What price David Price?

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It’s the $200 million question hanging on the lips of every long-time, newbie or recently returned (like yours truly) fan:  will southpaw pitching ace David Price, a free agent after a stellar 2 and a half months with the Toronto Blue Jays, re-sign with them for 2016 and possibly beyond?  I don’t imagine there’s been this much attention paid to a baseball off-season north of the border since, well, ever.  Hard to believe that we’re only a few weeks removed from this year’s World Series, and the last game we saw our 2015 boys in blue play against Kansas City in the ALCS.  Naturally everyone and his brother, sister and second cousin once removed has weighed in with opinions far and wide:  Price is definitely going to the Cubs to play for his former manager.  He’s definitely going to the Dodgers because they can afford to out-bid everyone.  He’s definitely going to the Red Sox to play for his former GM.  He’s definitely going to the Yankees because, well, doesn’t everyone want to play for the Yankees?  And the prevailing opinion amongst the collected experts, insiders and seasoned gossip-mongers is that there is no way, no how, no possibility in the world that Price is coming back to Toronto.

Not that there haven’t been rumors leaning that way as well.  As the off-season wheeling and dealing got going, the first Price rumor to circulate was based on that connection he had with Cubs manager Joe Maddon, whom he played for during his stint with the Tampa Bay Rays, and an old, off-hand comment that Price had made back in 2014 where he speculated that it would be great to play for a team like the Cubs and help them to a World Series at long last.  (Interestingly enough, were Price to don a Cubs uniform he’d have to forgo his jersey number, as Chicago retired “14” several years ago to honor legendary “Mr. Cub” Ernie Banks.)  No one confirmed this speculation of course, but that was the leading narrative on Price for a couple of weeks.  And then a few days ago, a Chicago sportswriter got Toronto’s hopes up by telling Sportsnet’s Tim and Sid show that the Cubs were actually exploring other options for their pitching and weren’t likely to pursue Price.  Reports started flying that Price loved Toronto, was touched by how warmly he was embraced by its fans during his brief tenure, and considered the Blue Jays his first choice for a long-term deal.  But yesterday, Fox Sports’ bow-tied Ken Rosenthal promptly pissed all over Toronto’s renewed excitement by trying to slam that door again on their collective fingers, saying the Jays weren’t “a major factor” in Price’s off-season prospects, and fanning the Red Sox flames instead (despite the fact that Price and Red Sox star David “Big Papi” Ortiz don’t particularly like each other and based on their public statements to that effect would not be thrilled to play on the same team).  The subject of all this discussion, clearly watching it with a degree of bemusement, tweeted cheekily the other day that thanks for the attention, but he was going to go play in Japan.

Trying to look at this from a somewhat objective point of view, I think it’s not so much David Price himself that Toronto wants to hang onto, but rather the spirit of the entire 2015 team.  Even long-time sports cynics have noted how cohesive that gang was, how they meshed and worked together and supported one another in a way that few Toronto squads (and few MLB teams, if we’re being honest) have.  There was a magic there that the starved baseball lovers of Toronto and Canada don’t want to lose, and even as the Jays were mounting their comeback triumph over the Rangers and struggling to hold their own against the Royals, the spectre of all those pending free agents was gnawing away at the backs of our minds, leading us to wonder if money and circumstance would snatch this unexpected source of joy from us just as we were learning to love it all over again.  Truly, we only had half a year with these guys.  We wanted to see what they could do with a full season.  Then Alex Anthopoulos, the architect of the 2015 Blue Jays, departed unexpectedly, and chills shot through a million spines trying to speculate at what newly appointed team president Mark Shapiro had planned – helped not by a story that team owners Rogers had ordered Shapiro to slash the payroll for next year.  Maybe we were headed back to years of mediocrity in the name of the corporate bottom line.

But there were a handful of green shoots to be found.  The Jays worked quickly to lock in Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and R.A. Dickey for another season.  A huge sigh of relief came when red-hot starter and playoff-saver Marco Estrada inked a two-year deal and said that he hadn’t really been interested in playing anywhere else.  We have seen a few guys around the edges go:  LaTroy Hawkins hung up his cleats and retired; Cliff Pennington, utility outfielder (and pinch playoff relief pitcher) signed a two-year deal with the Angels; relief pitcher Liam Hendriks, the sole bright spot in the Jays 14-2 drubbing by the Royals in ALCS Game 4 with his four innings of scoreless relief work, was traded to the Oakland A’s for starter Jesse Chavez; and late-season infielder callup Matt Hague (unlike Price) is actually headed for Japan.  Still to be decided:  veteran starter Mark Buehrle, who struggled with injuries as the season drew to a close, will likely retire or sign a one-year deal somewhere closer to his home; while Ben Revere is a possible trade chip owing to his higher salary and a depth of cheaper options (including Dalton Pompey and the injured Michael Saunders) in left field; and free agent Dioner Navarro would prefer to play somewhere he can be the starting catcher instead of Russell Martin’s backup.  But that’s it.  Everyone else is staying put, and Jays executives have said that while they have had interest from other teams in some of their key guys, they’re certainly not interested in creating a weakness in one area to try and shore up another.  (Suggestions/hopes that Troy Tulowitzki and his expensive contract might get fobbed off on another team are likely bogus.)  What’s needed still is additional bullpen strength, including a hard-throwing left handed reliever to provide another option for Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup, and of course, the biggest question mark of all, that empty space on the starting rotation.

Some enterprising Blue Jays fans started a website, www.anypricefordavid.com, where you can enter your pledge of a charitable act you will undertake if Price signs and returns to with Toronto.  Yesterday, Price weighed in with his opinion on it, and for whatever it’s worth, this clearly isn’t something that a guy does if he doesn’t think coming back is a strong possibility:

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Obviously, the advantages to ponying up the cash to secure David Price are enormous.  A starting rotation consisting of Price, Estrada, Dickey, ace-in-the-making Marcus Stroman and Chavez and Drew Hutchison as possible fifth men/long relievers would be fairly fearsome for opposing batters.  Price is a natural team leader and provides a unifying voice in the clubhouse.  Yes, there is still the question of how he performs in the post-season, but, if he can help get you there consistently to have that discussion in the first place, isn’t that worth the cash investment alone?  Eventually, he’ll get over his post-season jitters just as Randy Johnson did.  Perhaps most important of all, his teammates love him, and he loves them.  One moment that stands out for me is when Josh Donaldson hit his third walk-off home run of the year, and while he was being interviewed about it, Price stepped into his face and bellowed “M-V-P!!!”  Again, not the act of a guy biding his time waiting to cash in on free agency.

Everyone on either side of this debate will agree that David Price has earned the opportunity to decide where he wants to spend the latter half of his career.  What is interesting is how quickly the purveyors of sports op-eds have been to suggest that Price can’t wait to pack his bags and flee the dreaded Great White North for whomever ponies up the most cash.  They can’t fathom that there might be something more in the equation for Price than just money.  I can’t speak to that of course, nor can anyone except David Price himself.  It’s quite possible too that Rogers will look at the books, weigh the prospect of added revenue from sold-out stands and post-season tickets/merchandise and decide to make the offer that Price’s agents will find the most palatable; or, they may put in only a half-hearted bid and try to make a play for one of the cheaper options out there, feeling that between Stroman, Estrada and Dickey the rotation is strong enough as is.  But ultimately, I’m going to come down on the side that thinks David Price is going to remain a Blue Jay.

Wishful thinking, perhaps?  Conventional wisdom says I’m wrong.  Conventional wisdom also said Stephen Harper was a genius for calling a long election campaign on the back of sending every parent in Canada a cheque, that he’d be returned with a second majority, and “just not ready” was going to spell the death of the Liberal Party.  I think David Price likes Toronto, I think he likes his Blue Jay teammates (he bought them all scooters, and jokes with them regularly still on social media), I think he likes the fans, and I think he feels there is some unfinished business there, i.e., a World Series ring.  Like the fans I think he may wonder how the Blue Jays can do with a full season with their winning 2015 roster mostly intact.  I think he wants to keep hold of that magic, like we all do.  So we’ll wait and see, and either we’ll be vindicated and have a good laugh at the expense of Ken Rosenthal and his ilk, or we’ll shrug and say thanks for the taste of David Price’s services that we were lucky enough to enjoy for those amazing few months this past summer, and wish him well in his future endeavors (hopefully in the National League so we don’t have to try hitting against him).

Mostly though, I think he’s coming back because my wife says she thinks he will.  And her judgment has always been enough for me to keep faith.  So you heard it here first, folks.

Waiting with bated breath.

UPDATE Dec. 1st: Price has signed a 7-year, $217 million deal to pitch for the Red Sox. So you can disregard everything you just read. However, I still love and trust my wife.

So long #14, thanks for the memories.

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Vintage, Part Twenty-One

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Ramping up towards what is hoped to be an exciting conclusion.  Rated PG-13 for a wee little bad word that is situationally appropriate.

Etienne had seen Valnier’s fists deployed, more often than he could remember across a copious collection of years, against a variety of hapless targets.  When Valnier cared to take advantage of the infrequent leisure hours afforded him, the corporal’s spare time was spent exclusively in the building of his strength; in particular, that of his hands, most often by slamming them against heavy leather satchels stuffed with rice, over and over again until the skin cracked and bled.  Etienne had no idea how long Valnier had been practicing this punishing regimen – he’d never thought to ask him – but their missions had benefited tremendously from the result.  Valnier could drop the toughest combatants with a single punch, or choke the truth from the most stubborn, defiant tongues.  And Etienne had usually watched these events with a lasting gratitude that it wasn’t him on the other end.

A sea of blood flooded his mouth as those granite knuckles connected with his jaw.  Etienne doubled over and sprayed red flecks onto white marble tile.  Shaking fingers clutching at a grip on the floor, he gulped at breath with the desperation of a beached fish.  Valnier circled to the side and planted his boot deep in Etienne’s stomach.  Etienne sprawled over onto his back.  The moans reverberating from the walls didn’t even register as his own, such was the disbelief ripping his brain at the betrayal of the man who had been arguably the closest thing Etienne had to a friend.

Chained and held at her arms by guards just a few feet away, Nightingale could do nothing but watch.  “Stop!” she cried unheeded.  Heavy silver manacles rattled as she shifted against the grip of the soldiers.  Valnier wrested Etienne up by a handful of hair and drew back for another blow.  His fists were painted in Etienne’s blood.

“That is perhaps enough for the moment, Valnier,” said Directeur Ste-Selin.  “We would prefer you not make too much of a mess.”  Valnier snorted and threw his former superior aside into a collapsed heap of bruised and broken flesh.

Etienne stared through a throbbing haze at the blurry ceiling, infinite aches even leaching into his thoughts.  Through the wall of pain he heard only faint sounds of Nightingale’s plaintive whimpers.

Valnier.  Of all the people.

“It surprises me,” Ste-Selin berated him with an air of tut-tutting derision, “that someone of your intelligence and experience would presume that we would send a compromised man unsupervised on a mission of such crucial importance without certain guarantees.  Your corporal has been invaluable in providing us regular updates.  His loyalty to the Bureau has never been in question.”

Etienne imagined flashes of Valnier being hurled into the woods by Nightingale’s power outside Montagnes-les-grands, saw him recovering quickly and racing back to watch the witch envelop his master in a veil of sparkling purple mist, bringing him under her spell.  Saw the corporal watching Etienne descend into an obsessive abyss of gambling and fighting, realizing that he was no longer the ruthless Commissionaire he had once been, reporting these concerns privately to the Directeurs.  And the Directeurs, rather than simply disappearing Etienne, seizing instead a gilded opportunity to use him to eliminate their most formidable foe.  When Valnier had freed him from the cell beneath the Splendide and teased him with the prospect of retribution for their shared disgrace, Etienne could not have known and never would have imagined the true nature of the mission.  He had congratulated himself for outsmarting and out-strategizing the ever-so-cunning Directeurs, when in fact the entire premise had been based on a lie.  Their promises of promotion had been empty inducements.  They had never intended him even to return.

And now he had delivered them Nightingale.

It was, to understate the matter, a monstrously inconvenient development.

“We have been fully briefed on your scheme against us,” said Kadier Duforteste.  “Your hooligan associates from St. Iliane are being rounded up as we speak.”  Etienne thought of the curses spewing from Le Taureau’s infuriated gullet.  Hopefully the big man gave them a decent fight first.

“It must be humiliating, to truly comprehend the depth of your failure,” warbled Theniard Preulx.  “This institution is eternal.  It shall not fall before the pathetic likes of you.”  

Etienne pulled himself to his hands and knees.  Attempts at words became angry coughs that shredded his throat.  “This institution is rotten to its core,” he spat out.  He pivoted to Valnier, though he could not bring himself to look in the corporal’s eyes yet.  “Ask them how they made that pretty sword hanging off your hip.”  To the Directeurs now.  “And you ask him who killed Serge Meservey’s men.”

The Directeurs responded with a collective trio of shrugs.  “Wars are won with sacrifice,” Ste-Selin said.  “Nightingale is the most powerful subject we have yet encountered.  With her in our custody, the course of the war will forever be turned in our favor.  The Bureau would gladly trade a thousand Serge Meserveys in exchange for a prize of her worth.”

Probably, Valnier would have been instructed to obey Etienne’s orders, no matter how bizarre and unpalatable he found them, until otherwise advised.  Keep up the illusion of the loyal soldier until it was no longer necessary.  He had likely convinced the others who had accompanied them and who had gone with Le Taureau’s group to maintain a similar ruse.

“So when do they cut you loose for someone they value more?” Etienne said to no one and everyone at the same time.  A turbulent silence invaded the room.

Valnier ended the brief lacuna by delivering another blast to the side of Etienne’s head.  “Shut your mouth!” he bellowed as Etienne crumpled again.  Rage boiled in Valnier’s voice, a geyser’s worth of suppressed emotions erupting at the surface, far too many to be contained in mere two-word bursts.  “You betrayed everything we fought so hard for,” Valnier said.  “For what?  Huh?  Answer me, you lying bastard!”  He closed Etienne’s neck between clawing fingers.  “I would have followed you anywhere.  Anywhere.  And you gave it up, just so you could fuck that unholy bitch.”  Spittle landed on Etienne’s purpling face, a souvenir of Valnier’s hatred.

How must it have been for Valnier, sitting silently and watching Etienne, the man whom he had given so much, and for whom he had labored without question, plan to rip their world apart, seemingly on nothing more than fanciful whims inspired by a woman?  Ruminating on his secret orders the entire while, waiting on the day and hour and minute when those orders would be carried out, nurturing a dying hope that Etienne might surprise him in the end and return to the side of friendship and light.

“Language, please, Corporal,” interrupted Ste-Selin.  “Even though we may be dealing with the undignified, we shall not lower ourselves to his level.  The Bureau keeps a higher standard.”  He waved Valnier off again.  Etienne coughed and sucked in precious breath.  “Directeur Duforteste, if you will, kindly read out the charges for the benefit of the transcription.”

Duforteste consulted a tan-colored piece of paper in front of him.  It was embossed with two parallel gold lines running the length of the left margin.  Cold recognition struck Etienne, and he hardly needed to hear what was written on it.  “Monsieur Etienne De Navarre, of the rank of Honorable Commissionaire of the Bureau Centrale, suspended, having committed a wanton act of treason against the persons and the property of the Bureau, including collaboration with the enemy and multiple counts of sabotage, incitement to sedition and murder, most notably the murder of Commissionaire Serge Meservey, is hereby sentenced, without possibility of reprieve or appeal, to death by execution.  Said punishment to be carried out immediately, in this place, effective this date.  Signed, Theniard Preulx, Michel Ste-Selin and Kadier Duforteste, Directeurs, Bureau Centrale.”

“No!” screamed Nightingale.

“Fear not,” said Ste-Selin.  “Once our re-educators have finished with you, you will beg us to let you join him.”  The Directeurs stood.  “The sentence has been pronounced.  Please do the honors, Captain Valnier.”

The newly-promoted Valnier – his inducement for turning on his friend – tore his sword from its scabbard, marched to the center of the room and forced Etienne to his knees.  He pulled Etienne’s head back by the scalp and lay the edge of the blade against the artery in Etienne’s neck.  Etienne swallowed, and cast his gaze across the room at Nightingale.  If she was to be the last thing he saw, then it was not such a bad way to end his misbegotten life.

“One thing I must ask, before we do this,” said Preulx.  “You were always such a keen observer.  How did you not observe the obvious goings-on under your own nose?”

“It must have been the failings of those who trained me,” Etienne said with a wry, casual flair, even as he strained his neck against Valnier’s sword.  “They missed the obvious as well.”

“And what is that?” demanded Ste-Selin.

Etienne nodded at Nightingale and smiled.  “Her chains are fake.”

Every eye in the room widened.  Each jaw began to drop.

Nightingale was swift to dispense with the flash of incredulity that had paralyzed the menfolk.  She summoned her magic and glanced down to see the telltale violet sparks erupting at the tips of her fingers.  Before the remainder of those widened eyes dared blink, she vaporized her metal bonds into white-hot shards in a tremendous explosion of light and blunt force that sent the two guards holding onto her arms careening over the clerks’ carrels.  At the sight of the freed witch, Valnier sneered and moved to slice into Etienne’s throat.  Nightingale threw forth her hand, sending an angry bolt of lightning screaming across the room to strike Valnier square in the face and hurl him into an unyielding wall.  The sword clattered on the floor tile.  Valnier’s body twitched, with lingering forks of spent purple energy crackling over it as it came to rest.  Etienne rubbed at his neck and let out a relieved breath.

And then the mayhem began.

Doors burst open on all sides.  Soldiers surged through them like waterfalls forced through a sieve, while bureaucrats and secretaries flailed to scramble their way out like insects fleeing the flood.   But Nightingale was magnificent, a master witch at the apex of her powers, sweeping away every single assailant, scarcely looking perturbed as she went.  Even armed with the dreaded magic-forged weapons, the pride of the Bureau Centrale suffered a rout.  It was exactly like the first time Etienne had seen her, but now he could admire rather than cower.  Watching her fight wreathed in the bands of violet light that flew from her fingers was to bear witness to a ballet, executed immaculately in the eye of a hurricane of bodies and debris.  Still more men came at her, and either a gentle wave of her hand cut them down, or a delicate twisting of her fingers smashed them in a collision of shattered limbs.  None could offer so much as a challenge to her, and their efforts regardless inspired only cringes of embarrassment.  Man could try to lie to himself to bolster his ego, but pitted against a liberated goddess, he would forever be found wanting.

The tide of soldiers trickled to a halt.  Nightingale and Etienne stood alone in the epicenter of the destruction, surrounded by the unconscious fallen, as a forest’s worth of dislodged papers tumbled from the air like falling leaves.  “Nicely done,” said Etienne.

Nightingale slapped him.

“Ow!” gasped Etienne.  He clutched at the swelling bruise left by Valnier’s fists.

“Oh!  Sorry,” said Nightingale with a sheepish grimace.  She held up her palm.  A soothing glow radiated over Etienne’s wounds, erasing them from his face.  He stretched out his jaw approvingly.  “Seriously, though?” she added.  “You couldn’t have told me that the chains weren’t real?”

Etienne shrugged.  “I needed a convincing performance.  Everyone needed to believe you were harmless, especially you.  Lest they notice and put the genuine article on you once we arrived.”

Nightingale rested her hands on her hips.  “Well then, what in the world were you waiting for?  Your blood to start spurting in the air before you thought to say something?  You know, there are some wounds magic can’t heal.”

Etienne wandered over to where Valnier’s body lay, under shattered wood panels and crumbled ceiling tile.  The corporal had taken the brunt of Nightingale’s attack, and even his painstakingly honed physique had not been able to endure the infusion of that much raw power.  Etienne bent down, swept away the fragments and looked at his old friend’s silent face one last time, letting himself think fleetingly of better days, of the many times Valnier had saved his life.  He could not return the hatred that Valnier had shown him in his final moments.  He felt only pity.  “All too true,” Etienne said.

“You never really trusted him,” said the witch.

Etienne stood.  “The world you and I want isn’t one he could live in.  Maybe it’s just as well.”  He unbuckled the scabbard from Valnier’s belt and slung it around his own waist.

Nightingale nodded to the far end of the room.  “And what about them?”

The three Directeurs were still conscious, and huddling among the broken remnants of their presiding table, pressing back against a rear wall which afforded them no further space to retreat.  They were like a trio of weepy schoolboys who’d been caught wetting their collective pants, and, judging by the rank odor wafting Etienne’s way, he surmised that at least one of them, old Preulx perhaps, already had.  Nightingale ignited swirls of purple energy in her palms and strutted towards them, and petrified gasps went out at her approach.  Etienne smirked as he wiped Valnier’s sword with the tail of his jacket.  “Don’t worry about them.  They’re not what we’re here for.  They’re actors.”

Nightingale raised an eyebrow.  “What?  You said the Directeurs were–”

“–the leadership, yes, I did,” Etienne finished.  “That’s what the Bureau wants everyone to believe.  I also told you that the Bureau uses subterfuge and misdirection to prevent the three of them being targeted at once.  But why make that public knowledge?  Why force the world’s attention on three specific individuals unless it is a calculated bluff to draw attention away from the true power behind the Bureau?  These men are just mouthpieces for the real leader, and not very good ones at that.  I mean, really, I’ve seen enough opera to recognize bad acting from a mile away.  And the scenery-chewing clichés bubbling out of these three are textbook Hackneyed Stage Villain Academy.”

“Then where is the real leader?” Nightingale asked.

“He is here,” Etienne said, “and at least one of them probably knows where.”  Etienne joined her and let his gaze simmer slowly over the frightened faces, commanding the moment, stretching out their torment.  He could not deny the certain degree of enjoyment in it.  “You,” he announced finally.  He grabbed Michel Ste-Selin by the lapels and dragged him away from the other two.  Preulx and Duforteste squirmed, grateful they hadn’t been chosen.  Nightingale stared them deeper into their corner.

Etienne had frequently stood in awe of Ste-Selin and been intimidated by the weight of his position and presence.  He had envied the man’s perceived achievements and craved them for himself.  Yet he had never been able to shake the nagging sense that Ste-Selin was speaking another man’s words.  Perhaps it was that heightened awareness that Nightingale had once told him belonged to men who were born to witches.  The coward revealed, trembling on the ground beneath him was no more than a tone-deaf singer without an orchestra, a second-rate performer without a script.

“All right, Monsieur le Directeur,” said Etienne, nudging the tip of Valnier’s sword at Ste-Selin’s throat, “one question.  Sub-level six.  How do I access it?”

“P-please,” whimpered the ersatz Directeur, “I d-don’t know anything about it!”

“You take your instruction from someone who takes great pains to keep himself out of the light.  I’m guessing it’s in the same place the Bureau is making its forbidden weapons.”  Etienne tilted his head toward Nightingale.  “You can either tell me, or let her rip the information out of your skull.”  Nightingale punctuated her glare at Ste-Selin by lining her irises with swirling purple light.  Etienne grinned.  “That’s good, I like that.  Scary.”  The witch smirked.

Ste-Selin slumped.  “The lift in the pillar of heaven,” he said.

“What’s the sequence?  Which levers do I pull?” demanded Etienne.  He pushed the sword tip a little further, creating a tiny cavity in the skin, just shy of breaking it.

“I can show you.  Just k-keep her away from me.”

“Having to breathe the same air as you is nauseating enough,” Nightingale said.

Etienne patted Ste-Selin’s cheek.  “Good boy.  Let’s go then.”

Sirens and bells began screeching at them from every angle, loud enough to feel like the noise was coming from inside their very heads.  Etienne and Nightingale spun as one to see Theniard Preulx slumped against the wall, his gnarled hand pressed against a hidden panel.  Etienne’s rejuvenated spirit sank as he recognized what was happening, and as the withered cretin giggled like a naughty child one-tenth his age.  “Catastrophic Emergency Protocol Rouge,” Preulx barked, finding a degree of menace to add even when faced with exposure and defeat.  “You can’t stop it.  You’re all going to die.”

Nightingale winced at the hammering peal of the alarm.  “Can we stop it?” she asked.

Etienne shook his head.  “Too late.  Once the signal is sent, the emergency beacons atop the building are lit.  There are sentries whose entire job is to watch for them every minute of every day, and wait to see if they go up.  The whole city will go under martial law immediately.  We have twenty minutes.  Maybe twenty-five at the most before the army gets here.”

“Oh good, I thought this was going to be hard.”

Unnoticed, Ste-Selin scrambled to his feet and ran for the door.  Etienne sighed and nodded to Nightingale.  The witch raised her arm and hurled another stream of lightning from her fingers.  It struck Ste-Selin in the shoulder and pitched him over onto his side.  He groaned at the sting of it as he writhed on the floor, but she hadn’t hit him hard enough to do any permanent damage.

Etienne hoisted him up and prodded him in the back with the sword.  “Come on.”

Behind them, Theniard Preulx had collapsed into breath-spare, mad laughter, pushed at last over the perilous edge of senility upon which he’d been teetering.  Maybe in this new madness he truly thought he was a Directeur now, not a puppet reciting dialogue.  The comparatively unassuming Kadier Duforteste was clutching his knees to his chest, rocking back and forth and weeping.  Perhaps, Etienne thought, he should have killed them both, even if their crimes had merely been the unthinking relaying of orders from the unseen master.  But executing a pair of snuffling, sobbing failed actors seemed tasteless, even if a wag might dub it a favor to the cause of theater.  Instead, Nightingale waved her hand and both men fell unconscious.  Their fate would be decided by someone else.

Etienne shoved Ste-Selin out into the hallway as the alarms continued to blare.  A peculiar scent wandered on the air at the edge of his perception, something foreign to the usual odors of varnished wood and writing ink, something sharp and chemical.  Adjacent the entrance to the stairwell at the opposite end, shouts and the scuffling of boots rose and faded away again.  More reinforcements, perhaps.  Etienne held out his arm to caution Nightingale to remain back.

She frowned at him and pointed at her chest.  “Um, witch, remember?”

Etienne smiled.  Nightingale stepped out ahead of him, her arms raised and her open hands filling with gathering charges of light, ready to strike.  Etienne kept his sword at Ste-Selin’s back, his arm on the Directeur’s shoulder.

The shouting erupted again, this time much closer.  Etienne and Nightingale both tensed.

A single soldier burst from the stairwell, weapon in hand.  He waited there.

The magic in Nightingale’s hands flared, but she did not release it.

The soldier raised his eyes to them.  His look was not one of threat or of steeled engagement, but bewilderment.  A staggering inability to understand the obvious truth of his situation.

His lower lip sank open.  A thick line of blood emptied out of it.

The soldier slumped facedown to the floor, and from the shadows emerged the very last person Etienne had expected he would ever see again, bellowing at the fresh corpse in his inimitable fashion, “Out of my way, tête de cul.”

“Le Taureau!” Etienne called out.  “What the hell are you doing–”

“Alive?” Le Taureau interrupted.  He kicked the dead soldier from his path and stomped over to join them.  “No thanks to those mercenary connards you stuck in my unit.”  His false army uniform was torn and stained with sweat and ash and blood, but none of the latter appeared to be his own.  And he still had the medal he’d liberated from the leader of the squad they’d ambushed back in the Bois Jongleurs.  Nightingale gave him a friendly embrace.  “We followed your plan to the letter,” he told them, gathering a shaken composure.  “Made it through all the security with the fake credentials, replaced the night shift and found the archives.  We got inside, we were preparing to torch it, and then suddenly your men were attacking mine.  You certainly have interesting taste in friends.”

“It was Valnier,” Etienne said, a note of regret touching the name.  Le Taureau was intelligent enough to detect the finality in Etienne’s voice.  “How many did you lose?”

“Seven,” said Le Taureau, “but they fell as men.  And they accomplished their mission.”

Etienne plucked the strange smell from the air again.  “The building is on fire?”  The reams upon reams of paper in the archives would be a potent fuel for the flames to spread unchecked from those three central floors.

“As instructed.  What about you?”

Etienne shared a glance with Nightingale.  “The Emergency Protocol was activated.”

“The Armée Royale,” Le Taureau mused.

Etienne nodded.  “All of it.  In less than twenty minutes.”

The big man eyed the humbled Michel Ste-Selin slouching next to them and exhaled a gale’s worth of resigned breath from cavernous lungs.  Le Taureau had known there would likely be no coming back from this battle, but that would never stop a man from hoping the opposite.  “Then you two had better hurry up and finish this before they get here.”

“You’ll hold them off for us?”

“As long as I can.”  Readying his bloodied sword, Le Taureau moved off toward the stairwell, then paused to look back.  “I’m not going to say goodbye again.  Just… don’t get killed.”

“Nor you,” said Etienne.

The corner of Le Taureau’s mouth curled into a grin.  “En aucune.  Putain.  Façon,” he boasted.  And off he went, eager to ram his blade through as many Bureau stomachs as dared obstruct his way.

“Nous ne verrons pas son pareil,” Etienne whispered to himself.  Then he turned and shoved Ste-Selin against the section of the hallway that concealed the secret lift.  “Open it.”

The Directeur reached up and pushed his thumb against a screw protruding from a candle sconce.  The panel next to it creaked and rolled open, revealing the empty, waiting lift chamber.  Etienne marched Ste-Selin inside and positioned him in front of the arrangement of levers.  Nightingale followed.

“Enter the sequence for sub-level six,” Etienne instructed.  “She’ll know if you’re lying.”

Ste-Selin complied, pulling at a permutation of levers as Nightingale watched.  A small bell chimed as the sequence completed.  “Thank you,” Etienne said.  Ste-Selin swallowed, obviously terrified of what was to become of him now that he was of no further use.  But again, Nightingale showed herself to be every bit as enlightened and merciful as her enemies were backward and brutal.  Without more than a moment’s consideration, she simply pressed a gentle finger to Ste-Selin’s forehead.  His eyes rolled back into his head and he collapsed into a slumbering heap.

Etienne shoved him back into the hallway as the doors began to close, shutting out the sound of the alarm bells as they sealed.  The chamber shook as it had before, and Etienne felt his stomach knot as it began to descend.  The candles illuminating the chamber flickered madly.  It was moving much faster this time.  “I’ve never seen any device like this before,” he said.  “I wonder where they found it.”

Nightingale drew her fingertips across the wall panels.  “This is not mechanics,” she said.  “There is magic here.  It’s…”  Her gaze lost focus and trailed off into a void.

“What is it?”

She frowned.  “It feels… familiar.”  The witch looked unsettled.  Worried, even.  Most unlike the Nightingale he’d come to know.

Etienne lay his palm against her cheek.  He stroked at loose strands of her hair.  “Whatever it is, I’m sure we can handle it.”  He leaned in and kissed her.  A gentle sip at first, deepening to a lasting savor as her mouth embraced his in return.  Nightingale pressed herself against him and slid her arms up his back.  It would be so easy to go now.  To ask her to whisk them away, to their island.  And yet, duty and honor demanded otherwise.  For while the Directeurs had been dealt with, and the burning archives were losing decades of vital, irreplaceable records, the most important element yet remained.  So long as those weapons existed, none of the world’s witches could walk without fear.  While the Bureau had certainly been dealt a blow, it was not yet fatal, and they could rebuild on their arsenal and continue to push witches toward extinction.  Etienne was content enough for a momentary reprieve, and another sumptuous taste of Nightingale’s amaranthine lips.  His love for her insisted that he keep going.

The lift must have passed the first five sub-levels already, yet it continued, and the rattling of the walls suggested it was speeding up.  Etienne and Nightingale held each other and waited, waited for the chamber to deliver them into the very mouth of the abyss.

The rattling stopped.  The floor settled.  The tiny bell sounded again, indicating at long last, arrival.

The doors opened onto a cold ocean of black.

* * *

Vintage, Part Twenty

vintagetitle

Here we go.  Part 20, published on the 20th.  Longish, but be sure you read to the end.

The great city of Calerre, draping its hilled contours in a caress about the horseshoe Baie des Lanciers, had been revered since its founding as a giver of good luck.  Seeking shelter from a continental plague of ice storms, the first settlers, discovering Calerre’s calm, pristine shores, ended their wandering with gushing thanks to their gods.  In those days the warm waters had teemed with a bounty of poisson and phoque and baleine, and the surface stirred constantly with the merry splashing of fins.  The settlers gorged themselves.  There were times when the entire bay bloomed a horrific, pungent red as the spears and nets flew.  Makeshift tents of dried whaleskin gave way to straw huts and eventually a smattering of permanent wooden houses, and if constructing them meant stripping the ancient forests to the dirt, well, the good spirits watching over Calerre were ever able to provide more, with new saplings bursting to life the succeeding spring.  As the land thawed and opened itself to travel, fables spread of an oasis by the sea where no one went hungry.  More people came to this hallowed place.

The waters of the depleted bay grew still, so the people moved outwards, venturing inland to seek timber and ores, and to the ocean to pursue the fleeing fish.  Out on the open they came across an expedition of strange vessels carrying men whose tongue they did not speak, yet who were eager to share a portion of their cargo in exchange for temporary anchorage and resupply for their long voyage.  These were the first foreign traders, and it became plain to the little village in the bay that they were situated – again, seemingly by good fortune alone – at the nexus of an emerging and fascinating world of commerce.  They pulled down more of the ancient forests to build quays and docks, and bigger ships inspired by those that now made regular voyages into their bay, so that they might share in the riches beckoning to them beyond a horizon that they had never dared cross.  And as those riches flowed back home, and the village grew into a thriving town with new and taller buildings of brick and mortar, it was not long before some of those other seafaring peoples decided they wanted more than merely their fair share of the fortune Calerre was willing to offer.  A hundred ships loaded with war-starved soldiers bore down upon the Baie des Lanciers, the tantalizing fruit on its shore seemingly ripe to be plucked.  But once again luck turned in Calerre’s favor.  The ancient ice storms roared back after two hundred years of slumber to smash the fleet to shards of wood and shredded sail only a few miles from landfall, and to freeze the men who fell from those ships into a merciless churning sea.

It could not be denied that something unusual was at work in this place, ensuring its prosperity and protecting it from harm.  Once the threats subsided and regular trade resumed it continued to grow, sprouting new and expanding enterprises in the novel field of business, and gradually becoming the first city, extending its influence west across the scattering of lesser villages and towns.  The promise of wealth was a powerful rallying cry as everyone desired a taste of Calerre’s luck, and it became a simple matter for this strongest and largest of the nascent alliance of scattered communities to bend the others to its dictates.  Economic success also brought with it the availability of leisure, with those no longer needing to toil from sunup past sundown in farm fields hungry for diversion in their increasingly spare hours, and an ensuing explosion in arts and culture, and naturally, gambling.  Theaters, opera houses, coffee houses and brothels and casinos – despite ineffective protests from those who fancied themselves guardians of morality – now loomed over the streets where centuries ago the first fishermen had hauled their boats from the water and set their catches out on racks made of branches wound with crude twine.  Calerre was the world’s jewel, the rich, sparkling capital of its nation and the seat of a mighty kingdom with influence reaching beyond every horizon one could cast one’s gaze towards.

In the thousand or so years separating the arrival of those nomads to the day just beginning to push rose fingertips into the waning black, the people who walked Calerre’s reaches never gave significant thought to where its good luck originated.  They accepted it unquestioned as divine favor, or perhaps, in rare moments of further speculation, chalked it up ultimately to happenstance.  An impartial, well-researched historian would draw obvious connections between improbable events like the continuing fertility of the land and the collapsed invasion to the enduring presence of magic, ranging from the early wise women and healers to the latter day witches who made Calerre their home, carefully concealed from the trenchant and omnipresent eyes of the Bureau Centrale.  But man is ever notorious for refusing to allow facts to impact what he chooses to believe.  Let them believe then that Calerre was simply lucky.  And let the single squadron of twenty soldiers who set out before the break of this dawn on a five-mile march to the headquarters of the Bureau Centrale to relieve their share of the night shift keep faith in Calerre’s luck, even as they found themselves ambushed in the darkness by another group of men, clad inexplicably in the uniforms of the very same division of the Armée Royale.  Let the hapless gapes of those soldiers suffer dizzying blows, and let dumbfounded brains collapse into unconsciousness thinking that everything befalling them was only, like so many things in Calerre, a matter of chance.

Chance or not, Etienne was impressed with how efficiently Le Taureau’s men, even with limited training over the last few days, had managed to surprise and dispose of the relief squad without permitting the escape of so much as a stray shout.  Etienne had selected the ideal location based on his knowledge of the troop movements:  a bottleneck passage through the Bois Jongleurs, an overgrown old parkland in the south quarter avoided for its reputation as a gathering place for vagabonds and cutthroats.  None of those undesirables would dare interfere with the army, and the army would not worry itself overmuch about the laughable possibility of an assault among the trees.  They would traipse through in bored ranks, sluggish minds scant minutes out of barracks beds paying little heed to shifting shadows at the corners of collective eyes.  Le Taureau’s men had brought down ten of them before the remaining half sensed anything amiss.  The confusion wrought by the incongruity of being attacked seemingly by their own assisted in conquering the balance of the squad, who were now being dragged off into the woods to be bound and stripped of their gear.  Etienne reminded himself to offer compliments to the weavers of St. Iliane for creating such effective imitations of Armée Royale uniforms from all the cloth Le Taureau had stolen.  Perhaps, when this escapade had concluded, he might request of them a few new suits.

“Vite, vite, you bâtards sales,” Le Taureau barked at his men as they swarmed like ravenous locusts over the prone bodies of the soldiers.  “Take weapons, not souvenirs.”  He made an exception for himself, tearing a small bronze medallion on a red and white striped ribbon from the lapel of the squad’s unconscious commander and pinning it to his craggy tor of a chest.

Seated atop one of only three horses they had brought this far, Etienne supervised the pillaging of the defeated squadron.  Corporal Valnier was mounted to his left, and a hooded, sullen Nightingale, chained at the hands and neck by the bonds she had sworn never to don, sat the horse to his right.  She was very much the picture of a humbled prisoner, exactly as the Bureau Centrale and the Directeurs would expect.  Despite his profuse apologies, she had still choked on tears as he had manacled her.

She had not spoken since they left St. Iliane.

Etienne rubbed a nervous thumb against the edge of the engraved gold timepiece that had managed to survive the bizarre course of events since that mission to Montagnes-les-grands a century or so ago.  Girard Noeme had given it to him the day he graduated Bureau training and received his rank, and it had kept perfect time ever since.  He flicked open the faceplate and confirmed the hour.  Amazingly, they were ahead of schedule.  Calerre’s priceless luck remained theirs, at least for the moment.  Etienne caught Le Taureau’s attention and waved him over.  “Two more minutes,” he said, “then you need to muster up and move out.”

They would separate here.  Le Taureau’s men, including the last survivors of Etienne’s original detachment, would infiltrate the Bureau building in the guise of replacement guard personnel and proceed to the archives, while Etienne, with Valnier at his side as always, would formally escort Nightingale before the three waiting Directeurs.  Etienne yawned, but nerves let him shrug off the claws of sleep trying to claim his spent mind.  He believed his plan sound, if terribly precarious:  a crucial chain of actions and events linked to one another by the flimsiest of hairs.  So much could go wrong, and even success might not mean successful escape, but they were all committed now, and the scrupulous schedule could brook not a minute’s unnecessary delay.

“I know the plan,” Le Taureau said.  He nodded over his shoulder.  “You should have let me kill a few of these squealing cochons.  If they should wake and warn the others–”

“Never dull your blade on unworthy necks,” Etienne said.  “Save the edge for the skin that matters.  And congratulations, by the way.”  He pointed at the medallion Le Taureau was sporting.

Le Taureau grinned.  “You like it?”

“It brings out the color in your cheeks.  Do you know what it is?  It’s the Prix royal de bravoure, honoring those who have distinguished themselves in service to the realm and the people.  Funny.”

“What’s that?”

Etienne extended his hand.  “I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more.”

For the first time, Le Taureau had no suitable curse to belittle him with.  He raised his arm and clasped Etienne’s forearm with the iron vises he called fingers.  Etienne tried not to wince.

Le Taureau’s eyes slid to Nightingale.  The big man was ruing, perhaps, the affections for her that would remain unrequited, a lingering love for his late wife drawn to another who reminded him so much of how she had once been.  Etienne thought he saw the welling of tears, and if Le Taureau had any last thing to say to the witch, he kept it to himself.  “If she comes to any harm…” he muttered, biting down on an uncharacteristic swell of vulnerability.

Etienne nodded.  “We’ll see you at the rendezvous,” he offered, in hope and promise.

Le Taureau looked up at Nightingale with a youth and vitality lifting his battle-hardened face.  “Au revoir, ma belle déesse,” he whispered.  Then he tore himself away and wheeled on the men who were gathering in ragged lines on the road.  It was obvious even to a layperson that they lacked the polish of military discipline – a glaring giveaway to anyone who might scrutinize them.  “All right, you miserable fouteurs de moutons, you are soldiers of the Armée Royale, and if you don’t act like it then so help me I’ll tear off every veuve et deux orphelines in this rotten unit, crush them into paste and make you eat it off moldy baguettes.  This is the single most important thing you’ll ever do in your pathetic, wasted existence.  Thousands of other, more valuable lives, are waiting on us.  But more than that, if you screw this up in any way, I’m going to get very, very mad.”  Le Taureau let the threat sink in before issuing his first formal command in his guise as sergeant.  “Compagnie, atten… tion!”

The men snapped alert with astonishing precision.

They held still as Le Taureau reviewed their ranks, clasping his hands behind his back and strutting in polished black leather boots like one of the appointed bureaucratic jackanapes he held in such blinding contempt.  Grinning satisfaction with their performance, he looked to Etienne.

Etienne smiled and raised his hand to his brow in salute.

“Compagnie,” Le Taureau bellowed, “by the left, march!”  And in orderly unison, off they went, the rhythmic, clamping sound of heels pounding packed earth fading from earshot as the climbing sun littered the first hints into the air of what would undoubtedly be another day of merciless heat.  Taking the reins of Nightingale’s horse, Etienne turned both their mounts in the opposite direction and spurred them to a steady trot.  Valnier fell in behind them.  From here, it was only about twenty minutes to the Chemin des Fougères and the Bureau headquarters.

Enough time to change my mind and run, Etienne thought, and dismissed the notion as quickly as it had come to him.  There would never be another or better time, and so deep cut his fury at the Bureau for stealing his life and twisting him into an enemy of his own blood, that the very idea of flight induced the acid in his stomach to leap up and gnaw at his throat.  Impossible task had become inescapable obligation.  And though he had told Nightingale, on the beach, that he wanted to do this for her alone, he could not deny the part of him that craved vengeance for himself, craved the vision of the Bureau building razed to cinders.  Hatred simmered where there had once been unquestioned devotion, and relentless determination borrowed the grit of old ramrod ideological adherence.  He would turn the inimitable zeal that had marked his time as Commissionaire toward the goal of ensuring that there would never be another like him.  Not in this country, anyway.

The trio exited the Bois Jongleurs onto the bordering Rue Loup Noir, which arced north for three miles and eventually crossed Chemin des Fougères.  Simmering heat was already beginning to burn off the thin layer of early morning fog.  Etienne was surprised at the quiet of the great city as it clambered up from the night’s slumber and the people of Calerre rose to be about their daily affairs.  The boulangerie owners would have been awake since midnight baking their inventory, the fishermen would have converged on the docks before the dawn tides, and the constabulary and the sweeps never left the streets completely unattended, so there was no lack of activity along their cobbled route, but the lively hum of conversation that made these neighborhoods vibrate with color and character was missing.  Some great cosmic trowel had scraped it away, leaving behind silence and a city that felt more alien than home.  Etienne could draw no dialogue from his two companions to fill the wanting space.  Valnier simply never talked, and Nightingale was in no mood for light badinage.  For that, he could not fault her, even if it meant that each second of the journey ticked by in a lugubrious dirge, counted off by the ticking hands of his precious pocket watch.

They turned east onto Chemin des Fougères as the sun broke above the trees and flooded the empty street with a wash of warm gold.  Etienne tightened his rein to stop his horse.  He closed his eyes, listened to his breath and let the light melt into his skin, as though he was trying to absorb as much of it as he could before venturing inside a place where there was no light.  It loomed directly ahead, that hideous, corpse-gray monolith stretching up into the sky, intimidating the sun into hiding behind it.  The ruthless sentinel crushing the people beneath hundreds of tons of concrete in the guise of guarding them, devouring life in exchange for a madman’s mockery of liberty.  This was where it had begun for him twelve years ago, and today it was where it would end.  All of it.

Pas de pitié, pour vous doit avoir aucun.

Nightingale noticed he had lagged behind, and she offered him an expectant stare that had a not insignificant trace of worry laced within it.  Etienne shook the reins and caught up to them.  He tried to camouflage his own anxiety by smiling at her, but they both understood what was at stake, and they were both too intelligent to be reassured by empty platitudes.  Instead they let their shared history speak what could not be forced into words, and as the distance between them and the Bureau headquarters building shrank, so too did the space between their horses.  Etienne glanced at her hands, the wrists chained in gleaming silver, her long fingers curled inward to stop them trembling.  He longed to reach for them with his own, but he dared not, for the Bureau’s range of vision certainly did not begin and end at its official walls.  From here onward, the performers had to become their roles, and his was that of a triumphant hero in proud return, no matter how far he might feel from that.

The welcome awaiting this supposed conqueror in the courtyard of the Bureau Centrale consisted of more soldiers than Etienne had ever seen.  Like a parade of black-uniformed termites they infested the edges of the eighteen daunting plain gray steps and the enormous front doors.  Clearly the Directeurs considered this a momentous day – the capture and delivery, at last, of their most notorious enemy.  Seeing the arrival of Etienne’s little group, a handful of the guards broke formation to descend to street level to greet them, though it was not to be with back slaps and hearty handshakes.  All moisture vanished from Etienne’s mouth.  He dismounted quickly and nodded to Valnier to help Nightingale from her saddle.  The soldiers darted in behind them to take charge of the horses.  Etienne drew a deep breath and affected a confident stride.  This was supposed to be his victory, after all.  Clutching their prisoner firmly by the arm, Valnier followed.  The line of sentries watched them with faces as lacking in expression as statues sculpted by an amateur.

Etienne found himself thinking of the notorious aria in La Sirena Ridere.  It was a haunting, terribly beautiful piece of music, and when it was performed successfully, only the hard-hearted did not burst with pent-up emotion as its final, lingering note spun into the rafters.  The inaccessibility of its language was no barrier to the impact of its poetry.  A curious Etienne had once sourced a crude translation, and though it could not replicate the idioms or embedded cultural references from the original, the verses were still poignant.  He and Valnier brought Nightingale up the steps and through the main doors, and as he watched her and thought about what was to come, the words drifted across his mind, scored by bittersweet minor chords.

“From beneath the edge of the world I cried to you,

From under the waters I sang my song.

I looked for you before I knew you were there.

My heart dreamed you into being to fill its hollow.

Let my blood rush now with passions unchained,

Let me take you into my soul.

Let us laugh and let us weep, let us devour the day,

Let our nights be filled with limitless fire.

If you are only a dream, I wish that I might never wake.

If you are real, and you cannot hear my song,

Then I will wish that I will never know you.

I will dream that my heart might remain empty,

Because filling it with you will make it break.”

“Honorable Commissionaire De Navarre,” announced an oily, obsequious functionary with cheer as false as his hairpiece once they had stepped into the sterile air of the lobby.  It still smelled of paper and ink, though now there was a perplexing, palpable sweetness hiding in the staleness, the faintest scent of autumn fruit.  “It is a pleasure to welcome you home.  You had a safe journey, I trust?”  Etienne had never seen this oafish character before; surely he was one of those interminable ranks of officials with impressive-sounding but meaningless titles like Superviseur exécutif adjoint de l’administration.  The Bureau was full of them, and this particular martinet had been designated the official reception.

“Safe enough,” Etienne said, borrowing the two-word routine from his corporal.

“You are expected in salle 1401,” the superviseur – if that was his actual job, though one supposed it did not really matter – went on.  “In the meantime we would be happy to accept formal custody of your subject.”  He gestured to the pair of guards flanking him, who converged on Nightingale.  Her entire body tightened at their brusque approach.

Etienne frowned and raised a cautionary hand.  “She stays with me.  I want to present her myself.”  Valnier firmed his grip on Nightingale’s arm and shot the guards a glare promising a severe maiming should they draw one inch closer.

The superviseur eyed the bonds on Nightingale’s wrists and neck.  Thus shackled, she was harmless.  “As you wish.  May I escort you, then?  The Directeurs are anxious to greet you.”

“In 1401?” asked Etienne.  “We have had a long journey.  I don’t particularly feel like traipsing up fourteen flights.”

The man cleared his throat, more as a gesture of condescension than any particular discomfort he needed to dislodge.  “Not quite, monsieur.  This way, s’il vous plait.”

Syncopated heels clapped on granite as the superviseur led them through the austere, cavernous lobby, which was framed at each corner by a gigantic fluted stone column stretching up and through the high vaulted ceiling.  The “pillars of heaven,” some Bureau folk were inclined to joke, out of earshot of their superiors of course.  The walls in between were empty, as artwork was considered anathema to the purpose of the organization.  They appeared to indeed be headed for the grand staircase at the far end, but as they neared the bottom step, the superviseur wheeled left and guided them to the backside of the pillar at the southeast corner.  There was a small rectangular section at shoulder height, about the size of a hand, that was slightly discolored from the rest of the stone and would have been unnoticeable otherwise.  The superviseur pushed on it.  A vertical line appeared in the pillar from the floor to just over their heads, and a concealed panel cracked open and slid back, revealing a round, hidden chamber within – large enough to hold at least a dozen men.  “Monsieur,” the superviseur said, bidding Etienne and company enter.

Etienne craned his neck forward to peer inside.  The chamber, which appeared to have no other exit, was paneled in lacquered mahogany and lined with polished brass.  The floor was beige and black marble and was etched in its center with the Bureau insignia.  “What is this?” he asked.

“As you are no doubt aware, monsieur, one of the Directeurs is quite elderly.  This was constructed to assist in his travel between floors.”

“Interesting,” Etienne said.  Troubling was what he really meant.  His so-called encyclopedic knowledge of the facility did not include this feature, but then, he hadn’t known the Bureau was making magical weapons on a hidden sixth sub-level either.  He felt for his watch in his breast pocket again.  Le Taureau and the others should have arrived and relieved the nighttime guard shift by now, but should have was not definitive enough for his liking.  He didn’t enjoy having to trust that part of the plan to someone else.  Unfortunately there was no way to confirm it.

Etienne motioned to Valnier to bring Nightingale into the chamber.  The official escort followed, along with a pair of guards, since this was the Bureau Centrale and there was no trust without verification.  To the right of the door were a series of five levers, and the superviseur pulled on them in a specific sequence that Etienne made sure to commit to memory.  The door slid closed, the chamber shook, and a heavy feeling in his neck and shoulders confirmed that they were beginning to rise at some speed, up through the pillar of heaven, though the destination was quite the opposite.

Feigning nonchalance, Etienne edged closer to Nightingale as the chamber continued to shake, helping to hide the trembling in their respective limbs.  He wished there was a way to let her know that he was as frightened as she.  He had always believed that his ability to connect with his own emotions and those of others made him a better Commissionaire, yet he had always envied Valnier’s complete inability to be affected by any emotion whatsoever.  Even now, the corporal looked bored and indifferent.  Etienne supposed it was a fair trade.  Suppressing one’s feelings made it easier to cope with life, but without them, what was the point to life?  He could have refused to be swayed by Nightingale’s magic, and even by what he had realized was his genuine love for her, but would that have been worth sacrificing the experience and the memory of what they had shared, and what he still felt for her?  The undiscovered taste of a thousand wines he would never get to try, for the taste of her kisses instead.  The unsampled delights of a thousand anonymous beautiful women, for the fleeting affections of a goddess.  Like the city, he was lucky.  Lucky to have been able to make the choice, and know that it remained the right one, whatever came of it once the doors to this elevating chamber opened again.

An uncomfortably familiar sight, 1401 waited behind a sealed portal of carved mahogany, this time without the sharp scent of roasted café wafting out from within.  The superviseur and his pair of drones handed them off to the sentries standing on either side and remained behind in the hallway.  Old wood wheezed as the latch was withdrawn and the entrance flung open.  Etienne gestured to Valnier to let go of Nightingale’s arm so he could take it himself.  He heard Nightingale draw a sharp breath.  His own breath was long and deep.  And inside they walked, together.

Allons-y, encore.

“Well, well,” announced the sanctimonious accent of Directeur Michel Ste-Selin.  “Some of us doubted you possessed the resolve and the resource to accomplish this challenging mission, Monsieur De Navarre.  Yet here you are.”

Here they were indeed.  As Etienne had hoped, somewhat against hope if he was being honest, the three Directeurs sat together at their presiding table of varnished oak, finally unable to let their zeal at witnessing the capture of the infamous witch be tempered by something as inconsequential as the Bureau’s constitution.  Ste-Selin was in the middle, with Kadier Duforteste on the right shaking his head in surprise, and on the left ancient Theniard Preulx, looking a few days short of a thousand, his fading flesh energized by the gleaming sight of the elusive prize.  The podium in the center of the sunken floor before them had been removed, but the carrels around the sides of the room were fully staffed by the requisite clerks and secretaries.  Clearly this was a triumph to be recorded.  But four plainly armed guards flanked the Directeurs’ table, so at the same time it was not a triumph to be savored lightly.

“I am happy to disappoint you, Monsieur le Directeur,” Etienne said.

“Welcome to the Bureau Central Royale pour l’Enregistrement et la Réglementation des Questions Surnaturelles, Mademoiselle Nightingale,” said Ste-Selin.  “Bureau Centrale, if you will.  We have been looking forward to meeting you for some time.”

Nightingale said nothing.

“If my colleagues will grant me leave, I would like to examine the subject,” said Theniard Preulx.  At the nods of the others, he rose weakly from his chair, clutched at a pearl-handled white ash cane from where it had been leaning concealed behind the table, and lurched down a small flight of steps to the sunken floor.  There was no sound but for the tapping of the pointed ash stick on the tile and the incessant rapid scribbling of the clerks, apparently needing to describe each trivial action in exacting detail.  His withered spine unable to straighten, Preulx hobbled before Nightingale and eyed her from boots to brow, his sagging, wrinkled face twisted by a lascivious leer.  A gnarled, yellowed finger stabbed at her cheek, and Nightingale recoiled.  “Yes, yes,” the old man wheezed, “she is quite a ravishing beauty, isn’t she.”  His voice descended an octave, deep into the grave, and he spat his undying scorn at her with each syllable.  “You belong to the Bureau now, my dear sorceress.  All your mighty powers are for nothing.  I am looking forward to seeing you re-educated, personally.”  The tooth-spare mouth split into a horrifying grin, and he cackled to himself as he turned to resume his seat.  Nightingale looked as though she was choking back vomit.  Etienne knew that the feeble carnal musings of a filthy old man were the very least of the Bureau’s threats.

He stepped forward.  “I’ve done what you asked,” he said.  “I’ve delivered her to you.  Now, about what I was promised…”

The Directeurs leaned in to confer quietly with one another.  The clerks kept writing.  Etienne swallowed hard.  He could not pinpoint precisely what, but suddenly, something felt very, very wrong.

“Yes, of course,” said Ste-Selin.  “We do have an appropriate recompense arranged.”  He nodded to someone behind Etienne.

But there was no one behind Etienne.

Except–

No.

Corporal Valnier smashed him in the back of the head with the butt of his sword hilt.

Etienne heard Nightingale shriek as he crumpled to the ground.  The world spun, and he gasped at breath and rubbed where the blow had landed, his fingers coming away wet and sticky with blood.  He felt something cold and sharp under his chin.  Valnier’s blade.  Etienne sat back, slowly, and through a dizzy blur looked up into the face of the man who had accompanied him on every mission, followed every order, and remained unquestioningly loyal for five long years.  “Why…” was all he could force out.

For the first time since he’d known him, Valnier had more than two words for the moment, delivered with as much raw bile as anything from the mouth of a Directeur.  “You’re a traitor, monsieur.”

Funny thing about luck… even in Calerre, it always eventually ran out.

***