It’s only going to be four parts, he said, rather short-sightedly last September…
Etienne had received hundreds of briefings in his life, but exceedingly rare was the occasion on which he was asked to deliver one. Even rarer – unique, he should say – was his audience for it, gathered around a sloppily nailed-together table in a rickety St. Iliane meeting hall one good stiff wind short of collapse: a drunken rural bandit the size of a horse, and a gorgeous, nomadic witch, herself more the modest and slender dimensions of a doe. The room was hot and the air smelled a thousand years old, but both sets of ears were riveted to his presentation.
If only he had something more hopeful to tell them.
“The headquarters of the Bureau Centrale in Calerre,” Etienne said, laying out the dimensions of the problem, “is arguably the most secure building ever designed and constructed. Seventeen storeys above ground and six below, containing the offices of key personnel, a few libraries’ worth of records, training, interrogation and detention facilities, and of course, the site of their secret magic-enhanced weapons manufacturing program.”
Nightingale’s light-wreathed fingers danced in the air as she wove a perfect, scrupulous image of the edifice on the table in front of them, details drawn from her glimpse inside his memories. “On an average day,” said Etienne, “it houses approximately one thousand people, ranging from basic support and administrative workers to high-level officers, and at least a hundred armed guards for good measure. Access is controlled with a series of security checks at various points throughout the building. Failing any one of these measures will signal an alarm that will bring a dozen men with swords down on your neck in about ten seconds. A theoretical large-scale assault of the kind we are contemplating would lead to the activation of the Bureau’s Catastrophic Emergency Protocol Rouge, which would essentially seal the city and mobilize the 19th Division of the King’s Gardes du Royaume that is berthed secretly less than twenty minutes away. The last time anyone of significance tried a raid on the Bureau’s headquarters, they made it up about eight steps to the front door before they were butchered.” Etienne sat back in his chair and let his two listeners digest the grim course.
Le Taureau twisted his cup back and forth, grinding its base into the table. He had consented, for the purposes of discussion, to share a bottle of some Trichaud pinot bleu that had been liberated from a passing convoy a few months prior. Etienne was grateful for a brief taste of civilization, no matter how distractingly sweet, while Nightingale signaled her refusal to partake with a silent shake of her head. She had said little while Etienne conducted his briefing, absorbing it one dispiriting fact at a time. Impossible beauty remained a perfect shield, betraying nothing of her mind.
“So,” said Le Taureau, “we crack open the doors and kill as many of these whelps as possible until the Armée Royale arrives to massacre us to the last man. Is that what you are proposing?”
“Glorious martyrdom might inspire a few songs,” Etienne said, “but it won’t stop the Bureau. They’ll wipe down the bloodstains and keep right on going. If we are going to have any lasting impact, we need to target three things: the weapons, the records, and the leadership. With those gone the Bureau will take decades to recover, if ever.”
The burly giant’s mouth twisted wryly beneath his forest of facial hair. “How do we do that?”
“The records portion of it should be easy. Three floors’ worth of reports, plans, blueprints and dossiers on just about every person breathing or in the ground less than a hundred years. Most of that sealed behind iron vault doors with two independent locks opened by unique keys kept in the trust of the Bureau’s chief archivist and his deputy.”
“Easy,” Le Taureau muttered with a scoff.
“The weapons, according to… a friend,” said Etienne, “are made and stored on a sub-level six floors beneath the street, accessed by an unconnected, concealed entrance.” He indicated the appropriate section of Nightingale’s illusory model. “We will have to smuggle your men inside the main building so you can seize the records levels and cause enough of a ruckus that attention is drawn away from the weapons facility, where a second team will investigate and destroy both their existing cache and the means of producing more.” Etienne looked to the witch. “I’ll need Corporal Valnier and the rest of my men. We… left them in Charmanoix.”
Nightingale nodded. “I will see to that.”
“And the leadership?” Le Taureau asked.
Etienne imagined the grinning countenances of Michel Ste-Selin, Kadier Duforteste, and decrepit old Theniard Preulx, the trio of pompous windbags who had first set him on this errant quest. He derived a certain degree of amusement in picturing what he hoped would be the outcome of the scheme he was in the process of hatching. “The Bureau’s constitution prescribes that no more than two of the three Directeurs are ever allowed to be in the same place at the same time. That constitution notwithstanding, they have made exceptions on rare occasions. If we give them a strong enough reason to come together, then we’ll have them. If we can’t get all three of them, we might as well conclude this adventure of ours before it begins.”
“We couldn’t hunt them down one at a time?” Le Taureau suggested. “Surely ma déesse could…”
Etienne frowned. “Their movements are the most carefully protected secrets in the kingdom. They use subterfuge, fake itineraries… sometimes decoys and body doubles to confuse anyone who might be trying to track them. If by a miracle we were to find one Directeur, as soon as word gets out that he has been taken, the other two will close ranks. No, we need to take them together, unexpecting, at headquarters. One thrust of the spear.”
Le Taureau emptied his cup and poured himself another. “So pray explain what world-shattering event could draw the three Directeurs together?” Etienne stared at the other man as if trying to push his thoughts across the room into Le Taureau’s mind. Though shaped as a physical brute, Le Taureau was not entirely without sense, and when realization dawned he gazed wistfully across the table and uttered a single word: “Oh.”
Nightingale drew the same conclusion at a quicker pace, but waited for Le Taureau to catch up with them. “Me,” she said.
“They have hinged their very livelihoods on your capture,” Etienne said. “They will want to see you in person to know that the threat of Nightingale has been terminated.”
She smiled, sadly. “You will bring me before them in chains, just as you promised.”
“It’s the only way to infiltrate the building and ensure that the three of them will be there waiting for us. They gave me a special communications protocol to use once I had found you and was ready to bring you back. I’ll use it to send a coded message to Calerre. It shouldn’t take more than five days for them to gather together. And then… we will strike.”
“So, if I may summarize,” said Le Taureau, “we are going to pit ourselves against the most formidable institution in the country, probably the world, in a single coordinated attack that requires about eighteen different improbable things to break in our favor in order to be successful, and we are going to do this with our greatest asset rendered more or less inert. As a theory, I love this plan. I suspect you are going to get us all killed, but it will certainly be a lot of fun.” He rose to his feet and grabbed the bottle of Trichaud. “On that, I am going to go have my men practice their swordplay. But first, I’m going to drink a whole lot more of this.” Le Taureau nodded to them both. “Commissionaire. Déesse.” He pivoted his bulk on a burdened heel and ambled off.
“You will have to shave your beard,” Etienne called after him. Befitting his nom de guerre, Le Taureau growled a good share of curses at the air and kept walking. Despite their adversarial history, Etienne was growing rather, dare he say it, fond of the man. Not yet to the point of trust, but at least he was coming to appreciate the more endearing aspects of Le Taureau’s personality.
Nightingale remained seated, trepidation picking at her usually serene features. Her fingers twitched and banished the image of the building she’d conjured. Etienne attempted to meet her gaze, but it drifted out of reach as her thoughts overtook her. He leaned on that edge of wanting to say something but not knowing if he should. When she leaped from her chair abruptly and made for the doorway, he decided to chance boldness. “What is it?”
She stopped but kept her back to him. “It does not matter,” she said with a sigh.
“Nightingale?” Etienne fell in behind her. “Tell me.”
The witch’s long hair spilled over her shoulder. Her eyes glistened with the beginnings of what could only be tears. “I can’t,” she whispered. “I can’t wear that collar, those manacles. I’ve torn them from the necks of innocent young girls and old women alike. I’ve watched others I couldn’t save die strangled under their yoke, wrists and fingers worn bloody as they tried in vain to rip them off. I’ve spent longer than I can remember fighting everything they represent, and to ask me to wear them, even as a ruse… you don’t know. You can’t understand.”
Etienne was stunned. He had never seen anything approaching vulnerability from her. “You’re the most powerful witch this country has ever seen,” he said. “Nothing can change that.”
Nightingale lifted her hands. Surges of violet light spun and sparked about her fingers, casting an aura over a suddenly morose face. “Can you imagine what it is like? To have such gifts as to be considered a goddess, and yet, no matter what I do, I can’t save enough of them. My sisters are still dying by the thousands, all over the world. My kind is being driven to extinction, and none of this, none of this makes a difference. I don’t have the power to change minds. I can’t make people stop fearing and hating us.” She looked at Etienne. “Do you know what power really is? It’s a bitter reminder of everything that you still can’t do.”
“You changed me, Nightingale,” Etienne said.
“One man in a country of four million,” she said with a dismissive smirk. “Mainly because you want to sleep with me. I guess that’s progress.”
“That’s not fair. My feelings for you are much more than that.”
Nightingale let the magic ebb from her hands. She folded her arms. “No, they aren’t. You were right. That first night, I did cast a spell on you. I planted a deep obsession within you so you would seek me out, so I could use you to my own ends. That’s the kind of power I have.”
Etienne felt his stomach twist and his nerves fill with ice. “Why are you saying this to me?”
It couldn’t be. It wasn’t true. Why was she lying to him?
“You should know, finally, who it is you’re about to risk your life for,” Nightingale said. “I am manipulative, and devious, and selfish, and I am tired. I am so tired of this place, of this war. I am tired of waking up each morning knowing that all that awaits me is more of the fight. I want to disappear to a warm island half a world away and make a new life, free from worries about what is happening to everyone else. I want to use all this magic for my own benefit. I want to wake to the sound of the ocean and the seabirds and spend the day lazing about in the sun, and if the sky fills with clouds I will just wave my hand and sweep them away. If I am a goddess, then I want to live like one, and leave the ants to squabbling over their anthills. Staying here holds nothing for me anymore.”
Etienne knew himself. His love for Nightingale was not artificial, not something that could be forced upon an unwilling heart. Wasn’t it? He had accepted it without question from his first glimpse of her, from the dreams that had haunted him until their next meeting. His mind flew back to that fateful night, seeing again the overturned carriage, the soldiers being flung aside like broken toys, and the mysterious hooded figure as she revealed herself, touched her fingertips to her lips and blew him the kiss that had… no, no, he would not believe it. He loved her. With everything he was, he loved her. It couldn’t only be a spell. He loved her and he wanted her and he needed her and he could not bear to be without her… please, Nightingale… the affirmations dribbled out like water from a leaking tap. And though his heart knew beyond doubt that they were true, a long-silent voice in the back of his mind grabbed this lightning disclosure and started to bark louder and louder about the pieces that did not fit, the instantaneous jolt of it after years of conditioning against the very thing. He was a dedicated Commissionaire until that split second. Nightingale had turned him, and she had used her magic to do it. His old life, tossed aside, rent into scraps of tissue. Because of her. And still he loved her and would follow wherever she led, no matter what she said to hurt him and tear him down.
“Was it true?” he asked. “What you showed me about my mother, was it true?”
She paused two beats shy of an eternity to give him the answer he hoped for. “Yes.”
Etienne sighed. “How often does the journey to truth begin with a lie,” he said, “and how often does the revelation of that truth cleanse the sin of the liar? I don’t care if you started this by putting me under your spell. I needed to know about Elyssia, and had I learned of her without your influence I would be doing exactly what I am now.”
Nightingale held up her palm. Etienne’s knees liquefied and he stumbled backward, catching himself on the edge of the table. His limbs were emptied instantly of their strength. He shuddered as a wild violet light erupted from the pores of his face and twisted into corkscrew spirals of mist as it coursed back into her open hand, collecting into a brightening orb of energy. Nightingale closed her hand, and the light was gone. A peculiar drowsiness seized Etienne, and a sadness – an emptiness – he could not explain, as though something incredibly precious had been cut away. It was consuming, and it was all he could do to bite his lip against tears. What had she done?
“I’ve taken it back,” Nightingale answered him. “You’re free of my spell now. You are the same Etienne de Navarre you were before we met. You have no further obligation to me.”
Sinking into a void, he could summon only one pathetic word. “Why?”
“Because I told you once that this was your choice to make, and I never made it a fair one. Now it is. Go back to what you are accustomed to, if that is really what you want. Tell your Directeurs that Nightingale bewitched you with her evil magic and forced you to betray them. I’m certain they will reinstate you and give you back everything you’ve lost.”
“I don’t want that, I want… I want…” Etienne knew what he intended to say, but his tongue knotted on the syllables. The sentiment was hollow now, utterly without meaning. What he tried to draw from within himself was no longer there. She had wiped it clean from his soul. He could see her recognizing that as he tried to sputter out anything of substance. His mouth felt full of cotton, and his throat was as dry as the wishing fountain in the town square.
“Goodbye, Etienne,” Nightingale said. She took a discreet step back, and a white flash blinded him before the room swam in an ocean of black. When plain afternoon light reasserted itself in a few short seconds, she was gone.
Etienne sat alone on the floor in the horrible quiet and fought the shivers and the nausea that would not stop. It was not as though he had been stabbed, though it would be fair to equate the shock of what had just occurred with the plunge of a knife; it was more as though the knife had already been there, its blade sealing a thin crack behind which crested a torrent of emotion, and now it had been yanked out and the wound was wide open again. What he had come to rely on for his moral certitude, the firmness in his decisions and his actions, was nowhere to be found. Magic was hope, Nightingale had once said, and now that the magic was gone the hope was bleeding away.
He knew nothing.
Suddenly the Bureau loomed large in his thoughts again as the sanctuary it had always been for him, for twelve comfortable years. Perhaps she had been correct. Perhaps he needed to return. He could borrow a horse from Le Taureau, make some excuse about an important errand and go. If he rode straight through he could make Calerre by morning. The Directeurs might show him some measure of clemency if he could argue that the death of Commissionaire Serge Meservey had been an accident, or if it was Meservey himself who’d been in league with Nightingale. If Valnier had been his typically effective self, none of Meservey’s men would still be around to rebut any blame Etienne might lay at their late master’s door. A few inventions and embellishments on Etienne’s part would make for a compelling case. The Directeurs did not like loose ends, and would be eager to tie this one off and file it away in the vault. What then? A formal pardon, a quick reassignment, a fresh detachment of men, and back to work. More money he couldn’t spend fast enough at the casinos. He remembered the gorgeous croupier at the route de perle table, the one with the flirty smile and the long, elegant fingernails enameled in glistening cabernet. Sylvette, was that her name? Might she be inclined to step away from her table for an evening’s frivolities with a dashing Commissionaire?
Thoughts of seductive Sylvette were usurped by a flash of the young girl in salle RT-106, the one he’d been forced to eat in front of while she starved, just before Girard Noeme slashed open her throat. He pictured her as she might have been before she was taken by the Bureau, smiling, dreaming, lying in a meadow of gold and green gazing up at deep blue skies while a whirlwind of butterflies gamboled about her, dipping and pirouetting as willed by her magic. He imagined black leather jackboots crushing the grass and swatting the confused butterflies aside with truncheons, breaking delicate wings, in order to abduct her and drag her screaming back to the Bureau for interrogation and torture, her shattered family never to see her again. Returning to his old life meant becoming a willing participant in creating more stories like that. In plainest terms, furthering a legacy of death.
Was that what the sorceress Elyssia de Navarre would have wanted for her only son?
Was it what he wanted for himself?
Someone was knocking at the door. Laying into it with some urgency, in fact. Etienne doubted the hinges appreciated the pressure. He mumbled over his shoulder at it. “Come.”
A voice he hadn’t heard for quite some time. Etienne summoned a smile.
Corporal Valnier strode inside the meeting hall, along with the other four surviving members of the unit that had set out with Etienne to find Nightingale, last seen hacking away at Bureau compatriots in the burning river town of Charmanoix. They had garnered a choice helping of scars amongst themselves; obviously Meservey’s men had not gone down without swinging. Etienne’s mood was lifted by that, remembering how fortunate he had been throughout this entire escapade to have had men so dedicated, loyal, and skilled standing by his side – even if he’d wandered far off the path a little too often. The soldiers looked a nervous combination of both flummoxed and perplexed, flumplexed, if that was a word, not entirely sure where they were or how they had arrived here.
One final gift from Nightingale.
Etienne pulled himself to his feet and clasped his corporal’s arm. “Good to see you again, old friend. Good to see all of you. I imagine you’re probably wondering what’s going on.”
“A little,” said Valnier. Two words. Only ever two words at a time. Someday Etienne was going to have to sit the corporal down and have him explain that particular affectation.
“Have a seat, everyone,” said Etienne. “I’ll see if I can have our host bring us some refreshments.” They filtered inside, setting their gear on the floor, pawing at the chairs to find a familiar trace of reality to assure themselves they weren’t still dreaming. Being subjected to magic tended to do that. “I’ll get right to business,” Etienne went on. “I have something I need to ask of you. You’ve put up with a lot since we left Calerre. You have been patient with unusual orders, changes of assignment, and little explanation forthcoming from me. That’s all about to end. I can’t pretend it won’t be dangerous, or that there isn’t a strong possibility that some of you won’t survive. But if you do, after this one final task, you’ll be handsomely rewarded and free to go on with your lives, with my everlasting thanks.”
“What’s that?” asked Valnier.
Etienne gave the corporal a square, determined look, the only form of communication he knew he truly respected. “We’re going to put ourselves out of the witch-killing business, Valnier,” he said, a grin curving the corner of his mouth. “We’re going to destroy the Bureau Centrale.”
With or without her…
* * *
So, what do you think? Is Nightingale gone for good? Stay tuned for Part Seventeen.