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…