Vintage, Part Twenty

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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.

***

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