair first.)
For most of his life, hope had been less a comfort to Etienne than it was a tool in service of an end, something to be dangled before the less fortunate and then snatched away at the most opportune moment. Why certainly mon cherie, of course the Bureau will be lenient with you and your family, so long as you come with us and sign this full confession. The idea of hope had fascinated him, this notion that one can aspire to the faintest hint of salvation no matter how bleak the circumstance, no matter how universally promises were dashed. Etienne had applied a scholar’s lens to its study and dedicated himself to learning how to manipulate hope in those he was assigned to pursue. So singular had been his focus on the exploitation of hope that he had never bothered to examine the solace and solidarity it provided to those perennially downtrodden who clung to it in the reality of a harsh world usually given to breaking hope across its stone back – the backs of men like himself.
The sound of the walk to the Pont d’Eglise was funereal, even if the pace was anything but. Meservey’s soldiers marched in two parallel lines behind the Commissionaire, who led the way on horseback at a brisk trot. Etienne shambled along next to him, feeling very much the puppy trying to keep stride with its perturbed master. Meservey did not speak to him as they pushed onward over the bridges of the now-silent town, and each moment of quiet doubled the tremors surging through Etienne’s stomach. Too much cheap and fast whisky thumped his brain against unforgiving skull and amplified the rush of the blood urged careening through veins by a racing heart. He rued not having eaten today, but reconciled himself to the notion that he probably would have vomited it up by now. For Etienne, the march was that of the condemned to the inevitability of the gallows.
The remainder of Meservey’s armed detachment, absent only those needed to keep the rest of the town in line, was waiting for them at the steps of the stone church on the far side of the bridge. Without words, or even a nod from their Commissionaire, they fell swiftly into rank. Meservey wheeled his company to port, and Etienne was presented once again with the sight of the row of festering hovels he had visited not a few short hours before; the sad, reeking, rotting underbelly of poverty he had chosen to ignore in every town, village and bourg he’d ever passed through. This was where the dream of prosperity had failed and left utter ruin in its wake. But by looking after the destitute in their last days, granting them some measure of dignity and peace, the witches Adelyra and Kathaline had managed to become a thin thread of hope for the impoverished of Charmanoix.
Now Serge Meservey and a dozen men with swords were only a hundred feet from their door.
They halted at the base of the creaking stairs. Meservey descended from his horse and selected twin braquemarts from scabbards buckled to his saddle: wide blades that were straight and short, good for hacking one’s way through both thick foliage and oncoming opposition. They emitted blinding gleams under the hot sun, crafted obviously from the magic-bonded mix of iron and silver. Meservey had even troubled to have his monogram engraved in bronze script on the pearlescent hilts. He spun the blades twice and holstered them at his thighs. “This one same as any other,” he told his men. “First company with me. Rest, secondary protocol in four minutes.” Etienne did not know what that meant, nor did he understand what his part was to be in Meservey’s unfolding scene – that is, until the other Commissionaire froze him with a glare, nodded at the staircase and growled at him in a voice that dropped into the grave. “After you, Navarre.”
“What is it you expect of me here?” Etienne asked him.
“Just knock on the door. Can do that, can’t you?” Without subtlety, Meservey tightened fingers around the hilt of his sword while gesturing broadly up toward the entrance. Etienne looked at him, shifted his eyes to the humorless faces of the other soldiers, and realized he was without options. He took a slow breath and began the ascent, listening to each painful crack of each sagging wooden step beneath his heel. Meservey followed him. Five of the soldiers came after. Etienne worried the staircase would not support them all, and this grand venture would end with the lot of them pitched tête-first into the adjacent canal.
But the staircase bore them well enough, and Etienne planted his feet before the door with the peeling green paint and rapped firmly on the section where the fewest splinters could potentially lodge in his knuckles. “Bureau Centrale,” he announced. “Ouvrer la porte maintenant.”
Serge Meservey’s hard mouth twisted into a grin; his appetite for a fight was piqued. Drawing both braquemarts he stepped forward and kicked against the door, punting it open and sending a chunk of the frame skidding across the floor for its trouble. Again he motioned Etienne to enter first.
Despite the sun blazing down from a placid, cloudless sky outside, the room was dark. Heavy opaque curtains had been drawn over the enormous rear window, leaving only a single thin stick of light to sneak through where they separated. Listless air hung there with death’s fragrance on each breath. Etienne thought he saw Meservey wrinkle his nose at it. Unlike his first visit, when the walls had echoed the moans of the dying in their beds, this time everything was silent. Those who slumbered beneath their clean white blankets did not stir, even as the soldiers filtered inside.
The lack of reaction to their arrival rattled Etienne’s counterpart, as if the man had expected to find the two witches enjoying a cup of tea. Letting fly a choice repertoire of curses, Meservey gathered a meaty handful of curtains and tore them from the wall. Brilliance flooded into the room from the exposed window, completing the setting but revealing nothing and no one further than the bodies in the two rows of beds. The storm brewing on Meservey’s face swelled from squall to tempest, and he stomped over to the nearest bed and pulled the blanket off, exposing – in what one might grant as an understandable instant of shock – the unexpectedly young and hale occupant.
“Bonjour, monsieur,” said Corporal Valnier.
When Nightingale had attacked his convoy outside Montagnes-les-grands, Etienne had noted how time had seemed to slow to a snail’s crawl. Here it screamed ahead beyond the gallop of the fastest horse, as his men leaped from their concealment in the beds with swords drawn and assailed Meservey’s soldiers before the latter group could collect their respective jaws from the floor. Polished metal flashed shards of light over the walls, followed by flecks of fresh blood. Cries of pain erupted, and just as quickly dwindled into choked, ebbing gurgles. Bodies fell to the floor in turn like so many discarded gambling chips. The Directeurs had not lied when they had promised Etienne a detachment of the best; a virgin betting man would have balked at the odds for their opponents.
Showing no respect for gentleman’s rules – part of why he was so good at what he did – Valnier clubbed Meservey in the groin with both fists, and as the Commissionaire crumpled and doubled over in a wheezing fit his swords fell from his grip. Etienne shoved the large man aside and scrambled to collect the weapons. The whole enterprise concluded faster than it would have taken one of the Bureau’s clerks to describe it. Meservey, red, tears streaming at his temples, raised his head to witness his five men cut down, Etienne’s group with nary a scratch shared between them and Etienne himself directing the serious end of a custom, pearl-handled braquemart at his nose.
In spite of this, Meservey found it within himself to laugh. “Well played, Navarre,” he said. He coughed and spat. “Belleclain sisters?”
“A hundred miles gone, give or take,” said Etienne. His plan, shared with his corporal in that brief exchange outside the inn a few hours past, had gone as intended. “My dear Valnier here was good enough to see them away the minute your detachment arrived.”
Meservey sighed, though he could not erase his grin. “Real pity. Heard the rumor back in Calerre, didn’t want to believe it. Gave you every chance to prove me wrong.”
Despite the congenial veneer, his words were ice. “Got spoiled by a taste of hot witch’s teat. Didn’t think treason was your bag though. Hope you shared her chatte doux with the rest of your boys, ‘cause you’re all going to swing for it. After they gut you to force a confession first.”
“What will they gut me with? Your magic swords, Serge?” Etienne said. “You want to toss around accusations of treason, let’s discuss a violation of the Bureau’s very constitution, designed and engineered by you.”
“Sanctioned by the Directeurs,” Meservey reminded him. “Blessed by them.”
“Even they answer to someone else. The King’s executioners are going to need a lot of rope.”
“Think anyone will listen to a defrocked Commissionaire under the spell of a witch?”
Etienne edged the sword tip closer to his colleague’s skin, close enough to clip the near-invisible hairs sprouting from each pore. “Want to live long enough to find out? Tell me where the weapons are being made.”
“You’ve got nothing,” Meservey said. “Kill me, you’ve still got nothing.”
A new aroma slipped between the beats of their conversation, an insidious odor slithering up between breaths of old decay and new dead flesh beginning to spoil in the heat. It was a smell from memory, from cold nights and warm kitchens. Wood, searing into smoke. Etienne’s eyes itched as a gray haze faded across his field of view. “What the hell’s going on?” he said to no one in particular. Valnier motioned for one of the men to investigate, but need not have bothered; Etienne knew swiftly enough who was responsible. “Secondary protocol?” he asked.
Meservey’s grin nearly split the corners of his mouth. “Rest of my men don’t hear from me in four minutes, they seal the building and set it on fire. Kill everyone inside.”
“Big bear brings home the prize catch or doesn’t come home at all.”
“You’re insane,” Etienne said.
Meservey stepped closer, letting the sword point touch his chin. “Going to die with me, Navarre. Fitting end for a couple of traitors. Shame we don’t have more of that Fián to toast with.”
“Monsieur?” Corporal Valnier pressed him with an atypical urgency.
Sweat curled across Etienne’s forehead with the doubling of the heat, and lungs closed tight as the room filled with smoke. He opened his mouth to issue orders and instead found himself hacking on befouled air. Meservey seized enough uncontaminated breath to laugh.
A furious, bright amber intruder exploded through the entrance, collapsing the timbers in the ceiling as flames erupted from the first floor and began to devour the second. Meservey used the distraction to pivot away from Etienne’s blade, and hurl himself through the great window. Skin shredded by shattered glass, the Commissionaire fell amidst a clattering rain of hundreds of shards to the street one storey down, breaking his fall with a loud crash through crates of fishing gear. Etienne’s indecision lasted only long enough to see Meservey pry himself out of the detritus of lures and rods and begin to run – to find and return with his reinforcements, to get word sent to Calerre about Etienne’s treason, whatever. Etienne knew he could not let the man escape.
“Get everyone out,” he told his corporal. “Whatever you need to do. Go!” Etienne climbed up to the open window frame and crouched on its edge. He looked over the alleyway below to the clay-tiled roof of the next building, and his mind found spare a fraction of a second to wish that he had been a younger man, or truly, that he had bothered to eat something this morning. Sheathing Meservey’s braquemart in his belt, Etienne stood, bent his knees, threw his arms forward and leaped.
Realistically, he should not have made it. Even an inch short and he would have, should have, smacked against the side of the building and ended his journey through this life in a crumpled heap of broken flesh in the alleyway. But whether from determination blended with stupidity, audacity stirred by adrenaline, plain mindless luck – or perhaps even a lingering trace of Nightingale’s sublime magic – he wrested that needed inch.
Etienne’s fingers clawed at the raised edge where one tile lay over another, securing a fragile hold by which arms exerted nearly into sprains could haul the rest of himself up. Rising, he steadied himself with a deep breath. In the street below he could see Meservey running north, back toward the town square. Etienne set out after him, pushing his legs hard, trampling tile and wooden plank in leaps from rooftop to rooftop of the buildings lining the streets and the canals. He kept the other man ever in his sights like a hawk set on a particularly succulent mouse for its lunch.
Behind him, fire had risen to consume the entirety of Adelyra and Kathaline’s infirmary and begun to spread to the adjacent buildings, aided by the onset of a stiff wind. The cheap, weathered timbers of the poor quarter were unable to repel the onslaught. Etienne could not spare a thought for the men he’d left behind, however. He had to trust that Valnier would see to their safety. The deep alarm bells started ringing again, and in the streets and along the canals, the people of Charmanoix emerged from their hiding as if from a long hibernation. This complicated Meservey’s flight, as he now had to buck and weave around wandering bodies when it was plain from his course – as observed by Etienne above – that he was not entirely certain which way he was going. Understandable, given the mazelike quality of the layout of this place, and fortunate for his pursuer, who otherwise would not have been able to keep pace.
Meservey veered off the narrow bridge onto a much narrower wood plank walkway adhering to the rear facades of a row of buildings, bowling over the villagers and smashing through their meager belongings, very much a bull on a charge. Etienne followed across the rooftops, his own steps more the delicate springs of a deer. A high suspension bridge at the north end of this stepped path connected the two sides of the canal and led to the main route back to the town square; it was Etienne’s best chance to stop Meservey before he reached reinforcements.
A renewed sense of determination braced Etienne’s tiring legs. However, architecture, or rather its failings, had planned otherwise. Etienne’s right foot loosened a flimsy roof tile that promptly shattered and interrupted his stride. Overwhelmed by mislaid weight, his ankle twisted too far and snapped. The crack of the bone was so loud it cut through the sudden spike of pain. Absent that support the rest of him tumbled forward, and fingers scrabbling for a steadying grip came away only with crumbs of broken clay. He slid towards the edge and rolled off. For an instant he felt nothing but the fissure in his foot as air parted to make way for his falling form. He pierced a rotted cloth awning, which slowed his descent ever so slightly, and deposited him with a final thump on a pile of hard burlap sacks, which seemed to contain only bricks.
Etienne did not know which hurt to react to first. He rolled over onto his side, and sensed in between sheets of lacerating agony that the braquemart was gone, that it had obviously come loose in his fall. Quickly he spotted it lying a short distance away on the walkway, the blade hanging over the edge. Before he could reach for it a pair of boots stepped between him and the sword, and a hand reached down to grasp it; a hand belonging to the owner of the initials monogrammed on the pearlescent hilt. Etienne’s eyes rose to meet the rest of him.
Serge Meservey smiled, and swung the blade down at Etienne’s head.
Etienne flung himself forward. The sword sliced deep into the burlap sacks, lodging itself deeply into whatever was inside them. Growling, Meservey yanked at it. It took him a few seconds to free it again, and Etienne used those priceless seconds to pull himself up and limp away, forcing his good leg ahead and dragging the dead weight of his right. He heard Meservey stomping towards him and spun. Meservey tried a lateral slice at neck height this time, and Etienne dropped and heard the sword thock against the wooden railing. He pushed himself up with his working knee and landed his fist in the crook of the elbow of Meservey’s sword arm. The Commissionaire grunted and dropped the blade, letting it clatter on the planks below them. His emptied hand became a fist and hurled a powerful blow against Etienne’s jaw. Etienne’s mouth filled with blood, and in it swam something small, loose and jagged as well. Had he a moment to reflect on this development, he might have fretted about still being able to chew the medium rare-grilled spice steaks he’d often enjoyed in the Splendide’s dining salon. But as he fell, the priority was to ensure that Meservey did not get his hands on the braquemart again. He twisted himself to land on it and cover it with his chest.
Meservey urged him in the strongest possible manner to give up the blade by locking his large hands around Etienne’s neck. Dark spots swarmed Etienne’s vision as he tried to turn the sword beneath his weight and get his hand around the hilt, while at the same time he fought for breath. His fingers shook as he searched for it, dug for it, scratched at it. Fingertips grazed the hilt as the light began to dim. Meservey continued to throttle him without pause. Etienne finally felt his hand wrap around the leather grip. He shifted his weight onto his left side, giving his right enough space for his arm to tear the sword out from underneath and slash blindly at his aggressor. The blade sliced a deep gouge into Meservey’s cheek. Blood spewed over both men. He stumbled back, clutching at the fresh wound.
Bruised larynx wracking him with spasms of hard coughs, Etienne dragged himself vertical and turned to face the other man again. One side of Meservey’s face was painted in strings of dark red, and part of his earlobe was gone. Yet his mouth was still curved in a sadistic grin, and he kept advancing. “Never were a fighter, Navarre,” he said, with a voice full of gravel. “Should have taken my head off with that. But you’ve got the delicate hands of an accountant.”
Etienne held the walkway railing with one hand, retreating slowly toward the suspension bridge, and swung the sword in sharp bursts with the other, keeping Meservey at a distance. Propelled by the wind, fire was continuing to spread through the streets of Charmanoix, and over Meservey’s shoulders he could see it coming closer, eating one building after another. “Tell me then,” Meservey went on, “this all worth a few rounds between a witch’s legs? Did it feel that good when you took her? Or did you let her take you, like a good little salop?” Etienne swung the sword harder. Meservey laughed. They were on the bridge now, Etienne limping in reverse and Meservey continuing to stroll towards him – to an observer it was the slowest chase in the history of mankind. Not that anyone was paying them any heed; the villagers were running pell mell trying to save their homes and belongings from the blaze.
Etienne dared a thrust toward Meservey’s stomach, and Meservey grabbed his arm and squeezed. A vise closed on his bones, pressing them together. Etienne let the blade fall. Meservey pulled him in and blasted his face with another punch. Etienne crumpled into a heap of throbbing pain. If there was ever a time for hope, about now would have been terribly convenient. Meservey was right: Etienne did not have the physique of a fighter. He was crippled now, unable to walk, and even at peak form he had perhaps half the strength of his opponent. This fight had been over before it began, and Etienne had been stupid to think he could have offered a challenge any fraction greater than laughable, that he could have beaten Meservey at any contest more substantial than cards.
He felt soft fingertips on his face. They were not real, of course. His fantasy of her was taking hold again, the instinct for self-preservation offering him an illusory measure of comfort as reserves dwindled below critical. Etienne, she whispered to him. My sweet Etienne.
My beautiful Nightingale, he said.
You have never understood why the lost turn to magic, she told him. Do you understand now? Do you understand what it truly is?
The answer came to him between heartbeats. He did not know if it was his own thought, or one given to him by her. But it felt logical, it felt reasonable, and moreover, for once it felt right.
Magic is their hope, Etienne said. Magic is hope.
He could feel her everywhere. Her voice was both within and without him. Then let it be yours now, she said. White light washed over him, and she was gone again.
Meservey looked down at Etienne, then leaned on the bridge railing and stared out at the approaching fire, which was snaking its way along the walkway that had seen the commencement of their struggle. Blackened timbers splintered and tumbled into the rushing waters of the canal below. “What do I do with you now?” wondered the Commissionaire aloud. “Finish you myself or leave you to the flames?” What Etienne said in response, Meservey could not hear. “What’s that? You begging?” He leaned closer.
“No mercy…” Etienne repeated, “for you shall have none.”
He punctuated his citation of the Bureau’s infamous motto with an impossibly brutal kick to the back of Meservey’s knees. Balance stolen by the unexpected blow, Meservey pitched forward and, unthinking, tried to plant his feet on what turned out to be just past the very edge of the bridge. He went down, striking his chin on the railing, and as he spun his arms flailed to hook himself desperately around one of the thick suspension ropes. Meservey dangled there, grip precarious, over a seven-storey drop to the coursing waters of the canal. And he watched, astonished, as Etienne rose and stood on legs that had been made whole. “The hell,” the incredulous Meservey spat.
“Hardly,” said Etienne, flexing the healed limbs approvingly. He ran his tongue over his teeth; they were all there, just where they should be. Medium rare steaks were still a possibility.
The fire had reached the end of the bridge and was progressing in towards them now. The heat piled on top of them like unforgiving iron weights. “Same question, then. Finish you or leave you to the flames?”
“Pissing it all away, Navarre. Bureau will hunt you down like the witch-loving rat bastard you’ve become. You’ll never sleep another night.”
Meservey’s braquemart was lying in the path of the fire; a tiny flame burned at its tip. Etienne scooped it up and contemplated it. “I’ll wager you’d love to lead that particular hunt. Tell me where the weapons are made and you’ll have your chance.” He touched the smoldering blade to the rope onto which Meservey was clinging. The little flame licked at the woven fibers as if tasting them, trying to decide if they were worth sinking its teeth into.
“You’ll never get near them,” Meservey said, finding resolve enough to sneer at him.
“Then there’s no reason not to tell me, is there? Decide, Serge, I don’t remember how long it takes for rope to burn.”
Etienne had seen plenty of hate directed his way in his life; to be a Commissionaire was to invite it, to become a fulcrum for it, to walk about wearing it as a cloak. He had been cursed, threatened, even burned in effigy once by a particularly creative and crafty group of villagers out in Brennes. The difference was that in those cases, it was never personal. It was the Bureau they hated, and he was merely the representative. Here, locking eyes with Serge Meservey, Etienne could sense raw, venal, personal hatred such as he had never experienced. It was difficult to believe that they had shared a congenial round of drinks only an hour before, when now it was more than evident that Meservey would derive an almost carnal pleasure from discovering into how many pieces he could chop Etienne’s breathing body. That incinerating alive whilst hanging from a bridge would be preferable to granting Etienne a victory. That Meservey’s hatred of himself for capitulating would be just as fierce. That in the old days a blood feud would have begun today to endure seven generations.
Each word was drenched in humiliation and distaste as Meservey forced it past his lips. “Bureau headquarters,” he said, choking on the syllables. “Sub-level six. That’s where the weapons are made.”
Etienne kept the blade next to the rope. He furrowed his brow. “There is no sub-level six.” The headquarters building had only five floors below ground, mostly for storage and some training facilities. He’d been on sub-level five a dozen times and had never noted anything – doors, stairs, what have you – suggestive of a sixth. “You’re lying to me.”
“Entrance is separate, not in the main building. Tunnel comes in from across the street. The old Korbolde garden house. Now get me off this maudit rope!” His hands were beginning to slip, and the fire had reached the ropes next to his. Wood cracked and split. Heat pressed against their faces.
It was enough for Etienne to go on. And it did not come as a terrible surprise to know that the Bureau would want to keep the manufacture of its forbidden materiel so close to home. Only one question remained – what to do with the man responsible.
This is not my choice to make, Etienne.
Etienne shifted his grip on the sword. Meservey’s eyes widened. “Wait,” he pleaded, hate softening in the final seconds. Flames coiled around the top of his rope and descended toward his hands. “Why are you doing this? Has to be more than just because of a woman.”
Etienne had nothing to offer but a shrug of his shoulders. “I have hope,” he said, before burying the customized, monogrammed braquemart in its owner’s stomach.
The rope snapped, and Meservey fell, sword sticking out of his gut, blood leading the way to the waters below. There was a tremendous splash, and the body was carried silently out of sight, destined to float the remaining course of the Sept Frères to the ocean and from there, beyond all memory. Etienne expected that none would mourn Meservey’s passing beyond the anonymous insignia that would be placed on the Bureau’s memorial wall.
“Etienne,” said a melodic voice behind him. A real voice.
However beautiful his memory of her, it always paled when he could behold her in the flesh, as if the human mind was simply incapable of keeping an accurate record even approaching what she was. Someone else had once referred to her as a goddess, and seeing her standing there in the middle of the flames, long dark hair teased by her servant the wind, Etienne felt a compulsion to sink to his knees and offer her his inadequate worship. “Nightingale,” he said.
Nightingale raised a slender, perfect hand above her head. Purple light whirled at her fingers, and around them, the fire began to vanish – not extinguish into smoke, but simply disappear as if being painted off the canvas by an artist who had quite casually changed her mind. It rolled back and away from them, evaporating from the buildings, all that scorched wood regaining its color and shape. Once again he found himself awed by the sheer, intangible scope of her powers.
“Thank you for saving me,” Etienne said. “Have I earned the privilege of your real name yet?”
Amaranthine lips smiled. She reached out to touch his cheek. He could feel sparks of her energies tingling the surface of his skin. I want to kiss you so desperately, he thought. I want to have all of you, and I don’t care if you know it. Yet he held himself back. He wanted her to consent to his desires. He wanted her to want him with as much pure, untamable yearning as he felt, and he wanted them both to revel in stratospheric throes of passion he could only guess at.
“Come with me,” she whispered. Her hands glowed with a rush of magic again.
And all that was the town of Charmanoix faded from Etienne’s sight.
* * *
Remember, you can now read the complete story on my Wattpad page by clicking the icon to the right. Lucky part thirteen is on its way.