Vintage, Part Seventeen

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Sorry about the hiatus, folks!  Here we are with a chapter that begins with a bit of a digression, and ends with echoes of last month’s discussion on fear.  Funny how that worked out…

“Derrière moi,” dit le pirate à la belle fille alors qu’il brandit son sabre dans le sens de la sorcière maléfique.  “Vous ne pouvez pas avoir cette journee, ma dame,” il vanté.  La sorcière se mit à rire, et a fait au sol, et tout à coup la terre baratté et cracher hors une légion de squelettes.  Leurs os claquaient comme ils grimpé hors de la boue.  La fille a crié.  “Ne vous inquiétez pas,” dit le pirate.  “Je dois plus de cran que tous ces autres réunis.”

Pernel laughed aloud and thumbed at the next page.  That part still drew a chuckle, even if he’d read it so often that the paper was curled and the ink upon it flaking.  But it wasn’t as though he had to worry about disturbing anyone.  No human souls lingered within a hundred miles of earshot, just his quartet of geldings pulling the great laden carriage on which he was perched, its large wooden wheels creaking over cracked earth.  These languid supply runs offered him plenty of opportunity to catch up on his books, and he could usually make it through two or three between departure and destination.  Le Pirate et la Sorcière was his favorite.  The horses knew this old road well, so he could let go of the reins and lean back and lose himself in the gripping tale of swashbuckling and magic, even if he did almost know it by rote now.  As much as he loved the story, it did sometimes make him a little sad to know that his own life would never see much adventure, at least, not battling witches and saving bosomy damsels.  He was just a man doing his job, and people like him didn’t even rate a mention in these sorts of books.  If they did, it would be merely to help push the plot by delivering an informative line of dialogue to the protagonist.  “They went that way, monsieur.”  He wouldn’t get a history, or any unique or memorable traits, or even a last name.  Pernel’s kind would be a splash of color for the background, granted only a few forgettable adjectives.  They’d never emerge as the heroes they might have the capacity to become.

Given the opportunity, Pernel was certain that he could be.  He had a sword.  It was dappled with rust and he’d only ever used it against a fairly unthreatening wooden post, but he thought he understood the basic principles enough to handle himself if a fight broke out.  He’d sometimes imagine being accosted by villains of all shapes and forms, and dream up witty lines with which to berate these spectral menaces, in an appropriately theatrical voice.  “Vous ne pouvez pas avoir cette journee!”  What he would not give for a pivotal moment like that.  What a tale it would make for his colleagues back at the depot who generally paid him as little attention as the peripheral characters in his beloved books.  A chance to be a hero, just once.  It wasn’t asking a lot.

Traces of dusklight began to filter past the setting sun, and Pernel figured he had about another hour before he should pull off the road to water the horses and make camp.  He was ahead of schedule as usual and there was no sense in pushing things.  Surely he could make it through a few more chapters.  After the battle with the skeletons came the escape on the pirate’s ship and the encounter with the hurricane conjured by the witch, then the wreck on the haunted island.  Pernel did not understand why more people didn’t like reading as he did.  They were missing out on so much.  One could also argue the opposing point, that those who spent all their time pressing their noses to paper were missing out on life, or at least on the essential details of life, such as noticing the nine masked men who burst from the lengthening shadows on the roadside and surrounded Pernel’s carriage before he had occasion to see the pirate escape the witch’s conjured skeletons once again.

“Arrêtez, monsieur!” announced the leader.  Pernel’s beloved book tumbled from his hands as he yanked on the reins.  The horses whickered their displeasure.  Romantic notions of heroism vanished from Pernel’s mind, chased away by more familiar fear.  His rusty sword, wrapped in fabric, was nowhere within reach, while the eight companions of the man who had spoken were in clear possession of their own blades and aiming them straight for Pernel’s heart.  He lifted his hands over his head.  Not the most courageous action, but likely the safest.

Pernel cursed rotten luck.  This day of all days, this run of all runs, when he had, in addition to the hefty cargo in the back, a strongbox containing 500 livres in gold coin buckled to the floor beneath his boots.  His supply runs rarely included money for this very reason.  But somebody owed someone else, and he’d been persuaded to accept the box to courier back to the depot.  Now it would never arrive, and Pernel – assuming he survived – would be held responsible for paying every sou of it back, no matter how long it took.  He would not be purchasing any new books anytime soon.

“Merci beaucoup,” said his chief accoster through a tied black scarf.  “We have no wish for unnecessary violence.  If you cooperate you will be on your way promptly.”

Pernel nudged the strongbox with his foot, trying to push it out of sight.  “Everything here is the p-property of Partenaires fusionnées mercantiles,” he declared in a voice warbled by nervous cracks, following as best he recalled the script he and others in his role had been given in the event of such an occurrence.  “I am r-required by law to advise that they have placed a generous bounty on the heads of anyone who interferes with their shipments.  I am also authorized to say that if you release me without incident no f-further action will be taken against you.”  Any trace of courage, any remnant of that long-nurtured wish to be a hero, was dying with each stammer.  This was Pernel’s moment, the opportunity he had dreamed of through all those books, and it was collapsing beneath the weight of his cowardice.  He was well-read enough to understand the dramatic device of irony, though he was understandably too frightened to recognize it in the present situation.

Beneath the mask he saw a smile crease the mouth of the lumbering hulk of a man who led the bandits.  “That’s all well and proper, tête de cul, but I am required to inform you that your partenaires may cheerfully sucer their own bites, and if you do not stop trying to conceal that box at your feet I will have my friends here cut your throat.”

Pernel froze.

“Now then,” said the large man, “if you would be so kind to unlock your rear doors, we will help ourselves to…”  He turned to a nearby associate.  “What was it he said?”  The other fellow whispered something in his ear.  “Ah, yes.”  He raised his eyes to Pernel again.  “Your cloth.  We want every bolt of cloth you have in your carriage.”

Pernel tripped over his tongue.  He had barrels of sugar, salt, spices, grains and teas, along with iron and copper ore, not to mention the 500 livres in gold, and yet… “You want what?”

Mutual disbelief choked off a response and held both men in a shared, silent stare.

Much later, long after dear hapless Pernel had been left to his remaining cargo, his precious books and whatever meager possibility the rest of his quiet life might afford him, Le Taureau strolled back into the meeting hall in St. Iliane where Etienne was working, and without ceremony dropped a heaping pile of assorted liberated fabrics on the table in front of him.  “As ordered,” he said.  “Between nine of us we couldn’t carry it all.  We had to leave most of it behind.”

Etienne rose from his chair and sifted through the many-hued collection of wools and cottons as he ran scenarios in his head.  “This is good,” he said.  “This will do.  Merci, Corben.”

“Don’t call me that,” snapped Le Taureau.

This scene had played out in a variety of iterations over the last few days, as Etienne had reconsidered and rewritten his scenario and accordingly required a fresh infusion of specific supplies and materiel, which Le Taureau had, obligingly, sent his men out to liberate from the sparsely guarded roads and villages nearby.  This had been their fourth successful expedition, and Etienne was permitting himself a modicum of optimism about the venture that lay ahead.

Whether they set out at all, though, depended on the answer he received back from the communique he had dispatched on that first day here in St. Iliane.  He had entrusted a sealed letter containing the appropriate coded message to a spry volunteer from the youngest in Le Taureau’s ranks, to be delivered with haste to a pre-arranged drop point at an otherwise innocuous tavern on the outskirts of Calerre, where a plainclothes Bureau operative would be waiting to receive it.  Following a seemingly random series of ciphers known only to Etienne and the Directeurs that would confirm to the designated reader that the message was genuine, it read simply:

WINGS CLIPPED.  ADVISE ON TIMING FOR RETURN TO NEST.

Etienne admired the economy of the phraseology, drawn from another pre-arranged list of avian imagery in keeping with the codename of the subject.  If Nightingale had eluded him and he wished to give up the quest, he was to have written EMPTY SKY.  If she had killed or otherwise incapacitated the last of his men, it was to be EGGS SMASHED.  For the most morbid of outcomes – if he had killed her – he would have scrawled a foreboding SONG SILENCED.  But the code he had used instead of these indicated that she was in his custody and ready to be brought back, and it was the one most likely to pique the attention of the Directeurs.  He couldn’t come right out and request the presence of all three – that would be far too obvious – and it was something of a risk to assume that each would want to be present at the delivery of the Bureau’s most feared adversary, but Etienne’s familiarity with the sizes of their respective egos assured him.  Theniard Preulx would have to be there; the thirsting hatred that kept his withered heart beating would need to be slaked by the sight of a submissive Nightingale.  Michel Ste-Selin would trust only his eyes in proving that the bothersome Etienne de Navarre had actually managed to complete the assignment, and Kadier Duforteste would come if only to be relieved temporarily of the tedium of his undemanding duties in the south.  But for additional incentive – or insurance – Etienne had handed a second letter to his young volunteer prior to his departure, this one a little more detailed, and marked for a different address.  There was little else to do on that front right now but to wait, to continue to sweat away in the humid hovels of St. Iliane.

For their part, Corporal Valnier and the other men had to Etienne’s surprise and relief required precious little explanation to convince them to sign on to this undertaking.  To a man they did not care whose ribs got in the way of the ends of their swords, so long as purses were full at the end of the fight.  Etienne promised them each a hefty bounty, understanding that making good on those promises would mean bankrupting himself.  The way he saw it, failing to bring down the Bureau would relegate financial concerns to the very least of his worries, and though he could not define the precise shape of success, he suspected it would not find him back chatting up comely croupiers at the Splendide’s tables.  Valnier had been the toughest to convince, but eventually he too had acquiesced, more out of loyalty to Etienne than to the prospect of riches, and he was out now, ensconced in his wheelhouse, working on getting the ragtags of St. Iliane into a shape resembling fighting.  Etienne chose to believe that the lessening frequency of grunts and moans filtering in from the yard beyond the rotting wall boards meant progress.  At the least, he could content himself in seeing that they had stopped cutting themselves with the crudely carved wooden practice swords.

Initially, Le Taureau’s men had proven themselves keen to participate; the notion that they could hand a defeat to the most hated institution on the continent proved appealing, with would-be warriors falling over themselves (in some cases literally, so weak and famished were many of them) to pledge fealty to the cause.  They were less patient, however, with the concept of training, and more than a few strong words from Le Taureau to his younglings had been necessary to prevent desertions.  But with this latest bounty retrieved from the road, according to Etienne’s most recent draft of his plan, they had nearly everything they required.  There was only one significant, glaring absence.  It had been three days now, and it was growing more apparent by the hour that hers had not been a momentary outburst of second thoughts.

It did not seem that Nightingale was ever coming back.

Etienne had felt much different since that last conversation, when she had extracted, bluntly, the hitherto unknown spell she had cast upon him at their first meeting.  He still thought of her often, but the obsession over every enthralling nuance of her that had tormented him even in sleep was gone, crushed out like a flame beneath a boot.  He could recall having those feelings, but he was unable to explain how it had felt, or remember the delicious intoxication that went with slavish love.  It was a bit akin to trying to articulate the sentiment behind a passionate, masterful sonnet written in a language that you had suddenly forgotten how to speak.  When Etienne’s thoughts turned to Nightingale now, they were a copious accounting of every obvious flaw in appearance and manner he had overlooked while he had been enraptured by her magic, things that had appeared tantalizing but came off as pretentious and annoying when seen in cold, sober light.  More than anything he grew frustrated at her failure to return, and uncomprehending of why she would choose to remove herself from the game when she was within a few moves of achieving her coveted victory over the brutal enemy that had killed so many of her sisters.  Why she would drag him into her circle, tease him, entice him and turn him finally and irrevocably against his old comrades with a shattering revelation, and then bugger off to realms unknown – jeopardizing that very victory, perhaps even placing it out of reach.  Etienne did not enjoy being angry with Nightingale, but the frustration grew with each passing day.  It did not stop him, however, from chancing a sliver of hope every time his skin was touched with an abrupt cool breeze, the kind that once heralded her arrivals.

Each time, it was only a trick of the wind.

For now, it was left to him to keep Le Taureau mollified, and patience was as elusive to the large brigand as it was to the animal with whom he shared a name.  Le Taureau’s meaty fingers crushed a wad of dyed wool from the liberated shipment of cloth, and a dead-eyed frown reminded the much slighter Etienne that those fingers could very easily shatter most of his skeleton while the other hand occupied itself with knitting or other idle pursuits.

“If I give them the patterns,” Etienne said, “your men can follow them?”

Le Taureau nodded.  “Presuming you first tell me what use this is.  We need weapons to fight the Bureau, not a bunch of fancy dresses.”

“You can’t think of what we’re planning as war.  A straight fight against the Bureau will fail.  This is theater.  The performers require costumes.”

Le Taureau was not the greatest enthusiast of analogies, though he was more than adept in picking them up.  “That being the case, you should be aware that the performers do not understand their lines, they grow weary of rehearsing, they do not trust the librettist, and more to the point, we seem to have lost our leading lady.”  Etienne too lost his fervor for the analogy as he went up on his next line.  Le Taureau noticed.  “What, you have no answer for me?”

Etienne found a nervous laugh.  “I’m just amazed that a man with a predominantly scatological vocabulary knows what a librettist is.”

Va te faire enculer.  Where in the hell is the déesse?”

Etienne’s throat begged for a hard swallow.  He strained to resist it.  “She’s… she had something she had to attend to.  She’ll be back.”  He read the dissatisfaction with that response in the abrupt mutation of Le Taureau’s frown into a glower, dripping with threat.  It was much easier to read the man’s expressions now that the forest of a beard had been shorn, as per Etienne’s earlier instructions.  “You know her, she can come and go in the blink of an eye.”

“It’s been a lot of blinks.  Days of them.  No sign.  Not a word.”  Le Taureau inched – though with his size it was perhaps more accurate to say he yarded – over the table.  “I – we – only agreed to do this for her.  I’m not sending my men into certain death for the likes of you.”

“I understand that.  But no one needs to die if we do this properly.  That means my way.”  The noise from outside got louder all of a sudden.  Valnier probably had them running laps.

“Thus far, your way is waiting around and sending me and my men out on errands to gather scraps.  And you are terribly presumptuous to believe that I answer to you in any form, or that anything beyond my faith in the déesse stops me tearing your bowels out through your throat.”  Le Taureau cocked his head to one side and directed his glare toward Etienne’s gut.

Etienne was, for the moment, unconcerned about the fate of his colon, fixed as he was on reading Le Taureau’s mannerisms and posture, and detecting, to his surprise, a measurable insecurity hiding beneath the polished shell of aggrandized, larger-than-life bravado that the large man had layered about himself.  Etienne admonished himself for not seeing it sooner.  Surely in order to rise above and command a legion of the hardest, most unruly societal dregs, one required much more than forearms the size of ham hocks.  The most confident and imposing men Etienne had ever known all shared a common trait; they were, at heart, terrified little boys who could never truly sleep.

The sounds beyond the hut exploded into competing shouts and cries, and curses that would embarrass even Le Taureau’s salted tongue.  Both men acknowledged the immediate need to table their fruitless discussion and make hastily for the door.

They stepped out into the middle of a full-on melee.

Etienne had only scant seconds to assess what was going on, but even to a layperson it was clear that Le Taureau’s gang had decided as one to fall upon Valnier and the rest of Etienne’s men with fists.  The mercenaries were trying to hold off the assault, but tactic and finesse were worth little when the opponents could simply pile on with endless reinforcements.  Etienne threw himself into it, seizing and shoving aside bodies, struggling to bark commands over a din of wailing.  Le Taureau did the same, employing his mass to a greater degree of success.  Together they carved through the crush of people to locate the two combatants who could be most logically determined the instigators:  a wiry, emaciated Ilianer railing meek blows on a prone Corporal Valnier, who was absorbing them while wearing a perspiration-free expression best described as mild annoyance.  “Stop this,” Etienne yelled.  “Stop this.  Stop this now!”  He grabbed the Ilianer by the waist and hoisted him off his corporal, dodging the flailing limbs.  Etienne pushed him back into the arms of Le Taureau and extended a hand to his fallen underling.  Valnier took it, rose and said nothing.  Sanity reasserted its tenuous grasp on St. Iliane.  “What the hell are you people doing?” Etienne said.  “Are you trying to lose the battle before you even start it?”

“We’re not bétail!” screamed the little man, smearing blood from a split lip as he tried to wipe it from his face.  “We won’t be treated like this!”  A chorus of agreement echoed him.

Etienne bit off the reply it was his instinct to hurl back.  He could see in each face reflecting anger back at him, or looking in desperate plea to Le Taureau, a bone-rattling fear at the impossible enormity of what they were being asked to do.  To the last of them, they were scared.  Though they played at being brave, and enjoyed very much the idea of going to war against the Bureau, the reality of such a choice was not the romantic option it seemed when read about in books or shared in tales recounted by a roaring fire.  They wanted to do this, Etienne was certain, but they had focused on the celebration of the victory without taking into account the possibility that not all of them might live through the task to take part.  The process of training had emphasized the latter point to a degree beyond which most of them were comfortable, and now fear was cracking their shells one by one.

As an agent of the Bureau, Etienne had mastered the art of cultivating fear.  He could identify within seconds of meeting someone what kept them awake and shivering, and he could manipulate and magnify it to the point where most enemies – or victims, to put it more accurately – would wither to a meek surrender.  How, then, could the same man put courage, and hope, into afflicted hearts?

Etienne could not simply point to Nightingale and tell them to keep faith in her, and by extension himself.  And he could not simply act the part this time.  This was not a mere case of selling a mildly reluctant buyer.  He had to know what he was saying was true.  He had to believe it.  So there was no option for him but brutal honesty.

This was his moment.

“You’re afraid,” he said.  “You’re all afraid.  You volunteered because you know the cause is a just one, but you don’t think you have it in you to see this through.  And do you know what – you are absolutely right.  You don’t.  None of you do.”  Ripples of confusion and anger spread throughout the mob; it was clearly not what they were expecting him to say.  Even Le Taureau hurled a frown his way.  “And if you are expecting reassurance from me,” Etienne went on, “some promise that it’s not as bad as it seems, that everything will be all right, well, I can’t give it to you.  You need to be clear about one very important thing.  This is the most dangerous, most terrifying, and most hopeless enterprise you will ever face in your lives, and I have no poetry to stir your hearts, nor do I know any blustering refrains to comfort your thoughts for when you’re inevitably being cut down by Bureau blades.  If I did, I’d be lying.  A charlatan takes power by convincing the fearful that they don’t have to be afraid, so long as they follow him.  The Bureau Centrale controls this country the exact same way.”

“You’re a Bureau étron,” hollered someone near him, to a round of approving shouts.

Etienne could sense the air thinning with the bodies pressing in on him, the hands poised to reach for his throat, but he smiled.  “Yes, I was.  I spent my whole life being afraid, and the Bureau told me I could come with them and not be controlled by my fear anymore.  What they didn’t tell me was that they would be controlling me instead, and I let them, for twelve long, shameful years.  I did it willingly.  I swallowed their poison and spat it back with glee at anyone who crossed me.  I didn’t realize that I was helping to perpetuate the very fear that had made me lose my way for so long, and working for the very monsters who had destroyed my family.  But I did it because not having to be afraid is comforting, and seductive.  Doing what is comfortable, avoiding the fear inside, is far, far easier than doing what is right, and what is necessary.”

That appeared to garner him some additional attention.  “Why do we revere great men for great deeds?” Etienne asked.  “Because they are rare, and the reason why they are rare is that most people are much too afraid to even try.  But here’s the truth.  With every hero you’ve ever read about, in imagined tales or in history, there was not a single moment when they weren’t frightened as much as you are right now, or even more.  The mythical warrior who put his hands on his hips and laughed at the approach of the immortal army did it with pisse pouring down his leg.”

A handful of snickers replied, but the majority were quiet and continuing to listen.  “This heroic ideal of unbreakable confidence is an illusion, a veneer slathered onto the truth to make it sound exciting, to make you want to pass the story on,” Etienne said.  “Every brave man is a coward inside.  Fear pushes them forward, not courage, not some misguided notion that they are indestructible and that they’re going to win no matter what happens.  I know I am a coward, and yet I know what I have to do regardless.  So be afraid, but be afraid of the right things.  Be afraid of what staying here and doing nothing means.  Be afraid for the next young girl or old woman who is dragged screaming from her bed in the middle of the night.  Be afraid for an entire generation of innocent women vanishing from the world, for a way of life being crushed out by ignorance and paranoia.  Be afraid that you are standing idle witness to a genocide that you have this singular, perhaps insignificant chance to stop.  Be afraid that you will be forgotten as cowards, instead of remembered as the ones who stood against a great evil despite their fear, despite what they knew it would cost them.  There is a word for those sorts of people in the stories:  legends.”

Complete silence surrounded him now.  Even the crickets and cicadas were reverently still.

What next?  Was it enough?

“You heard him,” said Le Taureau.  “And if you’re not afraid enough, be afraid that the next man who tries to stir up trouble will have his crâne introduced formally to my poings.”  He graced Etienne with the merest of nods.  Etienne dared to wonder if that was the beginning of earning the big man’s respect.  In any event, it seemed to give the rest of them the blessing to accept Etienne’s words and carry on, not with renewed hope, perhaps, but at least with a sense of the importance of not letting themselves be undone by the selfish desire to retreat behind familiar, if confining lines.

The mob ebbed into a crowd, the crowd strained into orderly, regimented ranks, and Etienne tried not to betray his obvious nerves to them as he squelched the desire to sprint back to the solitude of a closed door.  He waited for the reassuring click of the latch, took a step forward, reached out for the table and felt his weight slump against it as he grabbed on.  His arms were shaking, and he could not still them.  Etienne squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his teeth so hard his jaw began to ache.  Elegant words aside, he knew he was more afraid than Le Taureau, or any of the other men.  It wasn’t the idea of dying that scared him, but rather, failing, and letting the Bureau take both the mother and the son.

Etienne opened his eyes, looked up, and let out a long breath.

It turned to mist in front of him.

* * *

First time reading?  You can catch up on the entire story so far either by plumbing the archives here or checking out my Wattpad page.  Part Eighteen will not be so long in the hopper, I promise!

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