Vintage, Part Fourteen

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Without further ado, picking up mere seconds from where we left off…

There is never anything remarkable about the room in which someone’s life is ending.  Rooms are hardly ever built with the express purpose of containing a man’s last breath.  They happen upon that role instead by quirk of fate, becoming through no intent of their own the unexpected terminus for that unpredictably snaking line that demarcates a human being’s limited time in the world.  But once a room houses a death, it is defined by it.  Death etches itself deep into the paint, and its tendrils seep through to stain the brick beneath.  The air tastes of it.  No matter what other, happier events have transpired in that room in the past, now, it can never be anything else.

That’s the room where my father died.

Etienne’s legs started to quiver as he heard the first cough, that dreadful rattle of a brew of blood and acid bubbling up from a stomach worn thin as paper.  The bed held a mere sliver of the invincible man who’d once held his hand so tightly, shrunken now to a shivering bag of bones under jaundiced skin and flaking white hair.  The smell was enough to invite one to retch up one’s own contribution to it.  In the memory Etienne knew he was to enter and sit at the edge of the bed and try to hold his father’s hand again, but he fought against repeating that history with every spare iota of fortitude.  “Papa,” he said quietly.  Reynand did not hear him.  “Papa, c’est Etienne.”

His father tried to say his name, but the first syllable broke into violent wheezes.  Reynand clutched a small, blood-soaked towel to his mouth, almost devouring it as he tried to stifle the tremors in his gut.  Etienne did as his memory of the moment commanded and found a place on the bed after all, reaching for his papa, wishing and pretending that he would recover, or, if not, that at least the horrible coughing would stop.

It did, finally, and Reynand slumped against his pillow.  “Etienne,” he was able to croak in a cloud of red spittle.

“Papa,” said Etienne, “I thought I could try to find maman.  Maybe if I told her how sick you were she could come back and try to help you.”

Reynand started coughing again, and he slammed a bony hand down on his son’s and squeezed while he saturated the towel with pieces of his insides.  Etienne winced at the sensation of some of that old strength lingering in the man’s grip.  “You said you thought she was living in Quermont now,” he said.  “I have enough saved that I could hire someone to take me there.  Then I could find her and ask her to come back.  It would only take a day or two.”

“Maman is never coming back,” Papa insisted, with handfuls of breath tinted by ancient anger.  “I taught you better than to waste your money like that.”  He dropped to a conspiratorial whisper, although there was no one to overhear them.  “Why don’t you go buy some of Papa’s medicine for him instead?  Hmm?”

“The doctor told me your ‘medicine’ is making you worse,” Etienne said.

“Putains,” spat his father.  “Liars and quacks.  They’ll not be foisting their leeches on me.”

“Maman knows how to make you better.  She always made me better whenever I was sick.”

Reynand shrank from his son, the tremors in his limbs seeming to ease as resignation slid over the wanness of his features.  He closed his eyes to watch regrets drift across his mind.  “Your maman… your maman.  My love.  I had every chance with her, to build our life into something lasting.  She gave me more chances than I deserved.  Far more.  At every opportunity I squandered them.”

A young only son was the wrong audience.  His father should have called for a brother, a dear friend, or a minister, rather than dump his final confession on someone who should never have been so encumbered.  But Reynand de Navarre had no siblings, had long since alienated any acquaintances and considered religious men to be a pack of deluded hucksters.  There was, at the end, no one else.  Only this boy who had yet to grow out of his round face and into his stringy frame.

“But why?” asked Etienne.

“A man doesn’t appreciate what he has while he has it,” said Reynand with a deep sigh.  “He wants more.  He goes off in search of more, and he thinks that home will always be waiting for him when he deigns to return to it.  I loved your mother, but I loved other women too, and when temptation touched me I gave myself to it.”  He turned away to gaze at the less judgmental face of the streaked and faded cornflower wall.  “So many times I begged her to forgive me,” he said, “and when she did I would go out and find another yet again, and still another.  In my arrogance, my stupidity, I couldn’t understand how I was hurting her, how I was destroying the bright spirit I’d once fallen in love with.  I only cared about what I wanted, what I felt I was making of myself.  A bold, confident man who takes what he wants, pulls its beating heart from its chest and roars in triumph as the blood pours down his arm.  Oh, mon fils.  How I miss her.  How one last kiss would be enough.”

He began to weep.  As the tears ran, the coughing returned.  Papa’s entire body convulsed into hacks and sputters and shakes.  He groped for the towel as blood froth pooled at the corners of his mouth.  As he bore witness to the deterioration, Etienne winced and choked back tears of his own.

It had been so long since he had seen his mother.  He could scarcely remember those details that should have been unforgettable.  The lilt of her lullabies.  The warmth and the soft scent of her as he pressed in for a hug.  The promise of sleep with peaceful dreams simply by knowing she was in the next room.  It had all been snatched away, and the man dying in the bed was to blame.

Etienne waited for the spasm to pass.  He let his father enjoy one complete minute of restful breathing.  “Papa,” he said, “if you had been different, would Maman have stayed?”

“Peut être, Etienne.  Peut être.  But even if I had remained faithful from the first day I was probably never enough of a man for someone like her.  Oh, you should have seen her then.  The most magnificent thing I had ever laid eyes upon.  I threw her away.  She was right to go.”

“Why didn’t she take me with her?” Etienne pleaded.  “Why did she leave me with you?”

“You were the mistake that tied her to this wreck and shadow,” Papa said, sinking deeper into the abyss.  “You would be a constant reminder of a life wasted.”

Young Etienne aged ten years in the space of a single word.  He felt himself shift away from the old man, and heard his lips deliver the phrase that he knew would demand the most cruel truth a boy could hear from his father.  “Is that all that I am, Papa?  A mistake?”

“You’re a bright boy, Etienne.  But if the world was fair, and men were wiser, you never would have been born.”  He gave Etienne one generous second to gasp at the stab of the spear before he twisted it.  “But, since you were, make yourself useful and take that money and go buy your Papa some more medicine.”

In silence, Etienne rose from the bed.  He made for the door as the chastened, obedient son desperate to earn his papa’s praise.  “There’s a good little fellow,” said Reynand.  “You know the kind I like.  Herriot’s genièvre, in the blue glass bottle.  Ask Monsieur Clouvet to help you get it from the top shelf.  Get it back here as quick as you can.  You’ll do that for me, won’t you?”  The smile on the old man’s repugnant face, the ruddy lips splitting yellowed skin, was as oily as that of a confidence trickster.  He was positively giddy at the prospect of downing more of the accursed drink and blithely ignorant of the irreparable damage he had just inflicted upon his boy.

The first time, Etienne had run away.  To the harbor, to throw reality into the sea and find himself instead in the place where he’d once been the happiest.  The easy path.

Just like him.  Just as he would have done.

“Father,” Etienne said, suddenly with an older, learned voice.  A term he had never used for Reynand before.  It had always been ‘Papa.’  He stopped at the doorway and turned back as deliberately as the second hand of a clock, carrying on his shoulders the accumulated burden of two decades of unanswered questions, rued choices and paths of fate grown impassable with twisted weeds.  He turned to see again the likeness of the withered waste of a man who had sired him, a gnarled half-corpse soiling a sagging bed, the heart beating now only out of lingering spite and stubborn reluctance to give up an old habit.  “Thank you,” said Etienne.  “Thank you for the gift of learning how to hate someone without reservation or regret.  I fled from here once because I was terrified of a world without my papa in it.  Now…”  He grinned.  “I am tempted to buy your coveted drink and pour it down your throat myself just so that you’ll die faster.”

It did not seem possible, but Reynand de Navarre shriveled further into himself.  Eyelids peeled back into his skull, and the shakes that wracked his body now added tremors of fear.  “Etienne, my son,” he begged, “I don’t want to die.”

“Yes you do,” said Etienne.  “It’s all you’ve ever wanted.  Nothing has ever been worth living for.  Not Maman, and certainly not me.  You’ve made sure to hasten your end at every opportunity, but even now you’re still too much of a coward to do what you always taught me was the most important thing in life:  defend what you believe.  Here is what I believe, father.  This is the fate you have earned.  Congratulations.  Enjoy it alone.”

“Etienne!” Papa sobbed as his son strode from the room without remorse or lingering wish to look back.  Not this time.  The room where his father died could remain that.  Etienne closed the door on the wizened creature’s plaintive cries, sealing them forever behind rotting wood panels and locking his own memories in a steel vault he knew now he need never open again.  Yet he felt no relief from their weight, only a deepening and entrenchment of the anger that had made him reach out to the Bureau Centrale.

The witch was waiting for him a step outside time in the corridor beyond.  Its detail and color faded like the light after a sunset, vanishing from his mind, leaving only the two of them in a sea of gray growing darker with each approaching wave.

“It was not long after this,” Nightingale said.

Etienne nodded.  “He could have been a revered professor, or conseiller to the King.  Instead, Reynand de Navarre died without a sou to his name and completely forgotten.  Five days, before the smell compelled a stranger to kick down the door and discover him lying there.  I don’t even know where he is buried.”  He smirked to himself.  “It has never occurred to me to find out.”

“Hatred is the most reliable of emotions.  It justifies every questionable action and thought we might ever have.  If you forgave your father, if that hate was gone, who would you be then?”  She edged closer.  “You don’t even know, and the very idea of it frightens you.”

“This is not fear,” Etienne said sharply, temper boiling over and spilling at her.  “It’s fact.  I know the pull toward hopelessness, the ease with which one can let the cruelty of life turn you into a victim.  That was him.  I’ll never see myself become that.”  His eyes flitted to the door behind him.  “Never,” he whispered.

“At what cost?” demanded Nightingale.  “Do you think that innocent girl who could speak to butterflies deserved to pay?  Did your mother?”

Ice paralyzed Etienne’s spine.  “What do you mean?” he said, each word enunciated deliberately, aimed straight at her with the precision of an arrow.

Nightingale said nothing.

From raised palms and fingertips a cold cascade of light and mist, sparkling in the amaranthine shade of her lips, shimmered across the darkness between them and wound itself about his limbs, as delicately as the application of a balm to a burn.  Where the spell touched him, Etienne’s pores went instantly both numb and aflame, and the sensation burrowed down through nerve and muscle to the very fragments of his bones.  It spread into his chest and from there exploded across the rest of his body, cocooning him in suffocating strands of energy.  A sudden jolt of terror pierced the parts of him he could still feel.  He reached for her, to beg the witch to stop.  On his outstretched arm the fingers were shrinking, the lines were smoothing out, the hairs were retreating beneath the surface like frightened worms.  The world, what he could perceive of it, seemed to be getting so much larger, and Nightingale, magic continuing to pour from her elegant hands, was towering over him now as if he was sinking into the earth, yet the ground remained solid.

Etienne’s thoughts began to split apart, the complex phrases of adult intellect devolving into colors, shapes, abstract fragments of emotion that were more instinctual than reasoned.  He was compelled to speak, but forgot the words.  Forgot all the words.  Forgot what words were.  When he did manage to force something out, it was formless sound.  A wail of pure desperation and pure need.

Nightingale let her hands fall to her sides, the last of the spell ebbing into the darkness around her, as she contemplated the baby lying in front of her.  It squirmed and screamed, utterly incapable of comprehending where it was or what had happened to it, knowing only in its innocent state that it was scared, or hungry, or in pain.  The witch smiled, placed a finger to her lips, whispered a calming “shh,” and retreated into the shadows.  The baby’s cries echoed into the void.

It lay there on its own in dark nothingness for a few moments shy of an eternity, pleading for someone, anyone to come.  Tiny, chubby legs kicked at the air like a turtle flipped onto its back.  Two voices began to filter through the cold murk, the words only random sounds to a baby’s ears but the tones varying enough for it to be able to distinguish in its undeveloped mind which was the man and which was the woman, and which would most likely come to him.

“Encore!  Every night.  Every hour.  This maudit brat will not let us sleep!”

“He is a baby, and babies cry.  We were told he would be a sickly child.”

“He’s just being petulant because he wants attention.  Ignore him and he will stop.”

“Go back to bed then if your sleep is so damned precious to you.”

A door slammed, the harsher of the two voices departed, and sudden gentle hands reached down to lift the baby and cradle it in warm, welcoming, forgiving arms.  “Mon cheri,” sang a perfect voice.  “Je suis ici.  Maman est ici.  Je ne vais nulpart.”

The baby kept crying, wincing at the pressure cutting into its chest.  The woman rocked it back and forth, whispering reassurance, planting tender kisses on a downy-haired crown.  This was the third time the infant had contracted the illness, and the episodes were lasting longer and growing more intense – and the same could be said for her husband’s impatience.  Two nights past, a drunken rant had seen him threaten to abandon them both, but the morning’s sobriety had brought tearful contrition.  She knew that in his own primitive way he was afraid for the child’s well-being as much as she, even if his ability to articulate it was not much more evolved than the screams cutting at her eardrums right now.

Her heart bled to see her little one like this.  The first two times he had gotten better, but it had been three days and nights now and the usually reliable herbal tonics were doing nothing.  The fever would break, and then flare up, and the tiny body’s reserves were depleted by an inability to keep down even liquid nourishment.  There would be hints of hope here and there where sleep would arrive, but never for more than an hour before the cries began again.  The local doctors had cautioned her that the child might not survive this latest bout, that the sickness had been racing through the city claiming many other, much hardier newborns.  She had thanked them for their optimism and sent them on their gloomy way.

The cruel irony was that she knew of a remedy that would sweep away the sickness like crumbs from a table, and she was terrified to use it.  It would mean going back on an old vow and exposing the entire family to a life of looking over their collective shoulder, of waiting for that awful and inevitable pounding on the front door in the middle of the night.  She had been quite content to pretend, for more years than she could remember, that the choice, and the fear, belonged to someone else.  But here, holding her son, listening to his cries rattle the walls while a husband incapable of handling crises pulled a pillow over a veritable ostrich’s head in the next room, a mother’s instinct for protection drowned out worries of self-preservation.  Enough.  She could not abide him hurting any longer.  She needed to remember who she was, recall the old gift, and reach into that dusty corner of her memory for the needed spell.

“My sweet fils Etienne,” she whispered as she leaned over him.  She spread apart the blanket in which he was swaddled and laid a hand against his soft pink chest.  A warm golden light spread out from her fingers and washed over him in a cleansing glow that brought early dawn to the small room.  The cries stopped.  The infection was gone.  The baby cooed happily, peacefully, and gazed up into the sad smile and the light from the manifestation of the magic reflected in his mother’s eyes.  She lifted her hand, drawing the healing energy back into herself, and with a flourish of fingers dispersed it into tiny stars dancing off into the air and winking out one by one.  “I am so sorry,” she said, understanding the consequences that the breaking of her vow meant for him.  Her tears fell onto his cheeks.  He giggled at the warmth and the wet.  She laughed and clutched him to her breast, humming the innocent song about goats and lambs that her own mother had once soothed her with, and praying that for once, morning would not come.

As the adult Etienne de Navarre watched, he did not know whether to scream out in mad disbelief, sob in regret or simply throw up, and he grasped at elusive breath and begged someone to tell him what to do.  Strength in his legs gave way.  He crumpled to the ground.  “My mother…”  He heaved the words as though they were anvils.  “She…”

“Elyssia de Navarre was a great sorceress,” said Nightingale behind him.  “Forced to conceal her powers to escape the suspicion of the Bureau Centrale.  For many years she lived in denial and without magic, until that night she chose to use it to save your life.”

“She never… I didn’t…”

“You wondered, though,” said the witch, peering into his soul like it was made of glass.  “Why your friends got sick, but you didn’t.  Why your garden was always full of food even in the driest summers.  Why she seemed never to age.”

Etienne dared to lean nearer to the living image of his mother and himself as a baby, close enough to gasp at the taste of the pomegranate scent of her long hair, to be able to look up into his mother’s eyes once more.  Tears could not diminish entirely the smile he remembered seeing behind those eyes, no matter the harshness of the moment or the cares troubling her mind.  He thought of the long cold years since he’d seen them.  Part of him knew her every facet and the other was staring uncomprehending at a stranger.  His mother, the very shape of the force he had sworn to fight.  He thought of his father pleading for her.  He thought of long nights spent wondering where and why she had gone, thinking perhaps that if he called out the window into the darkness loud enough she might hear him and return.  He knew the futility of wishing to regain lost time, but it was equally futile to try and expect to function now only on reason.  He hated the life that had followed her departure, and he mourned the one he could have had with her in it.  “She didn’t help him,” he whispered through clenched teeth, unsure if he was talking about his father or himself.  “She could have saved him.”

“Don’t confuse magic with miracles, Etienne.  There is no spell to change a man’s character.”

“Is that why she left, finally?”  Nightingale did not answer.  Instead she moved next to him and laid a comforting hand on his shoulder.  “No,” he said.  It made sense now.  “They found her.”

“She wanted to send for you, but she feared that they would take you too.  She sacrificed herself to ensure that you would grow up free from their reach.”

Etienne had as much use for religion as his late father, but he suddenly found the idea of a misanthropic god meddling in the fates of men for his own amusement to be far more credible.  “Instead, I joined them.  And I dedicated myself to hunting down everyone like her.”  He flailed at recalling how many there had been.  That he could not recollect the precise detail of each life he had helped to end was a nameless shame that was far too heavy to be described merely as crushing.

Nightingale added another weight.  “To hunting your own family, Etienne.”

Etienne turned away from the angelic figure, back to the other celestial woman who had led him to this place, and offered her only a blank canvas upon which to paint.  “You, she and I are the descendants of a single unknown, legendary woman who lived over a thousand years ago,” she told him.  “She was the first to have magic.  Her daughters inherited her powers, and their sons carried the magic in their blood to bequeath to their own daughters and granddaughters.  As they went out across the world so too did magic take root in every corner of civilization.  No matter how many of us have been tortured and killed over the centuries by those too frightened to try to understand, magic endures.  As much a part of nature and as impossible to stop as the light of the sun.”

Etienne caught a note of uncertainty in Nightingale’s voice.  “But something has changed.”

“Man’s tenacity and resourcefulness when presented with the impossible is boundless, even more so when it is spurred by hatred,” she said sadly.  “He will even learn to block the light.  The weapons your friend Meservey invented are a mortal threat to us.  I have done my best to interfere, but… the Bureau is winning, Etienne.  The Commissionaires have doubled their quotas.  More witches are being captured and murdered than ever before.”  For the first time since he’d known her, the immensely powerful Nightingale looked scared, and even overwhelmed.

“Much to atone for,” he said, quoting her words back to her.  “But I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.  I’m not my mother.  There has always been more Reynand than Elyssia about me.”  He glanced at his mother again, and hoped that her spectre would not notice him, what he had become in her absence.  He was Commissionaire Etienne de Navarre of the Bureau Centrale, the son of a sorceress and a betrayer of his entire kind.  The revelation tasted of ashes.  Maman, if only I had known.  Why did you never tell me?

He hated who he had become.  He hated who he was.

“Men born to witches have gifts of their own,” Nightingale said.  “They are more intelligent, intuitive, driven… the qualities you admire most in yourself, and of which you have made such fine use in your career.  Your ability to read every nuance of a situation, to command the attention of others, what some might even call your magnetism, you owe those to her.  But you fear that your father’s weakness taints your strength, and this fear has shaped your choices.  You don’t acknowledge it, though.  You wrestle it into the dirt and grind it beneath your heel, but it’s always there.  It even shows in how you drink.  Never to excess, always in control, understanding every precise element of every vintage down to the signature of the fruit from which the wine came.  Mastering it the way he couldn’t.  Control is strength to you, because control tames the fear.  And for a very long time, magic was something you could not control, so you worked to destroy it.”

Nightingale knelt next to him and covered his hands with hers.  He felt the charge of mystical energy sizzling at her fingertips.  “Etienne, your father and mother are long dead.  You cannot wound them anymore.  You need to forgive them and do honor to both their memory and to the love they shared once that gave you this life.  When we first met, that night outside Montagnes-les-grands, I could sense who you were.  I knew you were one of us, and that given time, I could reach you.  It was why I let you go free, why I sought you out at the lake, why I’ve protected you and why I am asking you now.  If you loved them.  If you love me.  Help me end this war.”

The image of Elyssia and the baby began to dissolve, spinning away into fragments of golden light.  Etienne reached out to grab onto something, any vestige of her he could keep, but his hand found only air.  The particles swirled higher, tearing away the darkness to reveal the white room overlooking the Calerre harbor where he’d awoken what felt like a hundred years ago.  It was nighttime now, and a quilt of amber lights flickered over the hillsides at the mouth of the dark sea beyond.  “Au revoir, maman,” Etienne whispered, swallowing his emotions.  His father had wanted only one more kiss.  He would have settled for a final glimpse.

Au revoir à vous deux.

Nightingale was still holding his hands, awaiting his answer.  He collected himself and reasserted the self-confidence that she’d told him was an inheritance from Maman.  “You are wrong,” he said.  “The aim should not be to end the war.  It should be to win it.  This will never stop until we burn the Bureau to the ground and salt the smoldering cinders.”

She smirked at the improbability contained in his remark.  “I have a great deal of power, Etienne, but not against those weapons.  Not against legions of Bureau soldiers.”

“We will need our own army, then.”  An idea crested to the forefront of his thoughts, one that the former, more rational Etienne would have dismissed as lunacy, and indeed there was a not insignificant part of him that still considered it so.  “I have an inkling as to where we might recruit one.  I may need your help, though, in convincing its leader.”

“Why is that?”

“The last time I saw him, I stabbed him through the hand.”

*  *  *

Happy weekend, happy reading, and thanks for sticking around!  A break for a day or two, then it’s on with writing Part Fifteen!

“Chewie, we’re home.”

werehome

Three little words.  The first uttered in darkness, the remainder as the lights come up and we behold the weathered features of Han Solo standing next to his furry, lifelong companion, in the aging corridors of the Millennium Falcon.  A clarion call to uncounted legions of dreamers, young and old alike, waiting in what often seemed merely vain hope for thirty-two long years.  We’d seen the Falcon fly in the first teaser, but this was different.  This was an affirmation of something that we’d long been told was never going to happen.  This was a gift.  This was faith rewarded.

About damn time.

The Internet has grown far beyond what it was in 1999, when one had to suffer through an agonizing hour of QuickTime buffering through a dial-up connection to behold the reveal, following the Lucasfilm logo, of Trade Federation tanks creeping over a grassy hill.  Certainly, at the time, I pored over the frames of the teaser for The Phantom Menace with unbridled curiosity, clutching at the merest hint of clue to what the story would be, and discussing and debating it at length over pints with fellow Warsies.  We were excited, surely, long having been starved of anything new from the galaxy far, far away, absent the comic books and the Timothy Zahn continuation novels, which, finely crafted as they were, could not quite compare to the idea of a new Star Wars movie rolling across the screens.

Retrospect (and retconning, to be totally honest) has diminished the sense of anticipation rippling through fandom in those months leading to Phantom Menace‘s opening night.  I was the only one of my friends with free time on the day advance tickets went on sale, and I hauled myself out of bed before the sun came up in April ’99 and drove twenty miles to the theater where there was already a line fifty folks long, prepared to stand there under baking sun until the box office opened at 3 p.m.  People were playing the fresh-in-stores Episode I soundtrack on ghetto blasters, clowning around in Jedi robes and swinging plastic lightsabers, one-upping each other with quotes and character impressions and generally having as good a time as one can in a long queue.  Foolishly, I did not bring any provisions (or even a hat) with me, and wound up having at one point to ask the two guys I’d befriended standing directly ahead of me to hold my place while I hopped in the car and raced off to the most proximate fast-food joint to find a bathroom and some bottled water.  When they finally flung open the doors and I walked away, sunburned but with a whole pile of golden tickets for the 12:01 a.m. showing two weeks hence in pocket, it seemed rather anticlimactic, but I still had the sense of mission accomplished and relief that I wouldn’t have to wait one second longer to see it than anyone else.

We wanted so desperately for that movie to be everything we’d been hoping for.  It’s tough to remember too that apart from the most deeply cynical cinephiles, everybody loved Phantom Menace on first sight.  No less an authority than the late Roger Ebert said, “My thumb is up, with a lot of admiration.”  But the glow faded very fast.  Loud naysayers started screaming about its flaws, and those of us who’d been soundly in the pro-camp began to realize that beneath the digital veneer and the aura of NEW STAR WARS! was a poorly-written and poorly-performed story locked in to hitting marks and prevented, by its very nature as a prequel, from giving us any surprises.  It was like a long, monodirectional train ride past flashy scenery to a predetermined destination, its characters marionettes against bluescreen, the dialogue stilted and hammy.  And the previously revered George Lucas became a figure of scorn.  We gave him two more chances to right the ship, but as the credits of Revenge of the Sith rolled, and with them the end of Star Wars as we knew it, we sighed at the affirmation of that old axiom that we can’t go home again.  The uneven Clone Wars aside, that was it.  Lucas said he was finished with Star Wars.  He was ready to move on.

Enter the Walt Disney Company, and later, J.J. Abrams.  The man who’d awoken the dormant Star Trek franchise by infusing it with a healthy dose of Star Wars-style action and banter.  The man who tossed out the story treatments that Disney had purchased from Lucas and said that what he and the fans wanted to see was the return of Luke, Han and Leia.  Sure, we said, good luck getting Harrison Ford back, who had opined with grouchy regularity over the preceding thirty years that he had absolutely no interest in revisiting the character of Han Solo.  The photograph released last April of the new cast sitting in a round, Ford included, was welcome, but could not compare with the reveal in yesterday’s trailer of Han and Chewie, together again against odds, against fate, against belief and probability and all measure of the randomness of how life unfolds.  The gasp heard around the world was very real, and quite deafening, given the three decades we’ve been collectively holding our breaths.

The Force Awakens will not premiere for another eight months.  In the months prior to the Phantom Menace‘s release, entertainment journalists were speculating about the possibility of it out-grossing Titanic and Lucas himself said with a shrug that it simply wouldn’t happen.  He understood that hyperbole of some aside, he was up against expectations that no one could possibly hope to meet.  Certainly, Episode I could have benefited tremendously from some alternate creative choices here and there, but had Orson Welles come back from the dead to direct it from a script by the equally moldy Billy Wilder, you still would have had a vast majority of fans grumbling that they thought The Matrix was better.  Anticipation is a funny thing in that satisfying it is often an exercise in disappointment.  With tremendous loyalty to Star Wars as a whole still a robust force – pun intended – and the additional burden on its back of overwhelming the lingering sour taste of the prequel trilogy, so too can The Force Awakens not hope to please everyone.

What it has already done to its betterment is given us a singular moment that we can savor until the cold months return, and a lovely sentiment that we can remember with a smile in years to come, no matter the quality of the end result.  The feeling that we have, if for ever a brief instant, finally come home.

Marvel Fatigue

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I come before you today with a problem.

It is a rather insidious one at that, beginning at the base of my spine and migrating with so many spider’s steps one fraction of an inch at a time up along the vertebrae and couching itself in the recesses of my brain, there to ferment and fester and trickle into the forefront of my thoughts.  It is the contradictory notion of living in the height of the era of fantasy and comic book-inspired film adaptations, long dreamed about since boyhood, and being overtaken gradually by a creeping fog of ennui that threatens to grow into shrugging disinterest.

You see, I have Marvel Fatigue.

I know, I should probably be forced to turn in my geek card after a statement like that, and go and lurk the message board of the New Yorker waiting for Richard Brody’s latest bloviation on Antonioni.  But I’m wondering, in the last few weeks before Avengers: Age of Ultron debuts, if we’re just getting too much candy and we’re growing benumbed to its taste.  Since 2008 there have been ten movies set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with eleven more slated for release over the next five years (even more if you factor in the X-Men and Spider-Man movies).  And that doesn’t take into account whatever it is DC is doing (which seems to be a late-to-the-party duplication of the Marvel game plan, but with much more depressing product, in keeping with the prevailing dark chic aesthetic of the period), or the various TV iterations of the MCU, be they Agents of SHIELD, Agent Carter or any of the plethora of forthcoming Netflix originals.  We’re way past saturation point now; we’re drowning.  And it would be one thing if the movies were bad – for the most part, they’re all serviceable pieces of entertainment, made with top-notch talent.  But they are all so locked into a shopworn and audience-tested formula that they’ve utterly lost their capacity to do the one thing movies like that should:

Surprise us.

The feeling began to bubble up after I saw Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie that was being lauded left and right in the community of fandom as one of the greatest things for those of our ilk to hit the cineplexes since the original Star Wars.   My son, naturally, was presold, but, won over as I was by seeing gushing praise from sources I respected, I even managed to sway my wife to join us.  And apart from a few cute touches here and there, I came away from the screening feeling let down.  The clincher for me was the music, the collection of tracks on Peter Quill’s fabled “Awesome Mix Volume 1.”  Disappointingly, there was not a single song on there that hadn’t been used in at least a dozen popular movies preceding this one.  Perhaps the intent was to feed nostalgia by scoring the story with the songs that would have been popular around the time Star Wars was wowing us all for the first time in 1977.  For me, it was the most blatant possible reminder that these movies are suffering from what I’ve talked about before with cultural karaoke.  Rather than striking out for bold, new, uncharted territory, they’re treading ground that has already been crushed under the weight of heavily booted footprints, choosing always the safe and familiar route.  Every moment is a callback to something else, instead of standing on its own.  You practically need a pop culture dictionary to understand everything that’s going on.

I enjoyed the first Avengers, but I’ve never watched it again from start to finish, as for me it was rather like a meringue:  sweet and sugary but ultimately hollow and scarcely worth a second taste.  If you set aside the whee! factor of seeing all those characters together in a movie for the first time, the story is paper-thin, and the emotional moments are forced and artificial – I mean, come on, the idea of the bickering team bonding over the death of a marginal character who’d had little impact on the lot of them (and turned out to only be, as Miracle Max would put it, mostly dead) just in time to fight off the alien menace in a CGI orgy of exploding buildings, is pretty flimsy for ostensibly A-list screenwriting.  One can also see, based on the clips released from Age of Ultron thus far, that the sequel will follow the same pattern.  Now that they’ve become an inseparable team, the heroes will find themselves pitted against each other, again – not for any organic reason, but because the Scarlet Witch’s magic messes with their minds – until they again overcome their differences and unite to fight off the robot menace in a CGI orgy of exploding buildings.  Throw in a few pop culture puns delivered from Robert Downey Jr. and you’ve pretty much got the whole movie there in a nutshell, haven’t you?

I don’t say this all to be snarky for the sake of being a contrarian.  I want to be wowed.  I want to be surprised.  I want the movie to go left when I was convinced it was bearing right.  I want to burst out of that theater and race to the kiosk to buy a ticket to see the very next screening.

I just have little faith that that’s going to happen.

I imagine that I will take my son to Age of Ultron, laugh at the parts I’m expected to laugh at, roll my eyes at the showers of concrete from the exploding buildings, and shuffle on home to mark the calendar for when I’ll have to take him to Ant-Man.  Marvel hasn’t shown in its productions thus far, nor indeed, have any of the other superhero movies of the 21st Century, that they have any interest in pushing the envelope and giving us something unexpected.  And why should they?  They have a formula that keeps generating hundreds of millions of dollars annually, a pent-up demand from my generation and our descendants that continues to flow as predictably as Niagara Falls.  You know exactly what you’re going to get when you walk into one of these movies, and it’s foolish to pretend that there is no appeal in that, as anyone who keeps going back to McDonald’s can attest.

I’m tired of McDonald’s.  Give me a steak.

Yeats famously said that things fall apart, the center cannot hold.  Eventually, one of these movies is going to fall flat on its face, and questions will be asked, fingers will be pointed, articles will be written and everyone will collectively scratch their heads, wondering where it all went wrong.  There won’t be one distinct answer, other than the notion that by refusing to evolve, by churning out essentially 21 versions of the same story in a period of eleven years, they will have brought on their own demise.  The irony of it all is that it isn’t as though the potential is not there for mind-twisting stories and emotionally resonant moments, given the sheer volume of the source material, and the reservoir of talent bursting to be heard.  But the focus remains only on predictable flash, because that is what a group of accountants in Burbank have decided is what sells – especially to overseas audiences who don’t grasp the puns – and they want their bazillion-dollar Christmas bonuses.

I’ve simply reached the point where as an audience member, I can’t overlook the hyperkinetic pixels and the stale one-liners anymore.  Yet I cling to a tiny, diminishing reservoir of hope that one of these days, one of these movies will leap off the screen and smack me out of my complacency and remind me why I loved these stories to begin with.  That hope is what keeps me buying tickets.

But I’m not there lining up on opening night anymore.

Vintage, Part Thirteen

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I have nothing terribly interesting to say by way of introduction today, other than:  Here’s Part Thirteen.

He awoke to the cool salt scent of the morning sea.  Sheer curtains glowed with new sunlight as they billowed gently beneath the touch of the rising breeze.  In the distance, sea birds cried, and the wind answered, filling Etienne’s lungs with bracing, purifying air.  He was lying in an immense bed, on a cotton mattress as soft as fresh meringue.  He raised his head from a down pillow and pared a silk sheet away from a supine body.  Etienne’s bare feet sank into deep wool as he took a few cautious steps towards the curtains and pulled them back, opening the day as one would open a gift.  There were no windows.  Instead the room was absent a wall, and it looked out past a narrow balcony over the great seaside treasure that was the city of Calerre.  Jewelled rooftops rolled away over hills and valleys down to the horseshoe of the natural harbor welcoming those majestic ships that had so entranced him as a boy.  He could see the square sails of a three-masted barque unfurling as the vessel caught the early winds, while trawlers jostled for positions at the jetties to unload the nets containing the dawn’s haul of espadon and vivaneau.

He was home.

Etienne took a moment to inhale the view, to envelop himself in its tranquility.  He felt better-rested than he had been in months, if not years.  Old aches were silent and recent wounds were forgotten.  The room he found himself in was just as serene, its lavish furnishings and decor painted entirely in pristine white, soaking up the sunlight as it poured in, radiating a cushion of narcotic warmth.  The generous donor of the accommodations was sitting before a wall-mounted oval mirror at a white dressing table on the other side of the bed, running a delicate brush through long dark locks that spilled over one seductively bared shoulder.  He did not know if she had been there the entire time, or if she had just appeared – by magic, as was her wont.

Nightingale wore only a white satin robe, tied at the waist with an amethyst-hued ribbon.  She sat with her legs together at one side, and Etienne, who until now had seen her in a succession of concealing cloaks and boots, usually at the peak of night, found toned flesh gleaming in the sun to be as perfect as he had hoped.  It was hyperbolic understatement to say that her appearance was without flaw; more than that, it was as though each part of her had been crafted, with deliberate purpose, to the highest possible measure of allure.  And her presence seemed to be magnified beyond the limits of her physical form, beyond space, beyond even the moment.  Even as he looked at her across the room, he could feel the warmth of her body against his, taste her euphoric scent permeating his very skin.  He stood at the balcony and she sat at the table, but at the same time, they slept in the bed, laughed and rolled on the floor, clenched flesh in the burst of orgasm, danced quietly beneath the crystal chandelier, ached at the other’s long absence.  It was like all the elements and emotions of a courtship compressed into a single fragment of time.  The spark of a first kiss caught and preserved in amber, at once both rapturous, and disorienting.

She sensed him watching her.  She did not pause.  The brush continued in a straight line along to the very ends of her hair, then returned to her crown and repeated the downward journey, each stroke smooth and even.

“Good morning,” Nightingale said.

Etienne felt his cheeks fill with blood.  A pang of dizziness swam across his view.  “Hello,” he said back, the most erudite phrase he could summon.  In this place, she was both a beguiling stranger glimpsed in a crowd and a lover of decades whose every facet he could recite by rote.  “Are we… is this…”  Words were elusive suddenly, as though he was a foreign man unfamiliar with the language, struggling to articulate his intentions.  He pried his eyes away from her legs.  “Is this real?”

“What makes you believe it isn’t?”

He realized he sounded ungrateful.  However she had brought him here, it was certainly an improvement over the rickety bridges of Charmanoix.  “It’s just… I know of no establishment in Calerre that has this view.”

“What is real, what is not.  Such reductive thinking, Etienne,” the witch said, a tease laced into her voice.  “The truth you’ve yet to discover is that the answer to that question is not an absolute.  It does not have to be one or the other.”  She made a gesture, and a blast of frost seized Etienne’s spine.  He turned back to the view to find that the Calerre harbor had been usurped by a chain of snow-capped mountain peaks beneath a hard, thin sky, and that their room now teetered over a thousand-foot drop into a valley of blue ice.  Instinctively, Etienne grabbed his arms to stave off the shivers.  Teeth chattered so hard he was afraid he would break his jaw.

Undisturbed by the swing in temperature, Nightingale walked toward him.  She lifted her fingers again, and the cold stopped as swiftly as the slam of a door.  He heard the lash of wave against shore and looked out to see the golden sand of a beach and the swaying fronds of towering palms.  A sticky wall of humidity pressed against him.  With a sheepish sigh Etienne released his arms from his own crushing grip.  He could offer the beautiful witch nothing but a gape of disbelief.  She read him as easily as printed words.  “Go on,” she said with a nod.

Etienne crouched and scooped up a palmful of the clean, dry sand.  “This is a crossing,” Nightingale told him.  “Of time and place and magic, of mind, body and soul.  As intangible as a dream and as real and as truthful as the most intimate connection two people can share.”  It was her gift to him, he realized.  She was granting him the opportunity to be completely vulnerable.  With her.

He rubbed each grain of glass between his fingertips.  For what might have been merely spell-wreathed mirages, they felt real enough.  He stared out at the clear ocean, watched white foam bubble at the crest of each oncoming wave, and thought of walking the beach with her hand in his.  “I’ve always dreamed of coming somewhere like this, someday.”

Nightingale placed her hands on her hips.  Her tone became strangely judgmental.  “When the Bureau Centrale has no further use for you?”

Etienne let the sand sift between his fingers and fall silently in a small pile, like an hourglass.  Time, which had so often been his to command, felt terribly short, even in the pocket of eternity Nightingale had created for the two of them.  “I daresay that will be sooner than I was hoping, and under circumstances somewhat different.”  He brushed his hands, but they still felt coated in grit.  “I murdered a Commissionaire.  My men killed his men.”  An unwanted tremor invaded his words as he turned slowly back to her.  “I’ve never killed anyone before.”

“Perhaps it feels more real to swing the sword than to sign the order,” Nightingale said.  “But the result is the same.  One life ends at the hands of another.”  No, she would not absolve him.  There was too much blood to wash away, no matter how vast the ocean beyond these three walls.

“I can’t remember how many orders I’ve signed.  I don’t remember all the names.  Mothers and daughters.  We tell the families that they’ll come back.  They never do.”

“Your Bureau has carved a chasm in the soul of this country and of its people,” the witch said.  “It has skewed the course of history down a path it was never meant to tread, and from which you may never find your way back.  How much progress and happiness and even basic decency has been sacrificed to the pursuit of the illusion of security and safety?  How much humanity has been lost to the irrational indulgence of fear?  How many dreams ended too soon?”

“I’m not sure even the Bureau has an accurate count.”  Numbers seemed a cold, inadequate measure of the tragedy she was describing.

“And yet,” Nightingale said, “until you met me you were a loyal soldier in their cause.  Had I not intervened that night, you would have delivered that innocent girl to the tortures of the Bureau and hunted down another, and another, without hesitation.  Repeating the same pattern over decades until your vices finally caught up with you.”

Etienne found it within him to smile.  “You have a way of changing a man’s mind.”

She drew closer, each barefoot step bursting with sensuality.  In flashes of time he was covering her quivering body in hard, welcomed kisses, or he was on his knees pleading with her to return as she stormed out of his life.  “Would the argument have been as convincing,” Nightingale asked, “if I didn’t look like this?”

She had never been modest about her beauty, nor its effect on him.  He was humbled by that.  “Does it matter?”

“You say that you are in love with me, but you do not love what I am.”

“Haven’t I proved that to you already?”  The taste of pleading was wine turned to vinegar.  “Was saving the sisters and killing Meservey not enough?”

“I am a witch, Etienne,” Nightingale declared.  “Of all the powers I have shown you, I have still more that you cannot fathom.  That frightens you.  And part of you clings to a choice you made years ago, to fear me.”  She aimed a delicate finger at his chest.  “I can see it there, embedded in your heart.  Festering.  Rotting away like a piece of old meat left in the sun.  It has been part of you for so long you will not give it up easily, no matter how enticed you are.”

Etienne started to tell her that he did not fear her, but the sentiment caught in his throat.  He was back outside Montagnes-les-grands, glimpsing her face for the first time.  He was suspended in ice watching her circle him with silent steps.  He was broken on the bridges of Charmanoix and reignited by her healing magic coursing through his veins.  He was somewhere half-asleep dreaming of wanting to see her, and now, standing before her, he was terrified that she might slip away.  He could see by her face that she knew all of these thoughts just as they crossed his own mind.  Pride was a fool’s option; he gained nothing by pretending her assessment was not correct.

“Then take it from me,” he said.

The room turned black.

Abruptly, he was alone, and lost, unable to glean any reassurance from his senses.  He could not be certain which way was up, or indeed, if up was even a concept that could be applied.  Etienne wanted to cry out, but he had no lips to part, nor throat from which to sound out the plea.  He struggled to find arms to wave, legs to run.

Just then, out of the middle of the black drifted a man’s voice.  A single point of reference, finally, to which Etienne could strain to listen with the ears he now remembered he had.  The voice grew louder, repeating a single question until it became clear enough for him to understand every precious word.

“Why do you want to work for the Bureau Centrale, Monsieur Navarre?”

He was in a plain, windowless room, painted in plain colors, adorned by plain, functional furniture.  The walls were hypnotic in their blandness.  A small, choking coal stove sputtered out wafts of fetid smoke he did his best to avoid coughing on.

Two men were seated behind the desk across from him.  The one speaking suited the room; he wore a plain black uniform jacket with black buttons done up to the collar, and nary a decoration on the breast.  There was absolutely nothing memorable about him.  He was the sort whose name you would forget immediately after being introduced, and indeed, Etienne could not recall it, only his pretentious title:  Coordinateur executif.  The other had not said a word past initial greetings, yet Etienne remembered him.  Sous-adjoint directeur Girard Noeme.  His uniform bore several polished gold and bronze medals, and his creased face and silvered hair were indicative of a life lived hard, while his relaxed posture, folded arms and perpetual grin were the stamp of not giving a solitary damn about anyone and anything.

Etienne reached into his arsenal of charm and served them the most obsequious response he could imagine.  “I’ve long been an admirer of the Bureau and its effectiveness at quelling the most potent threat to our society anyone has ever witnessed.  I have a great passion to serve my country and fight against those who would seek to destroy it, and I am confident that I can apply my skills to furthering the Bureau’s mandate in whatever role you would have me fill.”

Noeme’s grin edged into a smirk, while his featureless colleague turned crisp white papers on the desk.  “Your transcript from College de Calerre says that the focus of your studies was literature and philosophy,” said the coordinateur.  “I have difficulty understanding how such an education is of assistance in the pursuit of criminals.”

“Education in the arts gives one a keen insight into the workings not of the mind, but of the heart, that place where the deepest motivation springs – particularly the motive to do evil.  It trains one to seek to understand the story of the other, to recognize patterns of behavior and to establish connections that otherwise remain unseen.”

The man remained unimpressed.  “Such as?”

“Such as me being able to observe that not only are you unmarried, but it has in fact been some years since you last dallied with a member of the fairer gender, and while you were and remain quite enamored with her she thought very little of you, and refused to answer your somewhat fervent correspondence after her father terminated your courtship.  You believe you are better than your current position, and you dream of rising in the ranks, but you lack the will and the drive to seize any chance that might present itself, though there have in fact been several you regret letting slip.  Few friends, mostly family members who don’t truly have any interest in your company but feel obligated to see you for feast days and the like.  Any leisure time you might have is spent in the care of your elderly, ailing mother, and, on a more obvious note, based on the scratches on your right hand you appear to have recently acquired a pet cat.  Finally, though you are attempting to affect an air of nonchalance and even boredom with this process, you are urgently in need of a visit to the lavatory.  Too much café with your morning repast, maybe?”

Girard Noeme burst to life, slapping his hands together and unleashing a roar of laughter that startled his humiliated colleague.  “Brilliant!” he announced.  The coordinateur was not quite as amused.  Noeme punched his shoulder.  “Oh come now, Alein, you must admit he nailed you.  What was her name again, the one with the harelip and the one leg shorter than the other.  Florelle.”

Alein’s ire was not dispelled by Noeme’s sense of humor.  “Arrogance is not a quality that the Bureau appreciates,” he said, a wobble in his voice undermining the attempt at condescension.

“The Bureau appreciates any quality that assists them in apprehending witches,” Noeme said.  He turned his grin on Etienne and gestured to the door.  “Come along, young man.  Let us find some more diverting ways to waste your time.”  Etienne rose and followed him, leaving the flustered coordinateur to his precious papers and boring surroundings.

“You’ll have to pardon Alein,” Noeme said once they had left the interview room a good distance past earshot.  “His mother does harry him so.  Personally I don’t believe she’s ill at all, I think the old battleaxe just enjoys being doted on day and night.”  He chuckled again.  “That you could sense that about him is quite impressive.”

“It’s something I’ve always been able to do,” Etienne said.

“The Bureau would welcome that insight,” Noeme told him.  “Our enemy is gifted at deception and false fronts.  Though I think I’ll spare myself your impressions of me.”

“Would you mind telling me where we are going, then?”  They crossed through a narrow corridor filled with doors, each painted black and stenciled with a single identifying code.  Noeme gave no indication of which, if any, was their destination.

“I’ll let you in on a secret,” Noeme said.  “For the nature of the Bureau’s work, we are less interested in your academics than we are your character.  Alein has to do his intake assessments, and proud we all are of his fastidiousness, but what is written on paper can never truly capture the essence of a man.  You have to prove that to us in other, more direct ways.  Ah, here we are.”  He stopped them at a door with the meaningless designation RT-106.  “In you go, then.”

Etienne hesitated.  “What am I expected to do in there?”

Noeme shook his head.  “Easiest task you’ll ever have.  Just enjoy a fine meal.”  He turned the handle and pushed the door open.  Etienne ventured a cautious step inside.  Noeme sealed the entrance behind him, leaving him alone.

This room was even blander than the first, though the ceiling was mirrored, creating the illusion of a doubling in height.  In front of him was a table with a single chair, upholstered in beige velvet.  On the table was a porcelain plate bearing the largest, juiciest portion of filet mignon he had ever seen, seasoned and seared to a succulent medium rare, and accompanied by mushrooms au jus and grilled asparagus spears drenched in butter.  Thin slices of fresh baguette adorned a side plate, and crowning the presentation was a flawless crystal glass of a plum and vanilla-scented red.  The only thing preventing the famished Etienne from diving at the table immediately was the sight of his dining companion.

She was young, no more than fourteen.  Strings of unwashed blond hair drooped over her eyes.  Malnutrition had rendered her so gaunt as to be little more than a ghost there at the back of the room.  She wore filthy, shredded rags, and a thick chain attached to a metal collar around her neck locked her in place.  The stink of her poisoned the enticing aromas of the meat and the wine.

Noticing Etienne, she rose to her feet, slowly, exerting the feeble strength of starving limbs.  The chain clanked as she took one creaking, teetering step after another towards him, looking as though the next would see her topple over.  It went taut and stopped her a cruel arm’s length from the table.  She did not say a word.  By the look of her he imagined the power of speech had long since been broken.  Instead she just stared at him, letting bloodshot, bleary eyes make the desperate request her voice could not.

Etienne knew what was being asked.

He sat down, gathered the knife and fork and began to eat.  The girl wept and wailed and screamed, but he remained in the velvet-covered chair with the calm indifference of a morning lake.  He devoured the beef and chased it with satisfied sips of the excellent wine, even as the girl thrashed against her chains until she bled, pleading and reaching for the smallest morsel of food to take away her hunger.  It went on like that as he made his way through the meal, her efforts losing their conviction as the amount of food remaining on the plate started to dwindle into crumbs.

She collapsed into weak, defeated sobs as he used the last slice of baguette to wipe the plate clean of the au jus.  Etienne leaned back and dabbed the corners of his mouth with a cloth napkin, and shut his ears to her cries.  Part of him – any part that might still have been human – wanted to crawl out of his skin, or at least out of this room.

The door flew open, and in strode Girard Noeme, applauding as though he’d just witnessed a master class performance of the finest drama ever penned.  “Well done, my boy, well done.  Very impressive.  We’ve been watching.”  He gestured to the mirrored ceiling.  “You would be surprised how many give in after the first minute.  So, how was it?  Did you enjoy it?  Chef Lafraine is cooking today, I find he can’t manage pork very well but his beef filets are truly divine.  And that’s a ‘32, that red.  Nothing but the best here.  Unlimited budgets certainly help, yes?”

“It was delicious,” Etienne said with a deliberate casual manner, as if there was not in fact a starving young girl crumpled there on the floor.  Muffled moans still rose from her broken form.

“Well, I’ll be sure to pass that along,” said Noeme.  Only now did he acknowledge the girl.  “Oh, there there, my sweet little thing.  Such noise!  Come here, stand up, let me look at you.”  He made a show of offering compassionate assistance, when it was plain he was hauling her to her feet.  Noeme cupped her chin in his hand.  “Ah, I remember this one.  Interesting.  She has the ability to communicate with and direct the behavior of butterflies.  Such a useful, productive skill, don’t you think?”  Noeme chuckled to himself.  “I think you’ve been short-changed, my dear.  Give me the mighty sorceress who can throw lightning or turn herself into a dragon.”

She started crying again.  Noeme clucked his tongue.  “Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to tease.  Here, let me help you.  Etienne, would you, please?”  Noeme pointed at the steak knife lying on the empty plate.  Etienne handed it to him.  Noeme took it and swiftly slashed it across the girl’s throat.

Blood spurted in an arc from the exposed artery, choking her cries.  Noeme took a deliberate step back as she lurched forward.  She was dead before her body hit the floor.  She was so emaciated the impact scarcely made a sound.

With a sudden coldness Noeme tossed the knife aside.  It clattered on the porcelain plate.  Etienne did not look at it.

Noeme noticed Etienne’s gaze lingering on the girl’s body.  “Don’t waste your tears, my friend,” he said.  “There are plenty more where she came from.  That’s why we’re all here, isn’t it?”  He slung a congenial arm around Etienne’s shoulder and walked him to the door.  “Welcome to the Bureau Centrale, Etienne.  Shall we move on to level two?”

Etienne understood what was supposed to happen next, that he was supposed to accompany Girard Noeme to the next round of tests, most more gruesome and soul-crushing than even this.  From there he would be granted the starting rank of enseigne spéciale and begin his formal Bureau career, rising ultimately to the coveted post of Commissionaire faster than anyone in the Bureau’s history.  But this time he willed a redirection of the narrative.  He let Noeme’s arm slip away and halted, waiting behind as the sous-adjoint directeur carried onward, talking to the air as he went.  “Nightingale,” Etienne called out.  “Nightingale, stop this.  Please.”

The room turned dark and cold, and a column of bright violet light descended and twisted into the captivating shape of her.  “These are your memories,” Nightingale said.  “You cannot blame me if you find them distasteful.”

“I know what I’ve done.  I don’t need to relive it.”

“Yet you do not know the truth of who you are.  I am in your mind, Etienne, I can see it, but you need to be shown if you are to understand.  Go through the door.”

“I’m afraid,” he said, no louder than a whisper.

“I am here.  Go.”  She waved her hand, and the door slid open.  Etienne could see nothing but blackness beyond it.  He edged his toes nearer to its threshold.  Etienne drew a deep breath and clenched his fingers into fists.  He lifted his leg and stepped across.

Into the bedchamber of his dying father.

* * *

This story keeps growing, so what you’re seeing now is a novel unfolding one chapter at a time.  Believe it or not, that wasn’t my initial intention, but now I suppose I’m stuck with it!  I have a few other projects to tackle first but I’ll be back with Part Fourteen soon enough.  Kind of excited to do the big reveal Nightingale hints at in the closing section…