2015: A Year Off the Beaten Path

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys, cuddly little chimps that they are, prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 13,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Well, here we are all over again.  December 31st, a little less than 6 hours left in the year, and a man’s thoughts are entirely absent from the moment at hand, instead both reflecting and looking forward.  I wouldn’t say this was the greatest year of my life – it did have more than a generous share of challenges, and it departs largely unmourned and leaving much uncertainty in its wake as 2016 rolls up to take its place.  I don’t feel it’s necessary to elaborate more than that; I always think there should be a healthy distance between the words and the body that types them out, or rather, what I have to say is of more interest to the rest of you than what I or my family might be going through.  Anyway, nobody’s dying, nobody’s getting divorced, nobody’s shaving their body hair and moving to Nepal to join a monastery.  We row onward against the current, our boat no more or less special than anyone else’s.

So let’s look at the writing year that was 2015.  Not quite up to the productivity levels of years past.  That’s largely because I poured most of my efforts into Vintage, the little short serial that metamorphosed into a novel.  I was joking with my friend Joanne that it is symptomatic of my inability to get to the point.  It really did come as something of a surprise to me.  I wrote it without an outline or any plot of any sort, just a collection of scenes that turned out to have a fairly solid narrative spine underneath.  While I didn’t get to complete it this year as I had hoped, it should wrap up very shortly after January begins.  The question then is what to do with it.  I have thought of doing what Ksenia Anske does and leaving it here as a free download.  (There is a line in Live and Let Die where the villain opines that “when entering into a crowded marketplace it is advisable to give away free samples.”  Of course, he was talking about heroin, but given the oversaturation of material out there you do have to do whatever you can to get some notice.)  Anyway, we’ll see on that one.  It needs a decent cover first.  (My graphic design skills are crap.)  I know it probably hasn’t been to everyone’s taste, and it is kind of difficult to keep up with it as chapters are published on an irregular schedule, but I just wanted to thank everyone who has been reading it for the support.  If I’m a bit lackadaisical in responding to comments sometimes please know that I do appreciate every single person who takes the time.  I hope it’s been rewarding thus far, and I hope you like how it ends.  (If you are new to it and would like to catch up, you can read the whole thing start to finish by clicking the Wattpad icon to the right.)

A couple other points of note:  I was lucky enough to get the Freshly Pressed designation for the second time this year, for a post about Justin Trudeau’s majority government victory back in October.  (Given that my first Freshly Pressing was for a post about Justin Bieber, I should clearly be writing only columns about people named Justin from now on.  Look for pieces on Justin Timberlake and Justin Smoak coming soon.)  I was also fortunate to be asked by one of my favorite singers, Emilie-Claire Barlow, to review her latest album.  She sent me a wonderful note afterwards, the details of which I won’t share except to say that it was tremendously complimentary and meant a great deal to me.  One of the things that the Internet is great for is closing the distance between ourselves and those we admire in the public sphere, and as my most recent post about Carrie Fisher illustrates, I do wish that we could make greater use of the positive aspects of our digital closeness rather than always descending into the gutter to vent unnecessary spleen.

What lies ahead?  Well, I like to visualize my goals for the coming year by imagining what my Twitter biography will read.  “Author of XXXXX, rep’d by XXXXXX” would be a good start.  And call me a materialistic jackanape, but I’d love to actually get some sort of financial compensation for some of this work that I churn out.  I do have a few avenues in mind for that, so we’ll see how it plays out.  In the long form realm, I have a non-fiction book idea that I’ve spoken to my wife about collaborating on, a memoir about our journey to our adoption and our life since.  In the last few days I’ve been mulling over a YA love story about a girl who loves baseball and a boy who most definitely doesn’t.  I’d like to do more interviews with some of my online writer friends.  And I want to establish a more regular schedule of posting here and seeing what other sites out there besides HuffPost might deign to have me.  There’s no reason why I won’t be sitting here 365 days from now have accomplished all these things; it only requires dedication and commitment, and a stubborn belief in one’s own capacity for greatness given the right amount of hard work.

In the meantime, thank you as always for reading and subscribing, and following me wherever I choose to wander.  I hope that the new year brings you the things that you wish for and work for, and that next December finds our world in general in just a much nicer, happier place.

All the best.

Graham

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Shame on the body shamers

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I guess the goodwill couldn’t last too long.  Just as Star Wars:  The Force Awakens is being greeted by critical acclaim, record box-office earnings and praise for its compelling lead character, the dark side of fandom has arisen – very much like the movie’s First Order from the ashes of the Empire – and is blasting Carrie Fisher for her appearance, so much so that the actress/writer herself felt the need to respond through social media.  As you’ll see in the linked article, the troglodytes in question have then doubled down, suggesting a variation of “you were asking for it” by her agreeing to appear in the movie in the first place.

It is a morbidly fascinating phenomenon to witness the claiming of ownership of an entertainment franchise by certain segments of fans who blow collective gaskets when the newest installment does not meet every single one of their impossible expectations, or worse, dares to shake up the status quo.  Author Chuck Wendig received a taste of this when he met a backlash over including gay characters in his Star Wars novel Aftermath.  But even with that, Wendig wasn’t attacked for his looks, or, you know, succumbing to that virulent, merciless and entirely natural human process known as aging.

When it comes to women, all bets are apparently off.

Carrie Fisher is incredibly smart, razor-edge funny, breathtakingly courageous with her openness about her battles with depression, and has probably written more of the lines you quote to your buddies at the pub in her largely unheralded career as a script doctor than any other scribe alive today.  But Hollywood is notorious and has always been notorious for giving its women a limited shelf life depending on – and you’ll forgive the lewd expression – how fuckable they are perceived to be.  I think of a lot of actresses of her generation who inspired heavy panting back in the 80’s and 90’s – Daryl Hannah, Geena Davis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sharon Stone to name but a few – and wonder where they are now.  They’ve lost none of their talent, but the parts aren’t coming, despite male contemporaries continuing to land interesting and challenging roles.  Michael Douglas in his 70’s still appears in blockbusters in 2015 while his younger, but apparently not young enough wife Catherine Zeta-Jones is nowhere to be seen.  One of the most egregious examples I can think of is when Kathleen Turner, the voice of Jessica Rabbit, the famous femme fatale of Body Heat, was hired to play “Chandler’s father in drag” in an episode of Friends.  When you don’t sell posters or copies of Playboy anymore, this is what you are left with.  On the rare occasion you do get a chance for a plum part – usually as someone’s mother or a cackling villain – the response is, as we are seeing with Carrie Fisher here, clucked tongues questioning how you could let yourself go like that.

What is it about seeing an older Leia that struck such a disgruntled nerve?  We all know the infamous gold bikini from Return of the Jedi – for many young men of that era it was a sexually formative experience, but frankly there were plenty of other scantily-clad princesses in sci-fi and fantasy at the time, and you don’t often hear lingering reminisces of longing for Princess Ardala from Buck Rogers or Princess Karina from The Ice Pirates.   With Leia, perhaps it was the notion of a powerful female character being enslaved, literally chained up, that was the most appealing to those fertile young imaginations (he wrote, choking down his vomit).  Regardless, I’m not entirely sure, and Carrie Fisher has mused about this in her one-woman shows, why “Slave Leia” had to then create an implicit contract between her performer and millions of fanboys, that the person in the outfit was somehow obligated to look like that for the rest of her life, that her sexuality became the property of legions of strange men.  How she looks is really her business and no one else’s.  It may very well be the failing of male-driven Hollywood as it creates these images of lust-inducing goddesses without acknowledging the human reality beneath the makeup and the barely-there costumes and the pixels.  But these hopped-up keyboard warriors who have the gall to act as if they have been wronged, and then go and insult an accomplished woman from a safe perch behind proxy servers, are spectacularly nauseating.  Because, to put it bluntly:

CARRIE FISHER DOES NOT OWE YOU AN ERECTION.

Neither she, nor any other person who puts themselves in the public eye bears any responsibility to fulfill the sexual fantasies of every single person who happens to look at them.  When you buy a ticket to The Force Awakens, all Carrie Fisher owes you is a good performance, and in that, she delivers, bringing a quiet note of tragedy to what had once been an irrepressible character.  Perhaps that itself factors into disappointment with TFA Leia, that she is more subdued and less the forceful “your worshipfulness” than she is in the original trilogy.  Well, in character terms, 30 years of a life spent fighting a war you had hoped was over will do that.  More to the point though, Carrie Fisher was not under any compulsion to return to the front of the camera, and that she did it (and subjected herself to a rigorous diet and exercise regime first) speaks to her ultimate love of the character and the franchise and a level of caring for the fans that perhaps doesn’t always come across in her occasionally blunt interviews (remarks that, were she male, would pass unnoticed, like, I don’t know, EVERY SINGLE QUOTE Harrison Ford ever gave about Han Solo being boring).  And forget the comeback about whatever she was paid for her participation – do you have any idea what script doctors make?  She does not need the money that badly.  She could easily have sat this one out.

To soil yourself and fire demeaning remarks off into the Internet because the 2015 movie didn’t feature the 1983 actress is to betray a terrible sense of male privilege, as though the entire purpose of Princess Leia and by extension Carrie Fisher’s existence is to satisfy your desperate need for arousal by any means necessary.  It isn’t.   But apparently it’s okay to reduce her to that.  (I write this without expectation that my readers fall into this category, so kindly forgive the use of the figurative “you.”)  The success of The Force Awakens should have been celebrated as an unreserved triumph for Carrie Fisher and yet, the movie not yet three weeks in theaters, it is instead dragging out old issues that she’s struggled with her entire life.  She didn’t need this crap.  Where we should be talking about the movie’s story, style, message and impact, instead the discussion is being driven to its most trite level by the most juvenile of entitled voices, to the extent that Fisher herself felt the need to say something about it.  That’s disgraceful, and Star Wars fans everywhere owe her a collective apology – and a thank you for reminding us that even our imaginary heroes grow up.

It’s past time that we did too.

A Rey of Sunshine

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Be forewarned.  Star Wars spoilers ahead.

Again, in all caps, just so you’re clear.  MAJOR STAR WARS SPOILERS INSIDE.  ABANDON ALL HOPE OF REMAINING UNSPOILT, YE WHO VENTURE PAST THIS POINT.

One more time for those just joining us.  THIS POST WILL CONTAIN STAR WARS SPOILERS.

*hold music hums while you decide*

We all good?  Okay.  By reading on, you hereby agree to hold the author of this site harmless for any potential Star Wars-ruining experience that may occur, in perpetuity until the heat death of the universe.

I saw The Force Awakens yesterday afternoon.  When you hit your fifth decade of life, and you’ve seen so many movies in those forty years that the tropes and cliches of cinematic storytelling have embedded themselves in your neural pathways to the point where your response to them becomes almost Pavlovian, you tend to approach any new theatrical venture, particularly one that has been so excessively hyped, with an unavoidable sense of cynicism.  Here we are now, you say warily, paraphrasing Kurt Cobain, entertain us.  And how often do you walk away feeling satisfied, or surprised?  Rather infrequently, I have to admit.  I enjoy the movies for what they are, but I always see the seams at the edges.  And I went into The Force Awakens with a healthy distrust of its director, J.J. Abrams, a man whose storytelling style relies primarily on frustratingly circular references to the movies he grew up watching, rather than any particular unique vision.

J.J., you sly, sly dog you.

Granted, one does not walk into the seventh installment of a 40-year-old movie franchise expecting mind-blowing originality (I certainly don’t expect it from Bond, my other great cinema love).  I did receive the anticipated reprises of old favorite characters and the homages and tributes to everything that has made the world love Star Wars all these years.  But what I also got, and what made me walk out of the theater with a broad, dumb smile on my face, was something that I’d been longing to see realized on screen for ages, and finding it in a Star Wars movie of all places was like the surprise toy inside the chocolate egg.  I knew too, that as happy as I was to discover this, there were millions of girls and women to whom it would mean so much more.  I’m happy for them most of all.

To wit:  the absolutely compelling character of Rey, played by English actress Daisy Ridley, is the center of the movie.  The “awakening” referred to in the title is hers.  She is brave, skilled, resourceful, determined, and over the course of the story, as her connection to the Force deepens, grows immensely powerful.  She has a past that is not spelled out for us but rather left as a tantalizing mystery.  She is no one’s love interest, and is not defined by her relationships with or unrequited longings for any particular man.  And she kicks tremendous ass, whether it’s outrunning TIE Fighters in a rusty old Millennium Falcon or confronting and defeating Dark Side villain Kylo Ren and saving Finn, the male character whom the movie’s poster and trailers would have you presume is the new Jedi of this trilogy.  (Abrams’ controversial “mystery box” promotion style has worked very well here, which is why again, I hope you’ve already seen the movie as you’re reading this.)  And Rey achieves all of these things without descending into sassy or sexualized caricature, or a neon sign flashing above her head reading “LOOK AT THIS AUDACIOUS, ENLIGHTENED STATEMENT OF FEMINISM WE MALE FILMMAKERS ARE MAKING.”

Rey just is who she is, and frankly, it’s glorious.

I’ve always found the term “empowered women” a bit troubling, as it suggests that women on their own are somehow without power.  Rather, it is better to say that a woman is powerful by her very nature as a woman.  Goes with the territory, folks.  And yet in science fiction and fantasy this is too often the exception and not the rule.  Looking back, there has never really been a good reason why in genre movies, women have not been able to take the forefront of the story, other than the increasingly outdated notion that the young boys who make up the presumed primary target demographic for this genre somehow won’t be interested in seeing girls buckle their swash, or that somehow casting a female lead means you have to turn the story into a pedestrian rom-com with true love as the object of the quest.

Instead, women are usually relegated to the secondary roles of eye candy, love interests or over-the-top man-hating villainesses, their characterizations as sketchy as the anatomically impossible poses in which they are often rendered in comic books.  Why have we had eighteen Marvel movies without a female lead?  Your guess is as good as mine, but it seems to stem largely from writers, producers and directors (and executives) unable to arrive at what feels like, in the light of The Force Awakens, should be a very obvious conclusion:  that women with power and agency won’t, in fact, scare men away from fantasy and science fiction movies.  They belong there, as much as the boys do, and audiences will thank you for it.  And yes, the dudes will love these characters too.

Thankfully, there have been huge exceptions of late that may be at last, softening this attitude.  Frozen was a story in the fantasy genre about the bond between two sisters (one with tremendous magical powers), with male characters shunted to the background, and it only became the highest-grossing animated movie of all time.  As I write this The Force Awakens has already become the fastest movie to hit $300 million at the box office, and I’ll wager here and now that it will eventually blast past Avatar and take its place on top of the all-time list.  Because audiences love Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie, but it’s Rey’s story they are going to want to see again and again.

There has been some criticism of her, centering largely on the speed with which she acquires her Force abilities in the movie without any training, and suggesting that this pushes her into Mary Sue territory.  I would suggest that there are two responses to this, one “in-universe” and another examining the broader question.  The in-universe explanation is found in a line from the very first movie, where Luke and Ben are discussing the Force and noting that while it obeys your commands, it also controls your actions.  The Force is sentient and has an awareness of when people’s greed and lust for power has pushed it out of balance, so it creates what it needs to set the universe right again.  Rey’s awakening is in response to the rising threat represented by dark-sider Kylo Ren and his mysterious master Snoke, and the speed at which it happens is perhaps a reflection of the urgency with which it is needed.  (And it also makes for the movie’s best scene in which Rey tries the Jedi Mind Trick on a Stormtrooper played by a very famous actor in disguise…)

You could also suggest that Rey is just that damn gifted, which is where the Mary Sue question comes in, and my answer to that is, so effing what?  In how many movies across how many genres have we seen preternaturally skilled guys?  How many times have we seen a young male screw-up transformed into an unstoppable fighting machine in the space of a five-minute training montage?  Why is this somehow more valid storytelling technique than seeing it happen to a woman?  Yes, Rey may be in some ways an expression of wish fulfillment for fangirls, but thanks to some great writing (by Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan) and Daisy Ridley’s magnetic performance she doesn’t come off like that, and even if she does, I fail to see why this is a bad thing.  We gents have plenty of examples on our side to choose from.  I’d love to see more women like Rey in genre films, treated with all the maturity and complexity that those characters deserve, and I’m glad that the gauntlet has been thrown down.  All those involved with her creation deserve accolades.  (It should also be noted that The Force Awakens passes the Bechdel Test too.)

I’ve come to know a fair number of women through social media who are big genre fans, and I’m excited to read what they thought of Rey.  I imagine they’ll be able to articulate what Rey means to girls and women far better than I possibly could, so I’ll sign off for the time being and let them take the stage and enjoy their well-deserved moment.  And I will wait with bated breath for Episode VIII and the joy of discovering where Rey’s story takes her next, my faith in the ability of the movies, and genre movies in particular, to surprise me renewed, and hungry for more.

Vintage, Part Twenty-Three

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Once upon a time, as a winter night’s frozen rain tumbled onto the lucky city of Calerre, a sorceress ran, and men pursued her.

Her name was Elyssia de Navarre.  It was her married name.  One that she had accepted with joy and trust and love.  In the span of a few years, it had become a shackle.  It tied her to a life and a man that existed for the sole purpose of crushing her spirit.  In the beginning it had been beautiful, and she had surrendered to romance and promises and dreams on the cusp of coming true.  However, he had forgotten that love was a journey, not a prize.  Complacency and cynicism had taken his eye away from her and from the precious son they had made together.  They had led him to seek his solace at the bottom of bottles and in the beds of less complicated women.  Elyssia had been too trusting for her own good, she recognized that now.  She had hoped that loving him enough, and the desperate need of a son for his father, would bring back the man he had once been, bring him back to her.  Others had often told her that her faith in the innate goodness of people was her greatest weakness, and she had always asserted, sometimes angrily, that it was a greater strength than any magic she might possess.

The barking of dogs caromed off the spires of brick looming over the sorceress’ head.  Boots stumbled through icy puddles that shot bolts of cold up numb, weary legs.

Elyssia never liked referring to herself as a sorceress.  She understood that it was the proper appellation for those relatively few women like her whose innate magical ability and potential was much more than that of a witch, but sorceress had always felt like an occupation, or worse, a definition.  This is all that you are and no more.  Accordingly her relationship with her powers had always been troubled, if that was the best way to describe pretending for most of her life that she did not have them.  Hers was a common story, especially where a whiff of idle suspicion could bring officers of the Bureau Centrale through your door before the day was out.  The choice was to hide who you were or take up the fight.  Either meant living under constant fear, but the former option at least held the promise of more time.  Elyssia was not a fighter.  She craved simplicity, the peace of tea in her garden at sunset while children laughed and played at her feet.  Some might label her a coward for that, but those people would never grapple with her specific moral quandary:  knowing you could silence a thousand heartbeats with a wave of your hand did not make the prospect of actually doing it any more appealing – no matter who those people were and what they had done to those like you.  She could not foresee any situation in which getting involved would not make things worse.  Instead, Elyssia chose to keep to herself.  She may have had the powers of a sorceress, but she would not be a sorceress.

The street dead-ended at an empty wall.  The shouts from the men grew louder, penning her in and frightening anyone who might have been inclined to help her back behind the immediate safety of their locked doors.  Frantic eyes peered through strings of auburn hair drenched dark by the rain for another avenue, anything she could use to keep moving.

The quiet life Elyssia had craved, the one she thought she had secured when she married Reynand de Navarre, danced out of reach.  She would keep the home and tend to her little garden and smile at the sensation of their child growing in her belly, but nary a day went by when she was not reminded of the secret self she guarded with meticulous care.  She tamed the temptation to use magic to remedy daily burdens easily enough, but when friends would confess their tribulations to her in a flurry of tears, just as she imagined helping them with a spell they would regurgitate the Bureau’s propaganda in the same breath.  Or, there would be news of local witches being arrested and harsh new laws being rushed to royal assent to combat this rising epidemic.  She would often question herself for choosing to live among these people as one of them, for coveting respect from small minds, when she knew she was so much more.  On nights when Reynand did not come home, she would lie awake searching the face of the bright amber moon and listening to the rush of blood in her ears, her veins alight with power, surging and begging for a glorious release.  She longed to throw open the window and hurl herself into the sky, to soar over their rooftops, to bring a surprise dawn to the Baie des Lanciers by way of blossoms of light tossed from her fingers with gleeful abandon.  Magic was her gift, her birthright.  Why should she refuse to embrace it?

Pellets of ice fell faster and hit harder.  Shouts and boots blared harder still.  They were close.  Elyssia created a sphere of warmth about herself to hold the rain at bay.  She gestured at the impassable wall before her and caused aged stone and mortar to warp and bend itself out of her way.  It parted like an obedient curtain to create a passage through to the next street.  She drew a veil of mist and fog from the air to obscure her trail.

The arrival of little Etienne forced Elyssia to abandon her ambivalence about her magic.  The premature birth had been difficult for both, and only the stronger constitution of a sorceress allowed them to survive it.  He was a wisp of child, susceptible to every illness that blew through the city on shadowed wings.  Too much of his father in him, she thought.  Realizing that he would not see his first birthday if she did not intervene, Elyssia set aside her old vow and began using her powers to heal him, to bolster his strength with hers.  She slipped spells into soups and goodnight kisses, and when he stumbled and scraped his knee, her comforting touch made the wound vanish.  Reynand, who had never known of his wife’s special abilities, remained ignorant.  If he had any doubts, they were doused so frequently in drink that it did not matter.  Ironically, when he was sober, he could be a doting father, and in those moments Elyssia dared to hope that their family would grow against odds to become what she had always wanted it to be.  But all it did was advance an impending and terrible choice.

They were waiting for her on the other side.  Over a hundred men hunted for her, and they had cordoned off the entire arrondissement to seal her within.  Elyssia’s hands glowed with golden light as she stared down the line of soldiers.  Swords up, they charged, and her fingers spat streams of fire and lightning at them.  Screeches and wails of pain erupted from every man who was struck down.  She waved her arms and swept the wounded from her path like so many fragile motes of dust.  But a second wave came, and a third, and then the arrows began to fly…

She never knew who had betrayed her.  Perhaps she had simply become too careless about using her magic.  Maybe the neighbors had begun to wonder about the implausible bounty from their tiny garden, or the Navarres’ perpetual immunity to the frequent outbreaks of disease in their quartier.  It did not really matter.  One morning Reynand was accosted in the street by a pair of Bureau sergeants and brought in for interrogation at their dread headquarters on Chemin des Fougères.  Elyssia thought he had just disappeared on one of his drinking binges.  When he finally stumbled home after being released two days later he was shaken and confused.  She had done too well at hiding her true self from him, as he had been able to tell the Bureau’s questioners nothing of value, and he could not comprehend why they had taken him in the first place.  Elyssia knew enough about the Bureau to realize that once their suspicions were aroused, appearances to the contrary they would not be swayed until they made an arrest.  They were probably watching the home now, and her.  Etienne was on the floor playing with his toys, and he laughed at something he was doing, and Elyssia had to bite into her lip to silence her tears.

The first arrow took her in the shoulder.  Teeth of fire clamped down and spun her around.  Elyssia disintegrated the arrow with a flash from her fingertip and pressed her palm against the wound to heal it.  A second strike gored into her lower back.  Wincing, she threw her hands up and unleashed a wave of probing golden light into the air, intending it to paralyze the unseen archers.  Cries tumbled from the rooftops, followed by a handful of bodies, but the barrage of arrows did not stop.  Two more cut the air, piercing her thigh and her calf.  They were being careful to avoid fatal shots, but she could not heal herself fast enough before more volleys came.  She collapsed.  Elyssia let the power fade from her hands.  She sat still in the cold and the wet, bleeding, thinking of her son.

When the moment came for her to make the decision to leave, Elyssia agonized over whether or not to take little Etienne with her.  She had already chosen her route:  north, over the border where the Bureau could not follow, where it was storied that witches could walk freely, that the laws were far more permissive regarding magic.  Elyssia had persuaded a sympathetic driver to take her out of the city, but from there it was some fifteen hundred miles through the worst of winter’s bite with Bureau eyes in every town and outpost on the way.  Even with her powers it would be an arduous, perilous journey.  Not one for a little boy.  What did it say about the country when the safest place for a child was with his drunkard, philandering father and not his loving sorceress mother?  As she kissed him good night for the last time, Elyssia whispered a promise into Etienne’s sleeping ears that whatever the cost, she would see him again.  She blessed him with a final spell to keep him safe until that day.  She slipped out the back door and stole away into the night as boreal wind turned rain to sleet.

Bureau soldiers swarmed over her with prodding hands.  They wrenched her arms behind her back and cuffed her wrists with iron chain.  Then they gagged her with a scratchy burlap strip whose knot dug into the base of her skull.  Elyssia sucked at precious whiffs of icy air through it.  The soldiers formed a circle about her and trained their weapons on her.  They were smart.  First in intercepting her driver before she could make contact, then the chase, now in the capture.  She might be able to free herself from the bonds, but they would fill her with arrows before she could take one liberated step.  She heard the clopping of horses’ hooves and the whine of carriage wheels, the click of a door being opened and the wet thud of boots onto puddled stone.  The soldiers stepped aside for this new arrival.  He did not wear a Bureau or Armée uniform.  He approached slowly and crouched beside her.  Even in the limited orange light from the soldiers’ torches, Elyssia could see the cold, clinical mind behind his eyes, the total absence of compassion.  She stopped thinking of Etienne and began to fear for herself.  “Bonsoir, ma belle Madame de Navarre,” the man said without emotion.  In an obvious imitation of a tenderness he clearly did not possess he brushed a lock of her hair away from her cheek.  She tried to recoil.  He grinned.  “My name is Girard,” he told her.  “You and I will be spending a lot of time together.”

An older Girard Noeme stood next to a still young Elyssia de Navarre, and as he had done that night so many years before, brushed a lock of her now-bright silver hair away from the pale cheek that bore such ferocious scarring.  Etienne’s mother did not react to the affectionate gesture.  Her expression remained both blank and intense, with tiny tendrils of white mist seeping up from her unblinking eyes.  “What have you done to her?” Etienne pleaded.

“I have created my own goddess,” Noeme said.  “Through years of proper conditioning, select and methodical application of a variety of techniques of inducement, some mental, some… surgical.”  He admired the long scars on the shaved side of her head.  “A goddess must be bereft of petty human concerns such as attachment, empathy, kindness… love.  When you succeed in stripping away those frivolous, inhibiting traits, all you are left with is power.  Pure and invincible.”  He smiled at his creation.  “She is magnificent, isn’t she?  Your mother’s powers have enabled me to achieve far more for the Bureau than I had dreamed possible.  And without me, she would never have shed her burdensome human failings and evolved into this perfect higher being.  It does so often take a man to help a woman realize her true measure of greatness, doesn’t it?”

Etienne recalled the rage Serge Meservey had shown him on the bridge in Charmanoix.  He estimated, generously, that whatever Meservey had been feeling was about a tenth of what he was experiencing now.  He could not bring himself to look at his mother, regardless of how much he longed to after thinking she had been dead these many years.  Etienne could not begin to imagine how horribly she must have suffered at the hands of the merciless Bureau scientists who beat her and starved her and sliced into her with their filthy scalpels, to manufacture this abomination for Noeme’s use and amusement.  Etienne did not doubt either that the garish manner in which she was attired and made up – the clinging, tattered black clothing, the talons lacquered silver to resemble mirrors – reflected Girard Noeme’s preferences as well.  It was not enough, apparently, to make her into a mindless slave.  She had to be an object of desire for him as well.  The taste of sick, irredeemable hatred charred Etienne’s mouth, stoked further with the acid boiling up from his stomach.  “You loathsome bastard,” he spat out.  

Noeme only smiled.  “You are as much a creation of mine as she is, mon gars.  Except you were far, far easier to persuade.  Did you know, on that first day, when you were undergoing your first test, which you passed so brilliantly, that your mother was being conditioned in the room directly below where you were sitting?  She did put up quite the fight in the beginning.  Killed more than a few of my men in the process.  It took a decade of constant, tireless work.  But eventually she broke.  Now she is mine to command as I please, as you were.  And there is just one final matter to attend to.”

Noeme looked up at Nightingale, suspended unconscious in chains over the table, and his smile inverted itself.  “Nature’s insistence on balance can be so very frustrating,” he said.  “The more powerful your mother became, the more weapons she fashioned for me, the more this… pest would pop up, rescuing others, defeating Bureau officers, thwarting my careful plans.  Nightingale’s very existence counters your mother’s magic like a weight balances a scale.  It prevents me from concluding the war on my terms.  But your misguided crusade brought her before me.”  He faced Etienne again.  “Once my goddess has drained every last drop of magic from your precious Nightingale, there will be no one left to interfere.  Her power will be absolute.  She will take command of every single mind in this country and turn them as one against the witches.  Imagine it, mon gars.  A entire nation transformed into an army.  Lords, peasants, barons and slaves.  Old men.  Children.  Four million people.  They will all become my loyal soldiers.  And with the arsenal you see around you they will slaughter every single witch who yet draws breath.  You will both be witness to this glorious victory.”  He leaned closer.  “Once it is done, I will have my goddess seize your mind and command you to kill your love.  Nightingale will beg and plead and weep, and you will bury one of my blades in her throat.”

“I’ll gut you with it.  Just as I did Meservey,” Etienne snarled.

Noeme shook his head.  “Ah, poor Serge.  These weapons were his idea, you know.  Imaginative man.  Such a pity he can’t be here to share in this.  Perhaps we should drink to his memory when this is over, hmm?”  He looked at Elyssia and pointed to Nightingale, then stood aside to watch.

Puppeted by Noeme’s strings, Elyssia obediently raised both arms and stretched her fingers.  Air sizzled as barbed golden lightning flew from beneath silver fingernails and skewered Nightingale’s floating form.  Nightingale snapped awake.  She shook and contorted and moaned, fighting both the onslaught of the spell and the grip of the chains that held her.  Elyssia’s strike burrowed deep, and suddenly violet light erupted from every pore on Nightingale’s body, spiraled into the gold and began to flow in an accelerating stream back into Elyssia’s open palms.  Nightingale’s magic was being stolen from her, ripped away exactly as Noeme said.  The witch’s terrible cries touched the stone rafters.

Etienne clambered to his feet.  “Maman,” he begged.  “Mother, please.  Stop this.”

Elyssia ignored him as one would disregard a speck of lint on a lapel.  Etienne could see the purple glow that was the manifestation of Nightingale’s magic flowing into his mother’s veins beneath her skin.  She was drawing on Nightingale to augment her own strength.  In a matter of moments, Nightingale would be rendered an ordinary woman and Elyssia would become too powerful for anyone to stop.  Noeme’s nightmare endgame would proceed unchecked.  The witches of the world would be massacred, cut down without hesitation or remorse by their own fathers, brothers and sons.

Their last hope was a man who once would have happily endorsed this plan.

“Please, mother,” he said again.  “It’s Etienne.  Listen to me.  This isn’t you.  You don’t have to do this.”  He reached out to touch her arm.  Heat scorched his fingertips.

Elyssia’s dark-stained lips simpered fleeting annoyance, her eyes flashed hot white, and Etienne was catapulted across the room.  Cement tile greeted his backside by shooting a razor-edged spear up his spine and down into his feet.  He rolled twice and came to rest in a mass of bruises and scrapes twenty feet from the dining table.  Noeme’s voice taunted him from afar.  “Don’t waste your breath, mon gars!  She doesn’t even know who you are.  A goddess has no time for mortal distractions.”

Futility gnawed at Etienne as Nightingale’s cries filled his ears.  He had nothing he could use to help her, nothing to disable his mother.  Here he was, in a cavern filled to bursting limits with weapons crafted for use specifically against magic, and he could not get to a precious dagger without being noticed.  High in the air, Nightingale’s body spasmed into a blur as Elyssia continued siphoning away her power.  Golden lightning flared, reflected in the silverware still arranged neatly across the table, still waiting for a non-existent dinner to be served.

Etienne cocked his head.  The forks and knives and spoons did look remarkably similar to the metal of the blades.  Was it possible?  Did Noeme have Elyssia create these for him as well, or were they simply well varnished?  To dine on the ashes of your enemy with utensils of the same metal from which you made your swords; a cultured man like Girard Noeme would appreciate the irony.  The bet was on whether Noeme’s poetic sense outweighed his common sense.

The stake was Nightingale’s life.

Part of him still resisted doing anything to harm the woman who had given birth to him, no matter what she had become.  None of this was her fault.  He had to convince himself that it was not Elyssia de Navarre standing there.  It was Girard Noeme’s vile, perverted redrafting of her by endless experimentation and torture into a vessel of his will.  A foreign persona grafted onto her body.

That, he could kill.

Silently asking forgiveness, Etienne charged toward his mother.  In a single motion he scooped a carving knife from the edge of the table and flipped it to his other hand.  No turning back, no stopping his momentum.  He brought it down, hard, through the tattered black sleeve, into the pale flesh of Elyssia’s raised left arm.

The first sound he heard from his mother in twenty years was a scream of pain.

Magic died on Elyssia’s fingertips.  The spell suspending Nightingale collapsed.  She crashed to the table, tumbled off its side in a ringing cascade of shattered porcelain and glass and lay still.

Blue sparks leapt from Elyssia’s wound as blood seeped through her hand.  She clawed at it, an uncomprehending grimace souring her empty expression.  The smell of burning metal tainted the air as the knife crumbled into gray ash beneath her fingers.  Cold glowing eyes veered to target Etienne.  “Maman, je…” he whispered.  She drowned the rest of his plea by turning her dark powers against him.

Etienne’s legs buckled and he splayed out onto the floor, limbs crooked at unnatural angles.  In his twelve years of battling witches, he’d never suffered an attack this intense before, and he was wholly unprepared for the deafening pain that went with it.  Elyssia’s lightning stabbing through him was like thousands of searing, giant steel needles boring into his bones, but it was more than a physical assault.  He could feel his emotions under siege as well, his sense of hope being perforated by those same needles and an overwhelming sorrow and darkness closing in on his heart, as if one could be revisited in an instant by the accumulated sins of an entire life.  Images of the countless women he had ordered to their deaths flooded his thoughts one after another, after another.  So many faces.  So much regret.  He could feel life slipping from his grip, drawn inexorably into a greedy, encompassing blackness, and as he had long feared, waiting for him there was a giant, aching nothing.  Worse still, he knew he deserved it.

Beyond the deluge of energy suffocating him he could pick out his mother’s face.  She was approaching and intensifying her spell with each step.  There was still no sign of recognition, of any sense from her that she knew whom she was killing.  Noeme’s face was there too, over her wounded shoulder, and Etienne could see him shaking his head, mouthing “mon gars” again before turning away, refusing to bear witness to his death, leaving it as a private moment for a mother and her son.  Etienne thought that between the penetrating forks of gold light, he saw a faint hint of pleasure twist her lips.  Perhaps Elyssia de Navarre was truly gone.  He resigned himself to whatever was to come.

A blast of purple cut across his view.  Elyssia was struck in the stomach and flung hard through the nearest stack of weapons.  The force of her body’s impact tilted and toppled the massive unit back, pouring dozens of swords and other gear onto the floor around her with wooden cracks and metallic clatters.  Etienne gasped at his release from her attack.  Noeme merely gasped.

Nightingale.

She was alive, seemingly unhurt, and still a force, despite the effect of Elyssia’s draining spell.  But she was breathing more heavily than usual, and traces of sweat beaded across her brow.

The witch’s hands simmered with strands of spent violet light as she let them fall to her sides.  She went immediately to Etienne to hoist him from the floor.  Etienne’s head was spinning and his leg muscles had the fortitude of meringue, but he managed to remain vertical.  They had not a moment to reassure each other, however, as Elyssia burst free of the wreckage entombing her and lifted herself high above it, ominous golden energy spinning about her arms, white eyes narrowing with intent onto Nightingale.  Girard Noeme grinned, pivoted and scurried off into a darkness that welcomed him.

“Go,” Nightingale told Etienne.  “I’ll handle your mother.”

Etienne nodded.  No spare seconds for a kiss for luck either.  He ran after Noeme.

Once upon a time, as soldiers waged war above them, far below the world a determined man chased the devil, while behind him, two mighty goddesses rose into the air to do battle.

* * *

Vintage, Part Twenty-Two

vintagetitle

If I announce here that this will be finished by the end of 2015, I’m committed, right?  I have no choice, right?

The scariest stories Etienne had ever heard about the notion of an afterlife were absent the trite tropes of fire and lava and demons with forked tails.  What terrified him more was the idea that instead of an inconceivable nightmare of ceaseless torture, there was simply nothing.  An utter, hopeless void, without form and without end, in which there were no ears to hear the futile cries of the condemned.  He didn’t think that he and Nightingale had descended deep enough to touch that dread abyss, but they might as well have.  The universe seemed to vanish beyond the threshold of the lift doors, and out there was pitch, empty and silent.  Yet it was not an utter void.  A faint wind whistled across it, carrying on its back the frigid, oily scent of varnished metal.  There was something in the black, something manmade.  Etienne hazarded a step forward.  His boot heel clicked on smooth granite, and an echoing clap answered from miles in the distance.

He looked to the witch.

Light raced from Nightingale’s open palm out over the vast darkness of sub-level six, touching every corner and giving mercifully finite form to its still immense span.  The floor was tiled over by human hands, but the ceiling, rising a good hundred feet above their heads, bore the natural ragged contours of a great cave hollow, a pocket scraped out eons ago from the interior of the world and left undisturbed until the Bureau discovered it.  They had wasted no time in putting this secret to use.  Rows and columns of thin steel girders forged into stacked shelving units reached out across the floor like an endless field of somber, imposing obelisks.  Each was taller than most buildings, the highest levels attainable only by bird.  What they held was what Etienne had expected.  And far more.

Weapons.  Staggering, uncountable quantities of weapons.  Made of the magic-vanquishing silvered metal that birthed fear in witches even as powerful as the one who walked alongside him.  There were the swords and the arrows and the daggers, of course, but as Etienne and Nightingale delved deeper into the aisles between towering stacks, they happened upon variants and other peculiar instruments crafted from an imagination far more perverse, edging on ice-blooded genius.  Collars with inward-facing blades, whips with razors tied at the end of each flail, coffin-sized cages lined with spikes, high stools with pyramid-shaped seats angled to a probing point.  Etienne could not fathom the purpose of half of them, other than inflicting the greatest possible amount of pain.  These were the sorts of things that went on in those many rooms with the locked doors in the building above.  Etienne could feel the heat emanating from Nightingale’s body as she seethed at the sight.  Had he the stomach to eat anything in the last day or so, it would have been pooling in chunks on the floor in front of him by now.

They had reached the beating, rotted, remorseless heart of the Bureau Centrale, and it was larger and more chambered and tentacled than he, than anyone, could have envisioned.

“There is enough here to supply three countries’ worth of armies,” Etienne declared, amplified by cold reverb.  In the approximately eighteen minutes left to them before the arrival of the Armée Royale, their greatest efforts to eliminate this stockpile would amount to a mere scratch to the toe of a giant.  Indeed, he realized then he had vastly underestimated the scale of the Bureau’s plans for the witches of the world.  “They’re not going to stop at the border.”

“There are plenty of other nations that would welcome the help,” Nightingale said.  “We’re standing on the brink of a genocide.  Of all witches, everywhere.”

Invisible weight pressed down on their shoulders.

Etienne reached into the nearest shelf and extracted an elegant rapier from the rack.  Its hilt was bedecked with spiraling rings inlaid with clear jewels.  Nightingale inched back from the weapon while Etienne stepped clear and took a few swings.  The blade was light, but it cut the air with a firmness that belied its weight.  A certain element of precise craftsmanship had gone into its creation, not a trait he would have associated necessarily with the function-over-form design sensibilities of the loud, loutish Commissionaire Meservey.  Serge’s sole direction would have been to hurry up and forge it already so he could begin killing things with it.  Rather, this spoke of patience, and of a refined sense of taste, even snobbery.  “I don’t understand how they could make so many,” Etienne said.  “How many witches would it take to create all this?”

“Hundreds,” said Nightingale.  “Thousands, maybe.”

“Where are they, then?”

Nightingale had no answer for him.  Instead they moved on to the next row, both growing somewhat inured to the cringing disgust that festered further at the glimpse of every new shelf bulging with spell-formed instruments of death.  Etienne was ever conscious of the seconds ticking away on his pocket watch.  He paused to give the occasional thought to Le Taureau and his small band of men fighting the Bureau’s soldiers, high over their heads.  He and Nightingale needed to act soon.

“Etienne,” she said abruptly.  He had not noticed she had wandered away.  He found her waiting at the edge of the last row, staring off into the crags of bedrock that formed the southern wall of the hollow.  A small antechamber had been gouged from the stone – small being a relative term, as it was roughly the size of a house – and inside, instead of steel trestles clutching weapons, were wooden racks lovingly cradling dozens of bottles, each prized selection with its own slightly tilted and protected niche.

Hell had its own wine cellar.

Etienne swallowed a nervous laugh before daring to peruse the preferences of the damned.  “Roucel pinot grise ‘23,” he read off, his eyes widening at each new discovery.  “White Pear Hipolytte.  Lamadere Bin 38.  Cru Breauxdon.  Château Montpicher.  And is that…”  He removed a rose-tinted glass bottle from its perch and thumbed dust from the label.  “Cygne Reine Première réserve.  Dear dieux.  This is based on a harvest from over five hundred years ago.  There are only two bottles of this known to exist.”  Etienne found it difficult to suppress a degree of giddiness; perhaps it was a trace of his old, more frivolous self bubbling up.  “These are the rarest vintages in the world.  This is perhaps the greatest single collection of wine I’ve ever seen.”

Nightingale offered him folded arms.  “Lovely.  What is it doing here?”

“One never knows when one might be entertaining esteemed company,” said a new voice.

At the midpoint of the entire hollow, the columns of weapon stacks were separated by a much wider aisle, and planted in the very center of that aisle was, of all things, a long formal dining table fashioned of dark, lacquered teak.  Service was set for three in silver and porcelain, and high-backed, viridescent velour-draped chairs waited at each place.  A dozen tapered wicks set in silver candlesticks cast a surrounding sphere of amber radiance.  Attending at the head of the table, clad comfortably in a closed collar, almond-hued buttonless dinner jacket, was a man Etienne had not seen in years, yet so indelibly etched into memory were his features that recognition was instant, if stupefying.  There were more lines on his face now, and time had collected all stubborn color from his hair and left it a pale and thinning gray.  He had that same relaxed posture and indifferent grin, though, reminding those who met him that he still did not give a damn about anything, and would remain utterly imperturbable regardless of whether he was greeting a new recruit or slashing an innocent witch’s throat.

Girard Noeme.

“You will join me, won’t you, Etienne?” Noeme called out.  “If you’d like to try that Cygne, I have the other bottle open here.  It’s been breathing for almost a day.  Just about ready to serve.”

Etienne returned his bottle to its nook.  He read loud protest in Nightingale’s eyes.  He tried to deliver quiet confidence with his own, and he led them to the table, his far less convinced gut twisting inside out as they walked a deliberate pace.  Flashes of his first meeting with Noeme burst across his mind:  the starving girl pleading with Etienne as he consumed a sumptuous meal in front of her, Noeme killing her without breaking conversation.  In an organization renowned for its ruthlessness, Girard Noeme was the paragon; a man who could murder as easily as he drew breath, whose mannered etiquette veiled a total absence of empathy.

Traits Etienne knew he had once regarded with gushing admiration.

Having Nightingale’s magic at his side now offered him no comfort as they approached the table.  Etienne’s fingers trembled.  He closed them into fists.

“Mademoiselle Nightingale,” Noeme said, affecting a deep, ritually respectful bow.  “It is a pleasure to meet you at long last.”

Nightingale did not return the greeting.  She had seen Etienne’s memories.  She was aware of what kind of man this was.

“And you, Etienne,” Noeme added.  “Mon gars, you have never failed to impress me.  Please, be seated, both of you.”  Neither moved.  “Ah.”  Noeme removed a watch from his breast pocket.  It was identical to Etienne’s own.  “Yes, you’re concerned about the Armée.  They are still sixteen minutes away.  I require no more than five minutes of your time, then you may do as you will, and you will still have a comfortable window to escape.  Presuming, of course, that you have come here to kill me.”

Etienne did not reply.  Noeme shrugged.  “No matter.  If that is your decision, then you will at least allow me to depart this world with its most glorious flavor saturating my lips.  Please.”

He gestured at the empty chairs again.  Etienne lowered himself into the one to Noeme’s left, never taking his eyes from the elder man.  He nodded to Nightingale to do the same.  He could taste her revulsion on the cold metal air.  The candles offered light but not a hint of warmth.

Noeme smiled.  He lifted an open rose-tinted bottle and inhaled from its neck.  “There it is,” he said.  “Numerous, subtle changes in the bouquet inform the studied drinker that the wine is ready to be poured.  Do you know, Etienne, Nightingale, that this vintage has a special significance to us?”  They did not answer, so he circled the table and filled their glasses.  “The Cygnet Queen is the spiritual mother to the Bureau.  The only witch to ever sit the throne of this great country, and the impetus for our founding.  When her husband King Auguste discovered her sorceries, he had her favorite wine poisoned:  the Première réserve from their private vineyards.  For a time afterwards no one dared taste this beautiful concoction for fear they had acquired one of the infamous tainted bottles.  In truth only one of them ever was tampered with, but that didn’t stop the braggards of the day drinking it and boasting that they were immune.  Surviving a glass of Cygne became a test of a man’s character.  The idea being that a man would be strong enough to endure what surely would kill a witch.”

Noeme returned to his seat, seized his glass by the stem and turned it slowly between his fingers, letting candlelight refract through the crystal and the rich blood red.  Etienne speculated on the man’s thoughts – what must it be to know you had arrived at your final few minutes of life?  “I will tell you all you wish to know, provided you share this drink with me,” Noeme said.  He detected immediately the lack of enthusiasm on the part of his listeners.  “Mon gars, I am not so foolish to think I gain anything by tricking you at this point.  The mademoiselle may watch for anything amiss and take appropriate action, if that sets your worries at ease.  Don’t tell me you don’t want at least a sip of a five hundred year-old wine.  In this last hour, let us test our character together.”

“You have none worth testing,” Nightingale snapped.  She was a model of restrained anger, her emotions swelling into waves of power pooling at her fingertips, sparking to be unleashed.

Noeme’s grin fell from his face as swiftly as if he had dropped it.  “Cherie, I have commanded a massive organization dedicated to protecting this country for over thirty years.  From enemies who could fling me aside like a broken doll with a snap of their fingers, but whom instead I have made quiver in mortal terror at the very mention of my organization’s name.  I have forced your kind into the shadows and under the rocks, into a small, very dark place where sleep does not come.  If you cannot acknowledge the sheer force of will and the absolute, unwavering commitment required to achieve that, then perhaps you do not understand the nature of character.”

“You are the leader of the Bureau Centrale,” Etienne announced plainly.

Noeme laughed.  “The trio upstairs are interesting diversions, though, are they not?  Most days they truly believe they are the Directeurs.  No, the Bureau’s power has always been in manipulating thoughts and creating perceptions, you know this.  Convincing a vastly superior force that they should surrender to us has been our most successful manipulation of all.  We are closer now to a complete victory than we have ever been.”  Giddiness swarmed him at the thought.  Etienne could see Nightingale’s knucklebones tense under the skin of her fingers clutching the arm of her chair.

“A victory won with weapons made by magic,” Etienne said.  “Using the very power that the Bureau claims to abhor and guard against.  While you watch in plain sight, from the cover of the role of a lowly sous-adjoint directeur.  I do admit it’s clever.  Dénégation plausible and all that.”

“We all answer to someone in the end,” Noeme said with a smirk.  “I’d like to share something with you both.  You’ll find this most interesting, you especially, mademoiselle.  If there is a theme to be found in my life, such as it is, it is the pursuit of understanding.  Our world as we experience it is a construction of chaos and confusion.  Random misfortune, cruel fate, see it as you will, it speaks of a profound failure, even refusal of men to comprehend what drives existence.  And yet if you study nature the truth is revealed to you in the smallest details.  Growth and decay, predator versus prey, there is a definite, deliberate purpose hiding inside the anarchy.  All goes forth to achieve balance.  The weak feed the strong, but even the strong can and must be cut down from time to time to maintain balance.  The forest will grow wild and then burn to ash.  Conquerors will slaughter a primitive tribe and then be decimated by invisible disease.  The world always finds a way.”

Noeme rested his head against the back of the chair, but as he went on, he leaned further and further forward, his stare more intense.  “When I was young and I learned of magic for the first time I was terrified, of course, but I was also fascinated, by the notion that one gender, and not the other, could possess such dramatic powers.  This whole concept seemed antithetical to the idea of balance.  It was infuriating in its contradictions.  My intellect could not accept it, I struggled for years to rationalize it.  I read any literature I could on the subject.  Folklore, scientific papers, hundreds of years’ worth of writings from the world over, trying to answer the question.  But I could not.  There always seemed to be some mysterious element missing from the equation, preventing it from balancing out.  Madness clutched at me in my inability to understand.”  He was hunched over the table now, the flickering of the flames throwing cavorting shadows over his face.

“Now, take our Cygne Reine here,” he said.  “Raise the glass, slowly, taste with your nose first, then your lips.  Let it pirouette over your tongue, let every precious note have its moment.  Currant and chocolate.  Plum, lavender, cedar and smoke.  Notice how they dance, syncopated, both together and apart, each taking his assigned part on the stage?  Contrasts and contradictions united masterfully in a greater whole.  Held in perfect balance.  Yet what is this without the hand of man, without his ingenuity, his patience, his determination?  Old grapes left to rot under a careless sun on a forgotten vine five hundred summers ago.  The more I grew to appreciate wine, the more I recognized what that missing element was.  The more I knew that in order to achieve a perfect understanding of the world, I must be that hand that forces it back into balance, regardless of process, regardless of cost.  I must tame –” — he pounded the table with his fist — “– this wild, unwanted force that calls itself magic.”

Nightingale interrupted.  “Murder it, you mean.”

In the space of an eye blink Noeme abandoned any lingering pretence of bonhomie.  “You have not the slightest conception of the higher purpose that calls me,” he said to her.  “And please, where is your sympathy for the hundreds of thousands of men and women who have died across the centuries at the fleeting whims of witches engorged on the delusions that unmerited power has brought them?  If you are looking for remorse from me before my execution, pray do not waste our time.  I do not mourn the souls I have ordered to their deaths, nor the methods I have used, any more than I do the bad grapes that are thrown away long before they reach the vats.”  He took a long sip.

“That’s who my mother was to you,” Etienne said.  “A bad grape.”

The rim of the glass still at his lips, Noeme broke his rhythm.  He let the wine slide back into the bowl, and he set it down.  “You always were the smartest one, mon gars.  I knew you would uncover the truth given time.  Are you sure you will not try the Cygne?  It may be your only opportunity.”

Etienne pushed words through clenched teeth.  “You killed her.”

“Every so often I find a prospect that I deem worthy of my personal interest,” Noeme said.  He still had not mentioned Etienne’s accusation.  “You were so lost, so filled with misdirected anger, and yet you showed more promise than anyone I had ever seen.  Your insight was gifted, your potential limitless.  The hatred in your heart was ripe and seething.  I wanted to put you on the path and guide you.  Mentor you, even if it had to be from a distance.  I must say, Etienne, you exceeded so many of my expectations.  You were the greatest Commissionaire the Bureau ever had.”  He pivoted to Nightingale.  “Before you condemn me, would you like to know how many bad grapes your partner here has ordered squashed?”

“If I had known about my mother,” Etienne said, “I never would have joined you.”

“Yes you would,” Noeme fired back.  “With even greater relish.  How better to punish the parents who abandoned you than by destroying everything they represented?  You were searching for something to replace them, and the Bureau filled that void.  I became more of a father to you than the wastrel who drunkenly spilled worthless seed into your beautiful mother’s belly.  I honed your talents and taught you to use them against our enemies, to turn the hate into a cause.  I gave your life clarity and purpose.  Eventually, all this would have been yours to carry on in my place.  The Directeurs were not lying about that, by the way.  Your reward for apprehending Nightingale was to be promoted to succeed me.  To finish the glorious work I would bequeath you, and to establish a legacy of honor and achievement that would consign the failed life of Reynand de Navarre to faded memory.”  Scorn painted itself across his face.  “Instead, you surrendered to a whore’s magic and base lust and chose Reynand’s path of disgrace.  You can’t imagine my heartbreak at seeing you here like this.  Mon gars.  I had such hope.  It’s enough to make any father want to weep.”

“Whatever his faults, my father had more honor than either of us,” Etienne said bluntly.  “You and I are both murderers, and that depraved legacy ends now.  And it’s been more than five minutes.”

Noeme opened his watch.  “So it has.”

“You’re going to answer for everything you’ve done.  But first you’re going to tell us how you made these weapons.”

The corner of Noeme’s mouth turned up.  “Are you sure you want to know the answer to that?”

Etienne sneered back.  “Were you to show me a room full of chained little girls making swords under constant lash I doubt it could sink my opinion of you any further.”

A bemused “hmm,” was Noeme’s only response.  He finished his wine, rose from his chair and strolled calmly away from the table into the shadows, without any hint that the others were meant to follow him.  Etienne leaped to his feet.  “Noeme!” he called out.  The leader, commandant suprême, président of the Bureau Centrale, whatever his true title was, did not acknowledge him.  “Nightingale,” Etienne said, nodding in the direction of the departed Noeme.  He looked back, expecting to see a flurry of purple energy hurtle out into the darkness and snare the man by his ankles, per Nightingale’s usual talents.  He waited.

Nothing happened.

Nightingale was still sitting in the chair.  She had not touched the wine, or anything else on the table.  The witch’s eyes were panic.  Her arms tensed and tensed again as though old bones were trying to force their way out of a skin that had become a cage.  “What’s wrong?” Etienne asked.

“I… I can’t move,” she whispered.

A torrent of energy did burst from the darkness, but it was directed at Nightingale herself.  Vicious golden lightning stabbed at her with thousands of probing fingers, splitting the air with a crackle as they forked and carved into her flesh.  She screamed.  The twisting light yanked her from her seat and hoisted her high into the air.  It coiled itself around her in bands, cooling and solidifying into manacles, collar and chains of silvered metal – all too real this time.  Nightingale’s cries fell silent and struggling limbs went limp as pain overwhelmed her.  Invisible strings suspended her above the dining table like a macabre chandelier.  The chains ceased their loud rattles as she stopped twitching.

Etienne was at once terrified and struck dumb at seeing the formidable Nightingale overcome so completely and so quickly.  What power could have possibly defeated her?

The clicking of thin boot heels on tile announced the source of that power.  A woman emerged from the shadows, gold sparks winking out at the long-nailed fingertips of an outstretched hand still aimed at Nightingale.  Her hair was a long, azure-tinted bright silver, shaved on the left side, the remainder swept entirely to the right.  Where the hair had been scalped away, a series of jagged and deep ruby scars snaked around her ear and onto her cheek.  Her eyes were an eerie ice white, and they smoldered with a strange mist.  She was dressed neck to ankle in fitted black that looked as though it had been slashed repeatedly with a razor.  Beneath corpse-pale skin pulsed coursing rivers of golden light; raw energy enclosed in a barely adequate physical container.  Glowing eyes gazed up at her handiwork, at Nightingale held helpless, and her bloodless lips curled in an emotionless smile.  The dark sorceress turned her attentions to Etienne, tilting her head, regarding him with as much interest as she might show a particularly noteworthy slab of pavement.  She turned on her heel and sauntered away.

Etienne crumpled to his knees.  His whole body began to shake.  He clutched at his arms to hold himself together.  It couldn’t be.  Yet it was.  As frightening as the sorceress’ appearance was, as mangled as it had become, he still knew that face.

It was as ingrained in his soul as the pomegranate scent of her hair.

“Maman,” he whimpered.  The name fell away from his lips, dissipating into cold air.  The transformed Elyssia de Navarre, standing a few feet away, gave no indication that she heard him.

“No, I did not kill your mother,” said Girard Noeme in smug defiance.  “I unleashed her true potential.  Just as I did her son.  Mon gars.”  He placed a hand on Elyssia’s shoulder and grinned.  “Ma belle.  Isn’t this a lovely family reunion.”

* * *

On a Clear Day, you can hear forever

clearday

Jazz has never been the taste of the timid.  It’s a gauntlet thrown down for the bold.  More than any other form of music, jazz demands a degree of commitment, an implicit contract between song and listener.  Jazz extends you an invitation to wander through its complex depths, brain fully engaged, to discover the notes that will move your heart.  The most learned fans of jazz will always emphasize this idea of the journey.  They’ll name-check greats like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, but they’ll tell you with a gleam in their eye that the greatest jazz they ever heard was played by an unknown 75-year-old trumpeter they stumbled upon in a dive bar in Kansas City in 1978.  So too is jazz a journey for the performers who recognize this drive at the soul of it to go, to seek the best of it out in remote corners.  Emilie-Claire Barlow, an award-winning Canadian singer with ten albums under her belt, knew her newest release Clear Day needed to embrace the quest beckoning at the core of jazz.  On the opening instrumental track “Amundsen,” she whispers enticingly in French, “all things are possible” – and sets about taking us on a journey that proves it.

Barlow has always been an artist with the ability to reach into songs across different genres and with affectionate fingers, draw out the jazz you never knew was hiding inside.  Clear Day offers a broad canvas on which she can play – a map of the world, if you will – from classic Tin Pan Alley numbers to Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, the Beatles and Queen and even a French interpretation of a traditional song from Mexican folklore for good measure.  Far from settling for a release of glorified karaoke cuts, however, Barlow deconstructs each song down to its basic elements and rebuilds it into a brand new confection, offering a teasing taste of the familiar to settle you into your seat before the inventive arrangements blast you out of it.  The title track opens with a movie-esque swell of strings and brass, like an eager, applauding audience waiting for the curtain to rise and the star to assume her place.  What follows are songs you know but yet don’t:  the early eighties groove of “Under Pressure” is here, but without the bass riff later made infamous by Vanilla Ice.  So is “Fix You,” retaining the comforting core of the lyrics but shedding the histrionic treacle that unbalanced Coldplay’s original.

Tossing the script like that might be a concern if entrusted to a vocalist of lesser chops, but Barlow, backed this time by both her regular supporting combo players and the 52-member Netherlands-based Metropole Orkest, is more than up to the challenge.  She takes a spotlit center stage with her often dizzying, always compelling aural acrobatics.  Her voice can be by turns searing, sweet, aching, dreamy or white-hot sexy, while never succumbing to the nasty American Idol habit of cranking things past 11 on every single track to transfix wandering attentions.  Her vocal runs are remarkable not only for their range but their restraint.  A great performer never shows you her top, because then the audience will realize she has nowhere else to go.  Emilie-Claire Barlow knows this, and as a result her work is one of constant surprise.  Accordingly, Clear Day is not an album to throw on in the background to score empty dinner conversation, lest you miss something special.  It makes you comb through its reaches for the treasure awaiting the diligent.  And there’s a lot of treasure lurking here.

Barlow has the ability, on every song, to welcome you along as a passenger on the intimate journey that is jazz, beginning with her wistful echoes of the Arctic circle in “Amundsen,” as if you were an old friend from the trenches.  When she takes on the persona of the lonely, longing songstress whispering her pain to the deaf ears of the closing-time crowd in “Unrequited,” you can immediately imagine yourself nursing a scotch in the front row.  When she kicks down the cobblestones on a sunny Sunday morning in “Feelin’ Groovy,” you’re smiling and tipping your cap as you watch this vivacious bubble of energy saunter by.  When she transforms into the widow in flowing black silks by the river weeping for her lost children in the haunting, rending “La Llorona,” you’re reaching out to console her.  But never one to bid her audience goodbye on a downhearted note, Barlow instead dances you out with a sprightly spring in her step in the lively, conga-driven “Mineiro de Coração.”  You feel, as the final notes spiral into the dark and you part ways, that you’ve walked the world together to a jazz-flavored beat, and you’re more than eager to rewind to track 1 and make the voyage again.  This is Barlow’s most accomplished and most mature album, and while one would never suggest she wasn’t terrific before, Clear Day is a confident climb up to the next level.  She writes on the album’s liner notes that Clear Day was inspired by her personal journey over the last four years, and we are reminded that the best art is that which dares to dig deep and to embrace any scars accumulated on the way.

I’ve had the privilege of seeing Emilie-Claire Barlow perform live a couple of times, and I’m often left perplexed as to why someone with such formidable talent isn’t selling out stadiums instead of the Auto-Tuned pop princess du jour.  Perhaps it goes back to the notion that jazz is something that you have to search out, rather than have it served to you passively with ad nauseum airplay on mainstream radio.  Clear Day is that glittering jewel of an example where you don’t have to journey too far to find it.  Rather, the journey is in the experience of the album itself, a vast menu of worldly delights that makes its asks of you but, for your trouble, supplies sumptuous rewards.  Pick it up, listen well, and share it with the next person who asks about the last time you heard some great jazz.

Clear Day is available online and in music stores now.