Part of the fun of not outlining a story like this is seeing the unexpected places it leads you, or in the case of this installment, where it leads you back.
I’m not sure what the stupidest thing I’ve ever done is, thought Etienne as he approached the porous, unpatrolled limits of the decrepit town, but this must rank as one of the most inspiredly ludicrous. He had last crossed this particular border at a mad gallop – going the other way of course – with a posse of roughs in hard pursuit and would have considered laughable the possibility that he might have occasion to return. Certainly not without a healthy brigade’s worth of reinforcements; absolutely never alone, or unarmed for that matter. This was a fool’s gamble, with the odds, as one might express them un-mathematically, rather bleak. Etienne had to trust in that single high card shuffled about in his hand, thumbed lovingly for luck even as the croupier’s fortunes improved and the prospect of a winning outcome diminished. The only consolation was that if he had guessed wrong and put his chips on a bad deal, he would likely not live long enough to regret it.
This place was in even worse shape than it had been on the day of his first abrupt departure. The sun tattooed punishing light and heat to the ground and lent stagnant air a smell of bleached bones. Broken timbers, the fragments of shattered longhouses, lay strewn throughout the streets in thatched piles as the villagers seemingly had neither the inclination nor the resources to begin repairs. No clear path presented itself, and Etienne had to step over debris wherever he chanced to turn. He had thus far escaped recognition, or even notice. Surely these people would never dream that he would be back, and so they did not look to see a familiar and loathed face. Etienne might have passed invisibly from one end of the village to the other were he so inclined, but he instead made his way to the broken and empty fountain in the center of town where local folk had tossed single sous into the crumbling circle of dry stones, still hopeful of securing a wish.
Etienne had no money on his person. He bent to pick up one of the rusted coins and watched burnt oxide powder stain his fingertips as he turned it over in his hand. Wishes were for children. It was the actions of men that made them come true. Etienne dropped the coin. On with it, then. He turned, drew in a lungful of warm air and bellowed out the name of the man he had come to find, with an operatic gusto worthy of a celebrated tenor.
The range of reactions presented in three distinct phases, transitioning syllable by syllable. The first was a sea of jarred faces scrunching brows at the source of the dreadful racket, followed by a gaggle of perplexed foreheads wondering what ailment of the mind was perturbing the stranger screaming at them, and finally by a uniform, sudden oh-wait-isn’t-that glimmer leading to disbelieving shouts of their own and a mad convergence on his position. Etienne linked his fingers behind his head and sank to his knees. They nearly yanked his arms from their sockets wrenching him back to his feet and dragging him off stumbling in the dirt. Etienne squirmed at the tear of muscle and joint but ground his teeth together and bade himself endure it. Pride protested, but he knew this part was strictly necessary, bruises and all. Not that it made them hurt less.
His captors blurred the one-letter distinction between hauling and mauling, throwing in few blows to the stomach for good measure, as they brought him beneath the splintered roof of one of the lingering buildings and threw him to the floor like the prize of a day’s hunt primed for roasting. The air within was thick with the sting of unwashed bodies and manure scraping at his tongue. Choice local slang dripping with profanities peppered his ears. Etienne shook out the soreness in his arms and raised his eyes, slowly, to the only individual in the room who was seated. “Monsieur le Commissionaire,” the other man rasped, a glee in his voice palpable amidst the phlegm. “How’s my new road coming along?” A chorus of laughter welled up.
Etienne had forgotten, even in those handful of days since he’d last seen him, just how enormous and intimidating a physical specimen Le Taureau was, as if such men had been the ones to inspire the old legends of giants. Even the chair on which he crouched, craning his neck forward to push his long beard over the twin kegs that were his chest, was twice the usual size. There was, however, a touch less of him than there had been at their first encounter: Le Taureau’s left arm was gone above the elbow, and a filthy bandaged stump the girth of a tree trunk hung there instead. Chills danced up Etienne’s back at the gruesome sight of it.
Le Taureau caught him looking. “Beautiful work you did, monsieur. That precious dagger of yours. Such a brave, brave man who enchants his weapons with the very magic he professes to despise. I had to saw the rest of the arm off and burn the wound closed with a poker.” Etienne did not doubt Le Taureau had performed the deed himself.
“I’m sorry,” he offered. It sounded as stupid to him as it did to the rest of them, judging by the hanging pause leading to another round of laughs at his expense.
“Oh,” said Le Taureau. “Is that all? Well then, if you’re sorry I suppose I can’t hold it against you. Why don’t we shake hands?” He swung out his stump. “Ah. Oops.” The others did not laugh this time. The room fell silent. Le Taureau hoisted himself up from his chair with his remaining arm and stepped down to loom over Etienne, the creaks in the wood beneath his boots amplified tenfold. “Coming back here,” he said, “you are either the most brazen man in the world, or simply the dumbest. The only reason you’re still whole, tête de cul, is that I’m not inclined to be swift. That reeks of… mercy.”
Etienne searched the dead eyes for the vestiges of a soul. “I didn’t come here for mercy,” he said. “I came to ask your help.”
The echo chamber of jackals erupted with their chortles and guffaws once more. Le Taureau’s face remained a monolith. “My help,” he said. “Like last time?”
“I’m not with the Bureau anymore. They betrayed me. They’ve betrayed this entire country. You said yourself they’ve taken our mothers and our daughters from us. Someone needs to strike a return blow. I’m sure the idea of that appeals to you.”
Now Le Taureau managed a smile, though Etienne was certain it was insincere. “And what, pray tell, has brought Monsieur le Commissionaire to the side of the angels?”
“The Bureau murdered my mother,” Etienne said simply.
“Your Bureau murdered my wife,” Le Taureau spat at him, seizing Etienne’s neck in a meaty grip. “A strutting, pompous cretin like you came to our village and ripped her from our bed. He forced me to watch while his soldiers stripped her naked, bound her in chains and whipped her, then tied her to the back of their carriage and dragged her behind them as they rode off cackling into the night. She screamed for me to help her and I couldn’t. It was the last thing I ever heard her say.” He paused to wrestle down the swelling emotion. “A man’s heart hardens after bearing witness to such a thing. A man’s purpose changes forever. A man swears himself to vengeance against any and all who might have been even remotely responsible. How many wives did you steal from their husbands’ arms?” Le Taureau applied a modest increase in pressure, and Etienne strained against the veritable sausages closing on his throat.
“I believe you’re an honorable man,” Etienne gasped out.
A flicker of amusement disturbed Le Taureau’s sneer. “What makes you think that?”
“You have a code. You want to protect the people in your charge. And you didn’t kill me the instant you saw me.” Flecks of black swam across his vision. “Will you at least listen to a remorseful man trying to atone for his sins?”
Dead eyes flickered with a twinge of life. Le Taureau hesitated, nerves pulsing beneath the red skin of his forehead. He released his grip. Etienne slumped over, planted his fists on the floor and coughed hard, trying to spew out the hurt. Le Taureau returned to his chair. A lackey placed a cup in his hand, and he drained its contents. “Talk, then,” he said. “Show me your remorse.”
“Thank you,” wheezed Etienne. Eyeing the others surrounding him, he rose slowly to his feet. He thought of the divas attempting La Sirena, of the stocking-shaking trepidation they must have suffered awaiting the arrival of the second act and that damned nigh-unachievable aria. At least those ladies were afforded opportunities to rehearse, to evaluate and to tweak as necessary before opening night. Etienne was the sole actor on this stage, operating without the benefit of practice or script, engulfed by a hostile audience ready to do much worse than jeer if they detected a sour note. His freedom to walk out of this room hinged on the next thing he said. Strangely enough, there was a serenity to the predicament, a moment where paralyzing fears and doubts flew from his mind and left only a stillness – a waiting, placid void. From there, filling it was a matter of tilting the decanter and letting the wine pour itself.
“You want vengeance,” Etienne said to the crowd. “All of you. But you’ve done nothing to exact it. You sit in this shell of a town, subsisting on scraps, and brag about your defiance of the Bureau Centrale, but the truth is, if you presented the slightest threat to them, they would have come, years ago, to raze this place and pile your corpses in the rubble.” He narrowed his focus to Le Taureau. “Why? How many able-bodied men do you have here? Three hundred? Four hundred? Why haven’t you sent them into battle? The Bureau is better armed, better trained, better financed, better informed and better fed, and against that, the lot of you might as well be armed with rotten fruit. Staying in St. Iliane keeps you safe, where it’s easy to put on an air of being brave with words alone.” Murmurs drifted around him, rising steadily in volume. As they would – he was poking these people and their beloved leader with sharp sticks. “I can help you do more than just boast,” he continued. “I spent twelve years inside the Bureau’s highest echelon. I know them. I know the scope of their strengths and the locations of each carefully protected weak flank. I can show you where and when to strike, surgically, effectively, so that four hundred starving men are transformed into the unstoppable force that finally pulls the mighty Bureau down and scatters it to the winds. And you’ll have your vengeance. Not just for yourselves, but for every life the Bureau has destroyed across this country. St. Iliane will no longer be an easily ignored speck on the map, it will become that storied place from which heroes come. If that appeals to you, if you’re willing to take that chance, then I ask your forgiveness for what I’ve done, and I ask you to allow me to help you.” He spread his arms. “There is a battle coming that we can win… together.”
The murmurs had stopped. Everyone looked to Le Taureau. The dead eyes betrayed nothing, as usual, so Etienne studied the rest of his face, looking for any sign, regardless of how slight, that his message had resonated. “Hmph,” the gargantuan man mumbled, gaze sinking to the floor, closing his hand over the arm of his chair. At the pensive gesture, Etienne granted himself permission to be hopeful, and he released the breath he’d been unconsciously holding.
Abruptly Le Taureau looked up and nodded to his men, who seized Etienne’s outstretched arms and forced him over to the long dining table. Roars of approval rippled throughout the crowd, penning him in with a wall of scorn and delight. They kicked out the back of his legs, forcing him to his knees at the edge of the tabletop. Le Taureau rose from his chair and hovered over him, leaning closer as if taking on the role of a sympathetic confidant. “Grand speech, monsieur. Had it been someone else delivering it I might have been swayed.”
He stepped away to allow one of his men to take Etienne’s right arm and pin it to the table at the wrist. From his jacket Le Taureau drew a familiar weapon; Etienne’s dagger, the edges streaked brown with blood that had never been wiped away after its last use. Kept by Le Taureau as a grotesque souvenir of his mutilation by the man to whom he was evidently prepared to do the same. “Have you ever been stabbed, monsieur?” he asked. “The hand is by far the most painful place.” He tapped against Etienne’s knuckles with the tip of the blade. “There, the flesh is thin, little more than paper draped over the bones. No meat to slow the knife as it sears its way through the nerves, severing dozens of them in a lightning flash of agonies upon agonies. Do you know what that feels like? Can you imagine a thousand sets of pointed teeth chomping through your body and then pouring acid on it to finish? That’s what you did to me.”
“It was a rash choice,” Etienne said, his tone trembling and rushed. “Made in haste and a desperate grasp at self-preservation. Don’t throw away what I’m offering you over an old slight. I promise you, it wasn’t personal.” The excitement of the crowd drowned his words out.
“Well,” said Le Taureau to a deferential hush, “this is.” He stood back and readied his aim.
Etienne turned his head away and spoke to the air. “Now would be a good time.”
Le Taureau balked, offering a surprised half-laugh instead. “What?”
A sudden charge of cold air blasted through the room, transforming drought into bitter winter and forcing dozens of men to brace themselves to cling to fleeing body heat. Nodules of ice crystallized where breath touched the walls. A woman’s voice cut the abrupt silence. “Corben.”
Le Taureau turned to her, and at the sight of Nightingale, both the dagger and thoughts of retribution for Etienne fell forgotten from his hand. Years of hardened life crumbled from his face. The mighty man took two disbelieving steps toward her, then bowed and bent his knee. “Déesse,” he whispered – no, whimpered was more accurate.
The great bull, a mouse to her lioness.
Nightingale granted him her beguiling smile, and lifted the suddenly penitent Le Taureau’s massive chin with a delicate finger. “My gentle Corben,” she said. “It has been far too long.”
Le Taureau – or Corben, whatever his name was – gazed into her eyes with the unbridled devotion of a man in the enraptured throes of a religious awakening. Indeed, the attention of each man in the room was cemented to her every movement. “We remain your devoted servants,” their leader mumbled. “What would you ask of us now?”
“Let Etienne go,” Nightingale told him. “He speaks the truth.”
“The Bureau Centrale cannot be trusted,” Le Taureau said. “They are liars by trade and duplicitous to their very breath. Ma déesse should recall that he did this–” –he raised his stump– “–while hunting for you, to take you back to his beloved Bureau broken and in shackles.”
The witch shook her head. “I have walked inside his soul, as I once did yours. I know you both. You have nothing more to fear from him. Instead you have a chance to give your wife some measure of peace.” He still seemed to demur. “Corben,” she said, “I have never led you astray. I ask for your continued faith.” Nightingale swept long fingers across his cheek, somehow fusing the assuring clasp of a mother with the flirting stroke of a lover. She withdrew, and without flash or announcement Le Taureau had both arms once more.
The missing limb with its varied palette of scars and inked designs was just there again, as though it had never been severed. Reality was rearranged according to her will and her magic, like the fire in Charmanoix. Le Taureau’s mouth fell open in the astonishment of a boy receiving the coveted toy he had assumed was beyond his parents’ means. Etienne thought he detected tears at the corners of the behemoth’s eyes as Le Taureau contemplated the arm and flexed the fingers.
Obviously Etienne had discussed the approach with Nightingale prior to their arrival, but he had not expected her – nor had he known she had the ability, though in truth nothing within her power surprised him anymore – to restore Le Taureau like that. Watching her and the impact she had on those around her, the morality of the world seemed so bitterly askew. To exalt torturers and murderers to positions of high authority and esteem in protected and revered institutions like the Bureau, and to treat compassionate miracles of existence like Nightingale, and Elyssia de Navarre, as threats to be extinguished. It was not only Etienne who had much to atone for. History had been written by a collection of pawns playing at being knights, with the queens kept off the board. Was it any surprise then to see how civilization had become a cruel parody of itself?
Reasserting the machismo required to command the gallery of roughs in his service, Le Taureau climbed to his feet and turned his glare to Etienne. It was not a look of forgiveness, or even a softening of the feelings of contempt that could never be swept away by something as insubstantial as a spell. It was, however, an acknowledgment of Nightingale’s faith in him, and for Le Taureau, for the moment, that was enough. As his first act with his new arm, Le Taureau waved off the men who were holding Etienne down. They released him without hesitation and backed away. Etienne stood and brushed dirt and wood splinters from his jacket.
“Everyone else… out,” Le Taureau barked.
Etienne had seen few military regiments obey an order with as much dispatch. The building emptied in scant seconds, leaving behind a most mismatched trio: himself, the slight gentleman officer for a corrupt regime turned willing traitor; Le Taureau, the hulking, wild country brigand with a noble heart, and Nightingale, the ethereal witch who had entered their lives through happenstance encounters and bound them both to what was to be a shared and perhaps even futile crusade. Were it not for the tenuous, threadbare truce, he might have laughed aloud at the impossibility of the situation. Le Taureau was staring off into space, perhaps thinking the same thing.
Nightingale was, well, being Nightingale; beautiful, occasionally inscrutable, seductive without deliberate intent, and forever that adjective coined ideally for a woman like her: bewitching. Etienne was agog at the enormity of the events that had followed their first meeting, how she had utterly upended his life, what she had inspired him to do, what she had helped him discover about himself. The course she had set him on, which for the first time had no definitive destination, only the vaguest promise of redemption lingering, tantalizing beyond a series of impossible tasks. It was insanity, delicious insanity. How, he wondered, could he not have fallen in love with her?
Le Taureau broke the trance. “So then,” he said, folding arms both old and new. “Destroying the Bureau. What exactly did the two of you have in mind?”
* * *
This story now tops 50K words as we begin to build toward the climax of Etienne and Nightingale’s journey. I’m excited, and I hope you are too.