Here we are. What began as a directionless lark in September of 2014 finally wraps up, approximately 95K words later. It’s been fun. Thank you for taking the journey with me; I hope it’s been worth it.
Autumn smelled like spring.
Cool, fresh winds swept in from the bay and ferried morning mist up into the hills above Calerre. Throughout the city, a gentler sun shone through a veil of lapis blue upon giddy children splashing in the puddles that had collected in front of their houses on the old stone streets. Even after only one day’s rain, the land felt greener. Wearied bushes and trees dared to unfurl and lift their leaves, and the grasses were soft under foot again. The long overdue downpour had doused the last of the fires, and where the headquarters of the Bureau Centrale had once jutted its hideous self into the collective fears of four million people, there stood only an abandoned, smoldering black husk, its smothered embers being quickly forgotten.
The hills concealed a secluded glade where the wall of trees parted over a view of the harbor whose docks and quays a young boy named Etienne de Navarre had once loved to explore. His body, shrouded in white cloth, lay on a plain stone slab in the center of the glade, attended on either side by the sisters Adelyra and Kathaline Belleclain. The Belleclains had known him only for a few moments, back in the river town of Charmanoix, but his intervention had allowed them to escape capture by the Bureau, and his sacrifice would now allow them to live free.
Two mourners stood vigil. Etienne’s mother, Elyssia de Navarre, looked stronger and more assured with every hour as she settled back into her true self. If one did not know she was waiting on the funeral of her son, one might have judged her demeanor impatient. One would not, however, make this judgment if sharing in the incomparably bracing sensations of magic that sprinted through her veins and begged her for jubilant release. Enormous wings had been unchained after twenty painful years, and Elyssia longed to heed the irresistible call of the sky. She knew, too, that her late son would not have wanted her to live out her days in the well of grief, not when so many of them had already been stolen from her.
The other, the witch whose enemies had dubbed her Nightingale, wore the quiet contemplation of the veteran of a hundred wars. Her own energies were spent, and while she had greater cause for optimism today, she wondered if there was a specific, definable amount of rest that would allow her to feel renewed, would spur her to step back onto the front lines. She was not certain where she would find it. Returning to her sanctuary, the distant beach where she and Etienne had spent their last night, held no lingering appeal. Certain memories lived there that she was in no hurry to revisit.
Adelyra and Kathaline clasped hands over the body, bent their heads and closed their eyes. White light gathered at their hands and spread beneath them.
Le Taureau and the others had not wished to attend. They had set out for home before the last flames had gone out. Le Taureau had confessed to her, somewhat less coarsely than usual, that he was a man to swing a sword, not a hammer. He was content to lord over his little fiefdom of ne’er-do-wells in St. Iliane and had no interest in the plodding mechanics of government, or the labors of building a new country. He did emphasize, however, that should she need him to fight for her again, that he would forever remain at the call of his déesse.
Nightingale had smiled, kissed his cheek, and wished him well.
As the light engulfed Etienne’s body, Nightingale’s mind meandered to the future. She was grateful to no longer be alone in her battle, to be joined by a sorceress far more powerful than she. Though their central command and their arsenal were both gone and the government had seemingly withdrawn its previously unqualified support, pockets of the Bureau Centrale staffed by hardline believers still festered throughout the country, carrying on business as usual. Nightingale could count on Elyssia to assist in sweeping up those stubborn remnants, but even that was only one miniscule step on a much longer road. The dismantling of the official organization did not mean that the laws were not still brutal and unfair, that the common people would not still be terrified of magic. Witches still needed a voice, and that voice needed to be heard.
She was mindful of what she had once told Etienne, that there was no spell to change a man’s character. That didn’t mean an occasional display of magic here and there couldn’t be incredibly persuasive. Nightingale could sense that the climate was different now, that her long-held aspirations might finally meet a more receptive audience. The people who had suffered most under the Bureau’s lies and persecution had seen their hope vindicated, and it was tasked to her, Elyssia and their many anonymous sisters to seize this hard-won, critical moment and show those who feared them that they could ignite a wondrous revolution and create a new, inclusive country where witches and mortals could live together in peace and mutual respect. It amused Nightingale to think of herself as taking on the role of politician. It would not be the strangest one she had ever adopted.
There were no guarantees. There never were.
But there was promise.
The pure white light on the bier glowed hotter and brighter, edging to bursting. A few tiny motes broke away at first, followed in short order by thousands more. They drifted up into the air like seeds blown from a dandelion, catching on the breeze, sailing out across the harbor into the embrace of infinity. Nightingale looked at Elyssia. She was crying, but smiling, and she touched her fingertips to her lips and murmured her son’s name as the little lights spun away. Nightingale looked back to see the last of them rise, like a chorus of fireflies flashing the final notes of their requiem, leaving the slab bare. “Au revoir, Etienne,” she said, and she too smiled at the path of the lone tear tumbling over her cheek.
Adelyra and Kathaline released their hands. They bowed to Nightingale and Elyssia. Nods of thanks were exchanged. The sisters retreated silently to the path through the woods, their duties in this matter complete and their new life about to begin.
Regrettably, the greatest poets in history had never, among their many sublime literary accomplishments, managed to produce the proper words for a parent who had just buried their child. Nightingale too knew nothing she could say to Elyssia that would be more suitable than respectful silence. She reached out and lay her hand on Elyssia’s shoulder. She felt Elyssia’s fingers clasp hers.
The women embraced.
“Thank you. For everything,” Elyssia whispered.
“I’ll see you again soon,” said Nightingale.
Elyssia smiled. Etienne’s eyes were mirrored in hers, even behind drying tears. Mother and son were very much the same. Intelligent, resolute, courageous and passionate, yet touched by a deep vulnerability. Formidable and arresting, perhaps even fear-inducing under the darkest of circumstances, but always achingly, longingly human. Born dreamers and wish-makers who’d lost sight of the stars but managed to find the road back to who they were always meant to be. Many others like them were still waiting for their own awakening. Some would welcome the chance. Others would not be so willing.
There was so much still left to do.
Offering fond farewells, the sorceress lifted a hand and twisted her fingers. A whirlwind of golden light threw itself around her. She vanished inside it, leaving only a few lingering sparkles in the air that rushed to fill the abruptly empty space. Nightingale pondered the foolishness of any remaining Bureau peon who ever again dared underestimate, or worse, take up arms against Elyssia de Navarre.
Nightingale was relieved beyond measure to be able to now call her a friend.
The witch drifted next to the empty stone slab and traced her fingertips along its edge. She slouched against it and cast her gaze to the endless blue of the ocean beyond the busy harbor. Perhaps a respite in one of those alien lands over the horizon would do her some good. She could take in some new vistas, a few exotic meals, perhaps some even more exotic company.
She had earned it.
Leaves rustled in the trees, more generously than the breeze would warrant. Nightingale shook her head and felt the corner of her mouth curl into a grin. “I can hear you,” she said to the air.
The leaves rustled again. Shadows shifted. Something was moving behind the line of trees. Shadows coalesced into an oil-slick, bluish-black furry form. A panther. It padded its way forward into the clearing, drooping muzzle dusting the ground as though it was embarrassed at being discovered.
Nightingale arched her eyebrow. “Cats are supposed to be renowned for their stealth.” The panther hissed. The witch frowned. “Don’t take that tone with me, young lady.”
Dancing energy cascaded about the form of the panther, reshaping its sleek body and muscular limbs into a slimmer, certifiably more human form. The stringy-haired girl who appeared raked frantic nails over the nape of her own neck. “You try being stealthy with fleas eating you alive,” she huffed.
“Then next time, cher Gen, become something with feathers instead,” Nightingale said.
Gen, or Genvieve, as she had introduced herself to Etienne and his company that ancient day, replied with a pout. “You haven’t shown me how to do birds yet.”
“You will forgive me if a situation arose that was a little more urgent.”
“I know. I’ve been trying to follow and keep an eye on you.”
Nightingale’s lips twisted south. “How much have you been keeping an eye on?”
The girl’s jaw dropped. “Not that!” She waved her hands in protest. “Oh dear heavens no. Ugh!” She shuddered.
Nightingale offered her a sheepish shrug.
Gen shaded somber, and stared past her to the smooth gray of the abandoned stone slab. “Did you love him? Truly? With everything he had done to people like us?”
The witch thought on it a long moment, letting the breeze’s tweaking of the trees fill the lull in the conversation. “I loved him enough,” she said finally. Young Genvieve would have to be content with figuring out what she meant by that on her own. Nightingale intended to say nothing more, and to tend to the memory of her ephemeral relationship with Etienne de Navarre in her own private way. To look, at some future day when the skies clouded over again, to the quiet, recollected flickers of a brief light.
Some secrets were meant to remain locked in the heart, or to use an analogy Etienne might have appreciated, corked in the bottle.
Gen nodded, accepting that she should tread this particular path no further. “Do you think you’ll be coming home now?” she asked instead. “The winter grapes are starting to bud. Everyone’s really excited. It’s going to be one of the best harvests ever.”
“I wouldn’t miss it,” Nightingale said. “But you should go on ahead. I’ll be along.”
“You’re going to change, though, right? You’re not going to arrive like this.”
Nightingale sampled a quick glimpse of herself. “Why? What’s the difference?”
Gen sighed. “I hate being the only person whose grandmother looks younger than I do.”
“You’d prefer this?” A dazzling amaranthine flash, and the familiar shape of the ethereal, enigmatic woman who had first enraptured Etienne de Navarre on the night road from Montagnes-les-grands was usurped by that of the elderly, bramble-haired crone whose neck his men had once threatened to slice open with a sword.
She wondered if he had ever imagined.
“That’s better,” Gen said. “I don’t feel as strange calling you grand-mère. And I don’t have to think about… that other thing.”
“Genvieve, ma petite cocette.” The old woman tugged lovingly at her cherished little one’s cheek. “When will you learn? People really are like wine.”
Gen smirked. “Sour and prone to spoil?”
“Not quite,” laughed her grandmother, sparks of magic forever alive in her eyes and in her smile. “The older vintages are always the best.”
If interest warrants, I may have some concluding thoughts to offer on the process of putting this story together at a later (but not too much later) date. In the meantime I think I’ll have a glass of shiraz tonight…