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Vintage, Part Sixteen

vintagetitle

It’s only going to be four parts, he said, rather short-sightedly last September…

Etienne had received hundreds of briefings in his life, but exceedingly rare was the occasion on which he was asked to deliver one.  Even rarer – unique, he should say – was his audience for it, gathered around a sloppily nailed-together table in a rickety St. Iliane meeting hall one good stiff wind short of collapse:  a drunken rural bandit the size of a horse, and a gorgeous, nomadic witch, herself more the modest and slender dimensions of a doe.  The room was hot and the air smelled a thousand years old, but both sets of ears were riveted to his presentation.

If only he had something more hopeful to tell them.

“The headquarters of the Bureau Centrale in Calerre,” Etienne said, laying out the dimensions of the problem, “is arguably the most secure building ever designed and constructed.  Seventeen storeys above ground and six below, containing the offices of key personnel, a few libraries’ worth of records, training, interrogation and detention facilities, and of course, the site of their secret magic-enhanced weapons manufacturing program.”

Nightingale’s light-wreathed fingers danced in the air as she wove a perfect, scrupulous image of the edifice on the table in front of them, details drawn from her glimpse inside his memories.  “On an average day,” said Etienne, “it houses approximately one thousand people, ranging from basic support and administrative workers to high-level officers, and at least a hundred armed guards for good measure.  Access is controlled with a series of security checks at various points throughout the building.  Failing any one of these measures will signal an alarm that will bring a dozen men with swords down on your neck in about ten seconds.  A theoretical large-scale assault of the kind we are contemplating would lead to the activation of the Bureau’s Catastrophic Emergency Protocol Rouge, which would essentially seal the city and mobilize the 19th Division of the King’s Gardes du Royaume that is berthed secretly less than twenty minutes away.  The last time anyone of significance tried a raid on the Bureau’s headquarters, they made it up about eight steps to the front door before they were butchered.”  Etienne sat back in his chair and let his two listeners digest the grim course.

Le Taureau twisted his cup back and forth, grinding its base into the table.  He had consented, for the purposes of discussion, to share a bottle of some Trichaud pinot bleu that had been liberated from a passing convoy a few months prior.  Etienne was grateful for a brief taste of civilization, no matter how distractingly sweet, while Nightingale signaled her refusal to partake with a silent shake of her head.  She had said little while Etienne conducted his briefing, absorbing it one dispiriting fact at a time.  Impossible beauty remained a perfect shield, betraying nothing of her mind.

“So,” said Le Taureau, “we crack open the doors and kill as many of these whelps as possible until the Armée Royale arrives to massacre us to the last man.  Is that what you are proposing?”

“Glorious martyrdom might inspire a few songs,” Etienne said, “but it won’t stop the Bureau.  They’ll wipe down the bloodstains and keep right on going.  If we are going to have any lasting impact, we need to target three things:  the weapons, the records, and the leadership.  With those gone the Bureau will take decades to recover, if ever.”

The burly giant’s mouth twisted wryly beneath his forest of facial hair.  “How do we do that?”

“The records portion of it should be easy.  Three floors’ worth of reports, plans, blueprints and dossiers on just about every person breathing or in the ground less than a hundred years.  Most of that sealed behind iron vault doors with two independent locks opened by unique keys kept in the trust of the Bureau’s chief archivist and his deputy.”

“Easy,” Le Taureau muttered with a scoff.

“The weapons, according to… a friend,” said Etienne, “are made and stored on a sub-level six floors beneath the street, accessed by an unconnected, concealed entrance.”  He indicated the appropriate section of Nightingale’s illusory model.  “We will have to smuggle your men inside the main building so you can seize the records levels and cause enough of a ruckus that attention is drawn away from the weapons facility, where a second team will investigate and destroy both their existing cache and the means of producing more.”  Etienne looked to the witch.  “I’ll need Corporal Valnier and the rest of my men.  We… left them in Charmanoix.”

Nightingale nodded.  “I will see to that.”

“And the leadership?” Le Taureau asked.

Etienne imagined the grinning countenances of Michel Ste-Selin, Kadier Duforteste, and decrepit old Theniard Preulx, the trio of pompous windbags who had first set him on this errant quest.  He derived a certain degree of amusement in picturing what he hoped would be the outcome of the scheme he was in the process of hatching.  “The Bureau’s constitution prescribes that no more than two of the three Directeurs are ever allowed to be in the same place at the same time.  That constitution notwithstanding, they have made exceptions on rare occasions.  If we give them a strong enough reason to come together, then we’ll have them.  If we can’t get all three of them, we might as well conclude this adventure of ours before it begins.”

“We couldn’t hunt them down one at a time?” Le Taureau suggested.  “Surely ma déesse could…”

Etienne frowned.  “Their movements are the most carefully protected secrets in the kingdom.  They use subterfuge, fake itineraries… sometimes decoys and body doubles to confuse anyone who might be trying to track them.  If by a miracle we were to find one Directeur, as soon as word gets out that he has been taken, the other two will close ranks.  No, we need to take them together, unexpecting, at headquarters.  One thrust of the spear.”

Le Taureau emptied his cup and poured himself another.  “So pray explain what world-shattering event could draw the three Directeurs together?”  Etienne stared at the other man as if trying to push his thoughts across the room into Le Taureau’s mind.  Though shaped as a physical brute, Le Taureau was not entirely without sense, and when realization dawned he gazed wistfully across the table and uttered a single word:  “Oh.”

Nightingale drew the same conclusion at a quicker pace, but waited for Le Taureau to catch up with them.  “Me,” she said.

“They have hinged their very livelihoods on your capture,” Etienne said.  “They will want to see you in person to know that the threat of Nightingale has been terminated.”

She smiled, sadly.  “You will bring me before them in chains, just as you promised.”

“It’s the only way to infiltrate the building and ensure that the three of them will be there waiting for us.  They gave me a special communications protocol to use once I had found you and was ready to bring you back.  I’ll use it to send a coded message to Calerre.  It shouldn’t take more than five days for them to gather together.  And then… we will strike.”

“So, if I may summarize,” said Le Taureau, “we are going to pit ourselves against the most formidable institution in the country, probably the world, in a single coordinated attack that requires about eighteen different improbable things to break in our favor in order to be successful, and we are going to do this with our greatest asset rendered more or less inert.  As a theory, I love this plan.  I suspect you are going to get us all killed, but it will certainly be a lot of fun.”  He rose to his feet and grabbed the bottle of Trichaud.  “On that, I am going to go have my men practice their swordplay.  But first, I’m going to drink a whole lot more of this.”  Le Taureau nodded to them both.  “Commissionaire.  Déesse.”  He pivoted his bulk on a burdened heel and ambled off.

“You will have to shave your beard,” Etienne called after him.  Befitting his nom de guerre, Le Taureau growled a good share of curses at the air and kept walking.  Despite their adversarial history, Etienne was growing rather, dare he say it, fond of the man.  Not yet to the point of trust, but at least he was coming to appreciate the more endearing aspects of Le Taureau’s personality.

Nightingale remained seated, trepidation picking at her usually serene features.  Her fingers twitched and banished the image of the building she’d conjured.  Etienne attempted to meet her gaze, but it drifted out of reach as her thoughts overtook her.  He leaned on that edge of wanting to say something but not knowing if he should.  When she leaped from her chair abruptly and made for the doorway, he decided to chance boldness.  “What is it?”

She stopped but kept her back to him.  “It does not matter,” she said with a sigh.

“Nightingale?”  Etienne fell in behind her.  “Tell me.”

The witch’s long hair spilled over her shoulder.  Her eyes glistened with the beginnings of what could only be tears.  “I can’t,” she whispered.  “I can’t wear that collar, those manacles.  I’ve torn them from the necks of innocent young girls and old women alike.  I’ve watched others I couldn’t save die strangled under their yoke, wrists and fingers worn bloody as they tried in vain to rip them off.  I’ve spent longer than I can remember fighting everything they represent, and to ask me to wear them, even as a ruse… you don’t know.  You can’t understand.”

Etienne was stunned.  He had never seen anything approaching vulnerability from her.  “You’re the most powerful witch this country has ever seen,” he said.  “Nothing can change that.”

Nightingale lifted her hands.  Surges of violet light spun and sparked about her fingers, casting an aura over a suddenly morose face.  “Can you imagine what it is like?  To have such gifts as to be considered a goddess, and yet, no matter what I do, I can’t save enough of them.  My sisters are still dying by the thousands, all over the world.  My kind is being driven to extinction, and none of this, none of this makes a difference.  I don’t have the power to change minds.  I can’t make people stop fearing and hating us.”  She looked at Etienne.  “Do you know what power really is?  It’s a bitter reminder of everything that you still can’t do.”

“You changed me, Nightingale,” Etienne said.

“One man in a country of four million,” she said with a dismissive smirk.  “Mainly because you want to sleep with me.  I guess that’s progress.”

“That’s not fair.  My feelings for you are much more than that.”

Nightingale let the magic ebb from her hands.  She folded her arms.  “No, they aren’t.  You were right.  That first night, I did cast a spell on you.  I planted a deep obsession within you so you would seek me out, so I could use you to my own ends.  That’s the kind of power I have.”

Etienne felt his stomach twist and his nerves fill with ice.  “Why are you saying this to me?”

It couldn’t be.  It wasn’t true.  Why was she lying to him?

“You should know, finally, who it is you’re about to risk your life for,” Nightingale said.  “I am manipulative, and devious, and selfish, and I am tired.  I am so tired of this place, of this war.  I am tired of waking up each morning knowing that all that awaits me is more of the fight.  I want to disappear to a warm island half a world away and make a new life, free from worries about what is happening to everyone else.  I want to use all this magic for my own benefit.  I want to wake to the sound of the ocean and the seabirds and spend the day lazing about in the sun, and if the sky fills with clouds I will just wave my hand and sweep them away.  If I am a goddess, then I want to live like one, and leave the ants to squabbling over their anthills.  Staying here holds nothing for me anymore.”

Etienne knew himself.  His love for Nightingale was not artificial, not something that could be forced upon an unwilling heart.  Wasn’t it?  He had accepted it without question from his first glimpse of her, from the dreams that had haunted him until their next meeting.  His mind flew back to that fateful night, seeing again the overturned carriage, the soldiers being flung aside like broken toys, and the mysterious hooded figure as she revealed herself, touched her fingertips to her lips and blew him the kiss that had… no, no, he would not believe it.  He loved her.  With everything he was, he loved her.  It couldn’t only be a spell.  He loved her and he wanted her and he needed her and he could not bear to be without her… please, Nightingale… the affirmations dribbled out like water from a leaking tap.  And though his heart knew beyond doubt that they were true, a long-silent voice in the back of his mind grabbed this lightning disclosure and started to bark louder and louder about the pieces that did not fit, the instantaneous jolt of it after years of conditioning against the very thing.  He was a dedicated Commissionaire until that split second.  Nightingale had turned him, and she had used her magic to do it.  His old life, tossed aside, rent into scraps of tissue.  Because of her.  And still he loved her and would follow wherever she led, no matter what she said to hurt him and tear him down.

“Was it true?” he asked.  “What you showed me about my mother, was it true?”

She paused two beats shy of an eternity to give him the answer he hoped for.  “Yes.”

Etienne sighed.  “How often does the journey to truth begin with a lie,” he said, “and how often does the revelation of that truth cleanse the sin of the liar?  I don’t care if you started this by putting me under your spell.  I needed to know about Elyssia, and had I learned of her without your influence I would be doing exactly what I am now.”

Nightingale held up her palm.  Etienne’s knees liquefied and he stumbled backward, catching himself on the edge of the table.  His limbs were emptied instantly of their strength.  He shuddered as a wild violet light erupted from the pores of his face and twisted into corkscrew spirals of mist as it coursed back into her open hand, collecting into a brightening orb of energy.  Nightingale closed her hand, and the light was gone.  A peculiar drowsiness seized Etienne, and a sadness – an emptiness – he could not explain, as though something incredibly precious had been cut away.  It was consuming, and it was all he could do to bite his lip against tears.  What had she done?

“I’ve taken it back,” Nightingale answered him.  “You’re free of my spell now.  You are the same Etienne de Navarre you were before we met.  You have no further obligation to me.”

Sinking into a void, he could summon only one pathetic word.  “Why?”

“Because I told you once that this was your choice to make, and I never made it a fair one.  Now it is.  Go back to what you are accustomed to, if that is really what you want.  Tell your Directeurs that Nightingale bewitched you with her evil magic and forced you to betray them.  I’m certain they will reinstate you and give you back everything you’ve lost.”

“I don’t want that, I want… I want…”  Etienne knew what he intended to say, but his tongue knotted on the syllables.  The sentiment was hollow now, utterly without meaning.  What he tried to draw from within himself was no longer there.  She had wiped it clean from his soul.  He could see her recognizing that as he tried to sputter out anything of substance.  His mouth felt full of cotton, and his throat was as dry as the wishing fountain in the town square.

“Goodbye, Etienne,” Nightingale said.  She took a discreet step back, and a white flash blinded him before the room swam in an ocean of black.  When plain afternoon light reasserted itself in a few short seconds, she was gone.

Etienne sat alone on the floor in the horrible quiet and fought the shivers and the nausea that would not stop.  It was not as though he had been stabbed, though it would be fair to equate the shock of what had just occurred with the plunge of a knife; it was more as though the knife had already been there, its blade sealing a thin crack behind which crested a torrent of emotion, and now it had been yanked out and the wound was wide open again.  What he had come to rely on for his moral certitude, the firmness in his decisions and his actions, was nowhere to be found.  Magic was hope, Nightingale had once said, and now that the magic was gone the hope was bleeding away.

He knew nothing.

Suddenly the Bureau loomed large in his thoughts again as the sanctuary it had always been for him, for twelve comfortable years.  Perhaps she had been correct.  Perhaps he needed to return.  He could borrow a horse from Le Taureau, make some excuse about an important errand and go.  If he rode straight through he could make Calerre by morning.  The Directeurs might show him some measure of clemency if he could argue that the death of Commissionaire Serge Meservey had been an accident, or if it was Meservey himself who’d been in league with Nightingale.  If Valnier had been his typically effective self, none of Meservey’s men would still be around to rebut any blame Etienne might lay at their late master’s door.  A few inventions and embellishments on Etienne’s part would make for a compelling case.  The Directeurs did not like loose ends, and would be eager to tie this one off and file it away in the vault.  What then?  A formal pardon, a quick reassignment, a fresh detachment of men, and back to work.  More money he couldn’t spend fast enough at the casinos.  He remembered the gorgeous croupier at the route de perle table, the one with the flirty smile and the long, elegant fingernails enameled in glistening cabernet.  Sylvette, was that her name?  Might she be inclined to step away from her table for an evening’s frivolities with a dashing Commissionaire?

Thoughts of seductive Sylvette were usurped by a flash of the young girl in salle RT-106, the one he’d been forced to eat in front of while she starved, just before Girard Noeme slashed open her throat.  He pictured her as she might have been before she was taken by the Bureau, smiling, dreaming, lying in a meadow of gold and green gazing up at deep blue skies while a whirlwind of butterflies gamboled about her, dipping and pirouetting as willed by her magic.  He imagined black leather jackboots crushing the grass and swatting the confused butterflies aside with truncheons, breaking delicate wings, in order to abduct her and drag her screaming back to the Bureau for interrogation and torture, her shattered family never to see her again.  Returning to his old life meant becoming a willing participant in creating more stories like that.  In plainest terms, furthering a legacy of death.

Was that what the sorceress Elyssia de Navarre would have wanted for her only son?

Was it what he wanted for himself?

Someone was knocking at the door.  Laying into it with some urgency, in fact.  Etienne doubted the hinges appreciated the pressure.  He mumbled over his shoulder at it.  “Come.”

“Monsieur?”

A voice he hadn’t heard for quite some time.  Etienne summoned a smile.

Corporal Valnier strode inside the meeting hall, along with the other four surviving members of the unit that had set out with Etienne to find Nightingale, last seen hacking away at Bureau compatriots in the burning river town of Charmanoix.  They had garnered a choice helping of scars amongst themselves; obviously Meservey’s men had not gone down without swinging.  Etienne’s mood was lifted by that, remembering how fortunate he had been throughout this entire escapade to have had men so dedicated, loyal, and skilled standing by his side – even if he’d wandered far off the path a little too often.  The soldiers looked a nervous combination of both flummoxed and perplexed, flumplexed, if that was a word, not entirely sure where they were or how they had arrived here.

One final gift from Nightingale.

Etienne pulled himself to his feet and clasped his corporal’s arm.  “Good to see you again, old friend.  Good to see all of you.  I imagine you’re probably wondering what’s going on.”

“A little,” said Valnier.  Two words.  Only ever two words at a time.  Someday Etienne was going to have to sit the corporal down and have him explain that particular affectation.

“Have a seat, everyone,” said Etienne.  “I’ll see if I can have our host bring us some refreshments.”  They filtered inside, setting their gear on the floor, pawing at the chairs to find a familiar trace of reality to assure themselves they weren’t still dreaming.  Being subjected to magic tended to do that.  “I’ll get right to business,” Etienne went on.  “I have something I need to ask of you.  You’ve put up with a lot since we left Calerre.  You have been patient with unusual orders, changes of assignment, and little explanation forthcoming from me.  That’s all about to end.  I can’t pretend it won’t be dangerous, or that there isn’t a strong possibility that some of you won’t survive.  But if you do, after this one final task, you’ll be handsomely rewarded and free to go on with your lives, with my everlasting thanks.”

“What’s that?” asked Valnier.

Etienne gave the corporal a square, determined look, the only form of communication he knew he truly respected.  “We’re going to put ourselves out of the witch-killing business, Valnier,” he said, a grin curving the corner of his mouth.  “We’re going to destroy the Bureau Centrale.”

With or without her…

* * *

So, what do you think?  Is Nightingale gone for good?  Stay tuned for Part Seventeen.

Vintage, Part Fifteen

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Part of the fun of not outlining a story like this is seeing the unexpected places it leads you, or in the case of this installment, where it leads you back.

I’m not sure what the stupidest thing I’ve ever done is, thought Etienne as he approached the porous, unpatrolled limits of the decrepit town, but this must rank as one of the most inspiredly ludicrous.  He had last crossed this particular border at a mad gallop – going the other way of course –  with a posse of roughs in hard pursuit and would have considered laughable the possibility that he might have occasion to return.  Certainly not without a healthy brigade’s worth of reinforcements; absolutely never alone, or unarmed for that matter.  This was a fool’s gamble, with the odds, as one might express them un-mathematically, rather bleak.  Etienne had to trust in that single high card shuffled about in his hand, thumbed lovingly for luck even as the croupier’s fortunes improved and the prospect of a winning outcome diminished.  The only consolation was that if he had guessed wrong and put his chips on a bad deal, he would likely not live long enough to regret it.

This place was in even worse shape than it had been on the day of his first abrupt departure.  The sun tattooed punishing light and heat to the ground and lent stagnant air a smell of bleached bones.  Broken timbers, the fragments of shattered longhouses, lay strewn throughout the streets in thatched piles as the villagers seemingly had neither the inclination nor the resources to begin repairs.  No clear path presented itself, and Etienne had to step over debris wherever he chanced to turn.  He had thus far escaped recognition, or even notice.  Surely these people would never dream that he would be back, and so they did not look to see a familiar and loathed face.  Etienne might have passed invisibly from one end of the village to the other were he so inclined, but he instead made his way to the broken and empty fountain in the center of town where local folk had tossed single sous into the crumbling circle of dry stones, still hopeful of securing a wish.

Etienne had no money on his person.  He bent to pick up one of the rusted coins and watched burnt oxide powder stain his fingertips as he turned it over in his hand.  Wishes were for children.  It was the actions of men that made them come true.  Etienne dropped the coin.  On with it, then.  He turned, drew in a lungful of warm air and bellowed out the name of the man he had come to find, with an operatic gusto worthy of a celebrated tenor.

“LE TAUREAU!!!”

The range of reactions presented in three distinct phases, transitioning syllable by syllable.  The first was a sea of jarred faces scrunching brows at the source of the dreadful racket, followed by a gaggle of perplexed foreheads wondering what ailment of the mind was perturbing the stranger screaming at them, and finally by a uniform, sudden oh-wait-isn’t-that glimmer leading to disbelieving shouts of their own and a mad convergence on his position.  Etienne linked his fingers behind his head and sank to his knees.  They nearly yanked his arms from their sockets wrenching him back to his feet and dragging him off stumbling in the dirt.  Etienne squirmed at the tear of muscle and joint but ground his teeth together and bade himself endure it.  Pride protested, but he knew this part was strictly necessary, bruises and all.  Not that it made them hurt less.

His captors blurred the one-letter distinction between hauling and mauling, throwing in few blows to the stomach for good measure, as they brought him beneath the splintered roof of one of the lingering buildings and threw him to the floor like the prize of a day’s hunt primed for roasting.  The air within was thick with the sting of unwashed bodies and manure scraping at his tongue.  Choice local slang dripping with profanities peppered his ears.  Etienne shook out the soreness in his arms and raised his eyes, slowly, to the only individual in the room who was seated.  “Monsieur le Commissionaire,” the other man rasped, a glee in his voice palpable amidst the phlegm.  “How’s my new road coming along?”  A chorus of laughter welled up.

Etienne had forgotten, even in those handful of days since he’d last seen him, just how enormous and intimidating a physical specimen Le Taureau was, as if such men had been the ones to inspire the old legends of giants.  Even the chair on which he crouched, craning his neck forward to push his long beard over the twin kegs that were his chest, was twice the usual size.  There was, however, a touch less of him than there had been at their first encounter:  Le Taureau’s left arm was gone above the elbow, and a filthy bandaged stump the girth of a tree trunk hung there instead.  Chills danced up Etienne’s back at the gruesome sight of it.

Le Taureau caught him looking.  “Beautiful work you did, monsieur.  That precious dagger of yours.  Such a brave, brave man who enchants his weapons with the very magic he professes to despise.  I had to saw the rest of the arm off and burn the wound closed with a poker.”  Etienne did not doubt Le Taureau had performed the deed himself.

“I’m sorry,” he offered.  It sounded as stupid to him as it did to the rest of them, judging by the hanging pause leading to another round of laughs at his expense.

“Oh,” said Le Taureau.  “Is that all?  Well then, if you’re sorry I suppose I can’t hold it against you.  Why don’t we shake hands?”  He swung out his stump.  “Ah.  Oops.”  The others did not laugh this time.  The room fell silent.  Le Taureau hoisted himself up from his chair with his remaining arm and stepped down to loom over Etienne, the creaks in the wood beneath his boots amplified tenfold.  “Coming back here,” he said, “you are either the most brazen man in the world, or simply the dumbest.  The only reason you’re still whole, tête de cul, is that I’m not inclined to be swift.  That reeks of… mercy.”

Etienne searched the dead eyes for the vestiges of a soul.  “I didn’t come here for mercy,” he said.  “I came to ask your help.”

The echo chamber of jackals erupted with their chortles and guffaws once more.  Le Taureau’s face remained a monolith.  “My help,” he said.  “Like last time?”

“I’m not with the Bureau anymore.  They betrayed me.  They’ve betrayed this entire country.  You said yourself they’ve taken our mothers and our daughters from us.  Someone needs to strike a return blow.  I’m sure the idea of that appeals to you.”

Now Le Taureau managed a smile, though Etienne was certain it was insincere.  “And what, pray tell, has brought Monsieur le Commissionaire to the side of the angels?”

“The Bureau murdered my mother,” Etienne said simply.

“Your Bureau murdered my wife,” Le Taureau spat at him, seizing Etienne’s neck in a meaty grip.  “A strutting, pompous cretin like you came to our village and ripped her from our bed.  He forced me to watch while his soldiers stripped her naked, bound her in chains and whipped her, then tied her to the back of their carriage and dragged her behind them as they rode off cackling into the night.  She screamed for me to help her and I couldn’t.  It was the last thing I ever heard her say.”  He paused to wrestle down the swelling emotion.  “A man’s heart hardens after bearing witness to such a thing.  A man’s purpose changes forever.  A man swears himself to vengeance against any and all who might have been even remotely responsible.  How many wives did you steal from their husbands’ arms?”  Le Taureau applied a modest increase in pressure, and Etienne strained against the veritable sausages closing on his throat.

“I believe you’re an honorable man,” Etienne gasped out.

A flicker of amusement disturbed Le Taureau’s sneer.  “What makes you think that?”

“You have a code.  You want to protect the people in your charge.  And you didn’t kill me the instant you saw me.”  Flecks of black swam across his vision.  “Will you at least listen to a remorseful man trying to atone for his sins?”

Dead eyes flickered with a twinge of life.  Le Taureau hesitated, nerves pulsing beneath the red skin of his forehead.  He released his grip.  Etienne slumped over, planted his fists on the floor and coughed hard, trying to spew out the hurt.  Le Taureau returned to his chair.  A lackey placed a cup in his hand, and he drained its contents.  “Talk, then,” he said.  “Show me your remorse.”

“Thank you,” wheezed Etienne.  Eyeing the others surrounding him, he rose slowly to his feet.  He thought of the divas attempting La Sirena, of the stocking-shaking trepidation they must have suffered awaiting the arrival of the second act and that damned nigh-unachievable aria.  At least those ladies were afforded opportunities to rehearse, to evaluate and to tweak as necessary before opening night.  Etienne was the sole actor on this stage, operating without the benefit of practice or script, engulfed by a hostile audience ready to do much worse than jeer if they detected a sour note.  His freedom to walk out of this room hinged on the next thing he said.  Strangely enough, there was a serenity to the predicament, a moment where paralyzing fears and doubts flew from his mind and left only a stillness – a waiting, placid void.  From there, filling it was a matter of tilting the decanter and letting the wine pour itself.

“You want vengeance,” Etienne said to the crowd.  “All of you.  But you’ve done nothing to exact it.  You sit in this shell of a town, subsisting on scraps, and brag about your defiance of the Bureau Centrale, but the truth is, if you presented the slightest threat to them, they would have come, years ago, to raze this place and pile your corpses in the rubble.”  He narrowed his focus to Le Taureau.  “Why?  How many able-bodied men do you have here?  Three hundred?  Four hundred?  Why haven’t you sent them into battle?  The Bureau is better armed, better trained, better financed, better informed and better fed, and against that, the lot of you might as well be armed with rotten fruit.  Staying in St. Iliane keeps you safe, where it’s easy to put on an air of being brave with words alone.”  Murmurs drifted around him, rising steadily in volume.  As they would – he was poking these people and their beloved leader with sharp sticks.  “I can help you do more than just boast,” he continued.  “I spent twelve years inside the Bureau’s highest echelon.  I know them.  I know the scope of their strengths and the locations of each carefully protected weak flank.  I can show you where and when to strike, surgically, effectively, so that four hundred starving men are transformed into the unstoppable force that finally pulls the mighty Bureau down and scatters it to the winds.  And you’ll have your vengeance.  Not just for yourselves, but for every life the Bureau has destroyed across this country.  St. Iliane will no longer be an easily ignored speck on the map, it will become that storied place from which heroes come.  If that appeals to you, if you’re willing to take that chance, then I ask your forgiveness for what I’ve done, and I ask you to allow me to help you.”  He spread his arms.  “There is a battle coming that we can win… together.”

The murmurs had stopped.  Everyone looked to Le Taureau.  The dead eyes betrayed nothing, as usual, so Etienne studied the rest of his face, looking for any sign, regardless of how slight, that his message had resonated.  “Hmph,” the gargantuan man mumbled, gaze sinking to the floor, closing his hand over the arm of his chair.  At the pensive gesture, Etienne granted himself permission to be hopeful, and he released the breath he’d been unconsciously holding.

Abruptly Le Taureau looked up and nodded to his men, who seized Etienne’s outstretched arms and forced him over to the long dining table.  Roars of approval rippled throughout the crowd, penning him in with a wall of scorn and delight.  They kicked out the back of his legs, forcing him to his knees at the edge of the tabletop.  Le Taureau rose from his chair and hovered over him, leaning closer as if taking on the role of a sympathetic confidant.  “Grand speech, monsieur.  Had it been someone else delivering it I might have been swayed.”

He stepped away to allow one of his men to take Etienne’s right arm and pin it to the table at the wrist.  From his jacket Le Taureau drew a familiar weapon; Etienne’s dagger, the edges streaked brown with blood that had never been wiped away after its last use.  Kept by Le Taureau as a grotesque souvenir of his mutilation by the man to whom he was evidently prepared to do the same.  “Have you ever been stabbed, monsieur?” he asked.  “The hand is by far the most painful place.”  He tapped against Etienne’s knuckles with the tip of the blade.  “There, the flesh is thin, little more than paper draped over the bones.  No meat to slow the knife as it sears its way through the nerves, severing dozens of them in a lightning flash of agonies upon agonies.  Do you know what that feels like?  Can you imagine a thousand sets of pointed teeth chomping through your body and then pouring acid on it to finish?  That’s what you did to me.”

“It was a rash choice,” Etienne said, his tone trembling and rushed.  “Made in haste and a desperate grasp at self-preservation.  Don’t throw away what I’m offering you over an old slight.  I promise you, it wasn’t personal.”  The excitement of the crowd drowned his words out.

“Well,” said Le Taureau to a deferential hush, “this is.”  He stood back and readied his aim.

Etienne turned his head away and spoke to the air.  “Now would be a good time.”

Le Taureau balked, offering a surprised half-laugh instead.  “What?”

A sudden charge of cold air blasted through the room, transforming drought into bitter winter and forcing dozens of men to brace themselves to cling to fleeing body heat.  Nodules of ice crystallized where breath touched the walls.  A woman’s voice cut the abrupt silence.  “Corben.”

Le Taureau turned to her, and at the sight of Nightingale, both the dagger and thoughts of retribution for Etienne fell forgotten from his hand.  Years of hardened life crumbled from his face.  The mighty man took two disbelieving steps toward her, then bowed and bent his knee.  Déesse,” he whispered – no, whimpered was more accurate.

The great bull, a mouse to her lioness.

Nightingale granted him her beguiling smile, and lifted the suddenly penitent Le Taureau’s massive chin with a delicate finger.  “My gentle Corben,” she said.  “It has been far too long.”

Le Taureau – or Corben, whatever his name was – gazed into her eyes with the unbridled devotion of a man in the enraptured throes of a religious awakening.  Indeed, the attention of each man in the room was cemented to her every movement.  “We remain your devoted servants,” their leader mumbled.  “What would you ask of us now?”

“Let Etienne go,” Nightingale told him.  “He speaks the truth.”

“The Bureau Centrale cannot be trusted,” Le Taureau said.  “They are liars by trade and duplicitous to their very breath.  Ma déesse should recall that he did this–”  –he raised his stump–  “–while hunting for you, to take you back to his beloved Bureau broken and in shackles.”

The witch shook her head.  “I have walked inside his soul, as I once did yours.  I know you both.  You have nothing more to fear from him.  Instead you have a chance to give your wife some measure of peace.”  He still seemed to demur.  “Corben,” she said, “I have never led you astray.  I ask for your continued faith.”  Nightingale swept long fingers across his cheek, somehow fusing the assuring clasp of a mother with the flirting stroke of a lover.  She withdrew, and without flash or announcement Le Taureau had both arms once more.

The missing limb with its varied palette of scars and inked designs was just there again, as though it had never been severed.  Reality was rearranged according to her will and her magic, like the fire in Charmanoix.  Le Taureau’s mouth fell open in the astonishment of a boy receiving the coveted toy he had assumed was beyond his parents’ means.  Etienne thought he detected tears at the corners of the behemoth’s eyes as Le Taureau contemplated the arm and flexed the fingers.

Obviously Etienne had discussed the approach with Nightingale prior to their arrival, but he had not expected her – nor had he known she had the ability, though in truth nothing within her power surprised him anymore – to restore Le Taureau like that.  Watching her and the impact she had on those around her, the morality of the world seemed so bitterly askew.  To exalt torturers and murderers to positions of high authority and esteem in protected and revered institutions like the Bureau, and to treat compassionate miracles of existence like Nightingale, and Elyssia de Navarre, as threats to be extinguished.  It was not only Etienne who had much to atone for.  History had been written by a collection of pawns playing at being knights, with the queens kept off the board.  Was it any surprise then to see how civilization had become a cruel parody of itself?

Reasserting the machismo required to command the gallery of roughs in his service, Le Taureau climbed to his feet and turned his glare to Etienne.  It was not a look of forgiveness, or even a softening of the feelings of contempt that could never be swept away by something as insubstantial as a spell.  It was, however, an acknowledgment of Nightingale’s faith in him, and for Le Taureau, for the moment, that was enough.   As his first act with his new arm, Le Taureau waved off the men who were holding Etienne down.  They released him without hesitation and backed away.  Etienne stood and brushed dirt and wood splinters from his jacket.

“Everyone else… out,” Le Taureau barked.

Etienne had seen few military regiments obey an order with as much dispatch.  The building emptied in scant seconds, leaving behind a most mismatched trio:  himself, the slight gentleman officer for a corrupt regime turned willing traitor; Le Taureau, the hulking, wild country brigand with a noble heart, and Nightingale, the ethereal witch who had entered their lives through happenstance encounters and bound them both to what was to be a shared and perhaps even futile crusade.  Were it not for the tenuous, threadbare truce, he might have laughed aloud at the impossibility of the situation.  Le Taureau was staring off into space, perhaps thinking the same thing.

Nightingale was, well, being Nightingale; beautiful, occasionally inscrutable, seductive without deliberate intent, and forever that adjective coined ideally for a woman like her:  bewitching.  Etienne was agog at the enormity of the events that had followed their first meeting, how she had utterly upended his life, what she had inspired him to do, what she had helped him discover about himself.  The course she had set him on, which for the first time had no definitive destination, only the vaguest promise of redemption lingering, tantalizing beyond a series of impossible tasks.  It was insanity, delicious insanity.  How, he wondered, could he not have fallen in love with her?

Le Taureau broke the trance.  “So then,” he said, folding arms both old and new.  “Destroying the Bureau.  What exactly did the two of you have in mind?”

* * *

This story now tops 50K words as we begin to build toward the climax of Etienne and Nightingale’s journey.  I’m excited, and I hope you are too.

Vintage, Part Fourteen

vintagetitle

Without further ado, picking up mere seconds from where we left off…

There is never anything remarkable about the room in which someone’s life is ending.  Rooms are hardly ever built with the express purpose of containing a man’s last breath.  They happen upon that role instead by quirk of fate, becoming through no intent of their own the unexpected terminus for that unpredictably snaking line that demarcates a human being’s limited time in the world.  But once a room houses a death, it is defined by it.  Death etches itself deep into the paint, and its tendrils seep through to stain the brick beneath.  The air tastes of it.  No matter what other, happier events have transpired in that room in the past, now, it can never be anything else.

That’s the room where my father died.

Etienne’s legs started to quiver as he heard the first cough, that dreadful rattle of a brew of blood and acid bubbling up from a stomach worn thin as paper.  The bed held a mere sliver of the invincible man who’d once held his hand so tightly, shrunken now to a shivering bag of bones under jaundiced skin and flaking white hair.  The smell was enough to invite one to retch up one’s own contribution to it.  In the memory Etienne knew he was to enter and sit at the edge of the bed and try to hold his father’s hand again, but he fought against repeating that history with every spare iota of fortitude.  “Papa,” he said quietly.  Reynand did not hear him.  “Papa, c’est Etienne.”

His father tried to say his name, but the first syllable broke into violent wheezes.  Reynand clutched a small, blood-soaked towel to his mouth, almost devouring it as he tried to stifle the tremors in his gut.  Etienne did as his memory of the moment commanded and found a place on the bed after all, reaching for his papa, wishing and pretending that he would recover, or, if not, that at least the horrible coughing would stop.

It did, finally, and Reynand slumped against his pillow.  “Etienne,” he was able to croak in a cloud of red spittle.

“Papa,” said Etienne, “I thought I could try to find maman.  Maybe if I told her how sick you were she could come back and try to help you.”

Reynand started coughing again, and he slammed a bony hand down on his son’s and squeezed while he saturated the towel with pieces of his insides.  Etienne winced at the sensation of some of that old strength lingering in the man’s grip.  “You said you thought she was living in Quermont now,” he said.  “I have enough saved that I could hire someone to take me there.  Then I could find her and ask her to come back.  It would only take a day or two.”

“Maman is never coming back,” Papa insisted, with handfuls of breath tinted by ancient anger.  “I taught you better than to waste your money like that.”  He dropped to a conspiratorial whisper, although there was no one to overhear them.  “Why don’t you go buy some of Papa’s medicine for him instead?  Hmm?”

“The doctor told me your ‘medicine’ is making you worse,” Etienne said.

“Putains,” spat his father.  “Liars and quacks.  They’ll not be foisting their leeches on me.”

“Maman knows how to make you better.  She always made me better whenever I was sick.”

Reynand shrank from his son, the tremors in his limbs seeming to ease as resignation slid over the wanness of his features.  He closed his eyes to watch regrets drift across his mind.  “Your maman… your maman.  My love.  I had every chance with her, to build our life into something lasting.  She gave me more chances than I deserved.  Far more.  At every opportunity I squandered them.”

A young only son was the wrong audience.  His father should have called for a brother, a dear friend, or a minister, rather than dump his final confession on someone who should never have been so encumbered.  But Reynand de Navarre had no siblings, had long since alienated any acquaintances and considered religious men to be a pack of deluded hucksters.  There was, at the end, no one else.  Only this boy who had yet to grow out of his round face and into his stringy frame.

“But why?” asked Etienne.

“A man doesn’t appreciate what he has while he has it,” said Reynand with a deep sigh.  “He wants more.  He goes off in search of more, and he thinks that home will always be waiting for him when he deigns to return to it.  I loved your mother, but I loved other women too, and when temptation touched me I gave myself to it.”  He turned away to gaze at the less judgmental face of the streaked and faded cornflower wall.  “So many times I begged her to forgive me,” he said, “and when she did I would go out and find another yet again, and still another.  In my arrogance, my stupidity, I couldn’t understand how I was hurting her, how I was destroying the bright spirit I’d once fallen in love with.  I only cared about what I wanted, what I felt I was making of myself.  A bold, confident man who takes what he wants, pulls its beating heart from its chest and roars in triumph as the blood pours down his arm.  Oh, mon fils.  How I miss her.  How one last kiss would be enough.”

He began to weep.  As the tears ran, the coughing returned.  Papa’s entire body convulsed into hacks and sputters and shakes.  He groped for the towel as blood froth pooled at the corners of his mouth.  As he bore witness to the deterioration, Etienne winced and choked back tears of his own.

It had been so long since he had seen his mother.  He could scarcely remember those details that should have been unforgettable.  The lilt of her lullabies.  The warmth and the soft scent of her as he pressed in for a hug.  The promise of sleep with peaceful dreams simply by knowing she was in the next room.  It had all been snatched away, and the man dying in the bed was to blame.

Etienne waited for the spasm to pass.  He let his father enjoy one complete minute of restful breathing.  “Papa,” he said, “if you had been different, would Maman have stayed?”

“Peut être, Etienne.  Peut être.  But even if I had remained faithful from the first day I was probably never enough of a man for someone like her.  Oh, you should have seen her then.  The most magnificent thing I had ever laid eyes upon.  I threw her away.  She was right to go.”

“Why didn’t she take me with her?” Etienne pleaded.  “Why did she leave me with you?”

“You were the mistake that tied her to this wreck and shadow,” Papa said, sinking deeper into the abyss.  “You would be a constant reminder of a life wasted.”

Young Etienne aged ten years in the space of a single word.  He felt himself shift away from the old man, and heard his lips deliver the phrase that he knew would demand the most cruel truth a boy could hear from his father.  “Is that all that I am, Papa?  A mistake?”

“You’re a bright boy, Etienne.  But if the world was fair, and men were wiser, you never would have been born.”  He gave Etienne one generous second to gasp at the stab of the spear before he twisted it.  “But, since you were, make yourself useful and take that money and go buy your Papa some more medicine.”

In silence, Etienne rose from the bed.  He made for the door as the chastened, obedient son desperate to earn his papa’s praise.  “There’s a good little fellow,” said Reynand.  “You know the kind I like.  Herriot’s genièvre, in the blue glass bottle.  Ask Monsieur Clouvet to help you get it from the top shelf.  Get it back here as quick as you can.  You’ll do that for me, won’t you?”  The smile on the old man’s repugnant face, the ruddy lips splitting yellowed skin, was as oily as that of a confidence trickster.  He was positively giddy at the prospect of downing more of the accursed drink and blithely ignorant of the irreparable damage he had just inflicted upon his boy.

The first time, Etienne had run away.  To the harbor, to throw reality into the sea and find himself instead in the place where he’d once been the happiest.  The easy path.

Just like him.  Just as he would have done.

“Father,” Etienne said, suddenly with an older, learned voice.  A term he had never used for Reynand before.  It had always been ‘Papa.’  He stopped at the doorway and turned back as deliberately as the second hand of a clock, carrying on his shoulders the accumulated burden of two decades of unanswered questions, rued choices and paths of fate grown impassable with twisted weeds.  He turned to see again the likeness of the withered waste of a man who had sired him, a gnarled half-corpse soiling a sagging bed, the heart beating now only out of lingering spite and stubborn reluctance to give up an old habit.  “Thank you,” said Etienne.  “Thank you for the gift of learning how to hate someone without reservation or regret.  I fled from here once because I was terrified of a world without my papa in it.  Now…”  He grinned.  “I am tempted to buy your coveted drink and pour it down your throat myself just so that you’ll die faster.”

It did not seem possible, but Reynand de Navarre shriveled further into himself.  Eyelids peeled back into his skull, and the shakes that wracked his body now added tremors of fear.  “Etienne, my son,” he begged, “I don’t want to die.”

“Yes you do,” said Etienne.  “It’s all you’ve ever wanted.  Nothing has ever been worth living for.  Not Maman, and certainly not me.  You’ve made sure to hasten your end at every opportunity, but even now you’re still too much of a coward to do what you always taught me was the most important thing in life:  defend what you believe.  Here is what I believe, father.  This is the fate you have earned.  Congratulations.  Enjoy it alone.”

“Etienne!” Papa sobbed as his son strode from the room without remorse or lingering wish to look back.  Not this time.  The room where his father died could remain that.  Etienne closed the door on the wizened creature’s plaintive cries, sealing them forever behind rotting wood panels and locking his own memories in a steel vault he knew now he need never open again.  Yet he felt no relief from their weight, only a deepening and entrenchment of the anger that had made him reach out to the Bureau Centrale.

The witch was waiting for him a step outside time in the corridor beyond.  Its detail and color faded like the light after a sunset, vanishing from his mind, leaving only the two of them in a sea of gray growing darker with each approaching wave.

“It was not long after this,” Nightingale said.

Etienne nodded.  “He could have been a revered professor, or conseiller to the King.  Instead, Reynand de Navarre died without a sou to his name and completely forgotten.  Five days, before the smell compelled a stranger to kick down the door and discover him lying there.  I don’t even know where he is buried.”  He smirked to himself.  “It has never occurred to me to find out.”

“Hatred is the most reliable of emotions.  It justifies every questionable action and thought we might ever have.  If you forgave your father, if that hate was gone, who would you be then?”  She edged closer.  “You don’t even know, and the very idea of it frightens you.”

“This is not fear,” Etienne said sharply, temper boiling over and spilling at her.  “It’s fact.  I know the pull toward hopelessness, the ease with which one can let the cruelty of life turn you into a victim.  That was him.  I’ll never see myself become that.”  His eyes flitted to the door behind him.  “Never,” he whispered.

“At what cost?” demanded Nightingale.  “Do you think that innocent girl who could speak to butterflies deserved to pay?  Did your mother?”

Ice paralyzed Etienne’s spine.  “What do you mean?” he said, each word enunciated deliberately, aimed straight at her with the precision of an arrow.

Nightingale said nothing.

From raised palms and fingertips a cold cascade of light and mist, sparkling in the amaranthine shade of her lips, shimmered across the darkness between them and wound itself about his limbs, as delicately as the application of a balm to a burn.  Where the spell touched him, Etienne’s pores went instantly both numb and aflame, and the sensation burrowed down through nerve and muscle to the very fragments of his bones.  It spread into his chest and from there exploded across the rest of his body, cocooning him in suffocating strands of energy.  A sudden jolt of terror pierced the parts of him he could still feel.  He reached for her, to beg the witch to stop.  On his outstretched arm the fingers were shrinking, the lines were smoothing out, the hairs were retreating beneath the surface like frightened worms.  The world, what he could perceive of it, seemed to be getting so much larger, and Nightingale, magic continuing to pour from her elegant hands, was towering over him now as if he was sinking into the earth, yet the ground remained solid.

Etienne’s thoughts began to split apart, the complex phrases of adult intellect devolving into colors, shapes, abstract fragments of emotion that were more instinctual than reasoned.  He was compelled to speak, but forgot the words.  Forgot all the words.  Forgot what words were.  When he did manage to force something out, it was formless sound.  A wail of pure desperation and pure need.

Nightingale let her hands fall to her sides, the last of the spell ebbing into the darkness around her, as she contemplated the baby lying in front of her.  It squirmed and screamed, utterly incapable of comprehending where it was or what had happened to it, knowing only in its innocent state that it was scared, or hungry, or in pain.  The witch smiled, placed a finger to her lips, whispered a calming “shh,” and retreated into the shadows.  The baby’s cries echoed into the void.

It lay there on its own in dark nothingness for a few moments shy of an eternity, pleading for someone, anyone to come.  Tiny, chubby legs kicked at the air like a turtle flipped onto its back.  Two voices began to filter through the cold murk, the words only random sounds to a baby’s ears but the tones varying enough for it to be able to distinguish in its undeveloped mind which was the man and which was the woman, and which would most likely come to him.

“Encore!  Every night.  Every hour.  This maudit brat will not let us sleep!”

“He is a baby, and babies cry.  We were told he would be a sickly child.”

“He’s just being petulant because he wants attention.  Ignore him and he will stop.”

“Go back to bed then if your sleep is so damned precious to you.”

A door slammed, the harsher of the two voices departed, and sudden gentle hands reached down to lift the baby and cradle it in warm, welcoming, forgiving arms.  “Mon cheri,” sang a perfect voice.  “Je suis ici.  Maman est ici.  Je ne vais nulpart.”

The baby kept crying, wincing at the pressure cutting into its chest.  The woman rocked it back and forth, whispering reassurance, planting tender kisses on a downy-haired crown.  This was the third time the infant had contracted the illness, and the episodes were lasting longer and growing more intense – and the same could be said for her husband’s impatience.  Two nights past, a drunken rant had seen him threaten to abandon them both, but the morning’s sobriety had brought tearful contrition.  She knew that in his own primitive way he was afraid for the child’s well-being as much as she, even if his ability to articulate it was not much more evolved than the screams cutting at her eardrums right now.

Her heart bled to see her little one like this.  The first two times he had gotten better, but it had been three days and nights now and the usually reliable herbal tonics were doing nothing.  The fever would break, and then flare up, and the tiny body’s reserves were depleted by an inability to keep down even liquid nourishment.  There would be hints of hope here and there where sleep would arrive, but never for more than an hour before the cries began again.  The local doctors had cautioned her that the child might not survive this latest bout, that the sickness had been racing through the city claiming many other, much hardier newborns.  She had thanked them for their optimism and sent them on their gloomy way.

The cruel irony was that she knew of a remedy that would sweep away the sickness like crumbs from a table, and she was terrified to use it.  It would mean going back on an old vow and exposing the entire family to a life of looking over their collective shoulder, of waiting for that awful and inevitable pounding on the front door in the middle of the night.  She had been quite content to pretend, for more years than she could remember, that the choice, and the fear, belonged to someone else.  But here, holding her son, listening to his cries rattle the walls while a husband incapable of handling crises pulled a pillow over a veritable ostrich’s head in the next room, a mother’s instinct for protection drowned out worries of self-preservation.  Enough.  She could not abide him hurting any longer.  She needed to remember who she was, recall the old gift, and reach into that dusty corner of her memory for the needed spell.

“My sweet fils Etienne,” she whispered as she leaned over him.  She spread apart the blanket in which he was swaddled and laid a hand against his soft pink chest.  A warm golden light spread out from her fingers and washed over him in a cleansing glow that brought early dawn to the small room.  The cries stopped.  The infection was gone.  The baby cooed happily, peacefully, and gazed up into the sad smile and the light from the manifestation of the magic reflected in his mother’s eyes.  She lifted her hand, drawing the healing energy back into herself, and with a flourish of fingers dispersed it into tiny stars dancing off into the air and winking out one by one.  “I am so sorry,” she said, understanding the consequences that the breaking of her vow meant for him.  Her tears fell onto his cheeks.  He giggled at the warmth and the wet.  She laughed and clutched him to her breast, humming the innocent song about goats and lambs that her own mother had once soothed her with, and praying that for once, morning would not come.

As the adult Etienne de Navarre watched, he did not know whether to scream out in mad disbelief, sob in regret or simply throw up, and he grasped at elusive breath and begged someone to tell him what to do.  Strength in his legs gave way.  He crumpled to the ground.  “My mother…”  He heaved the words as though they were anvils.  “She…”

“Elyssia de Navarre was a great sorceress,” said Nightingale behind him.  “Forced to conceal her powers to escape the suspicion of the Bureau Centrale.  For many years she lived in denial and without magic, until that night she chose to use it to save your life.”

“She never… I didn’t…”

“You wondered, though,” said the witch, peering into his soul like it was made of glass.  “Why your friends got sick, but you didn’t.  Why your garden was always full of food even in the driest summers.  Why she seemed never to age.”

Etienne dared to lean nearer to the living image of his mother and himself as a baby, close enough to gasp at the taste of the pomegranate scent of her long hair, to be able to look up into his mother’s eyes once more.  Tears could not diminish entirely the smile he remembered seeing behind those eyes, no matter the harshness of the moment or the cares troubling her mind.  He thought of the long cold years since he’d seen them.  Part of him knew her every facet and the other was staring uncomprehending at a stranger.  His mother, the very shape of the force he had sworn to fight.  He thought of his father pleading for her.  He thought of long nights spent wondering where and why she had gone, thinking perhaps that if he called out the window into the darkness loud enough she might hear him and return.  He knew the futility of wishing to regain lost time, but it was equally futile to try and expect to function now only on reason.  He hated the life that had followed her departure, and he mourned the one he could have had with her in it.  “She didn’t help him,” he whispered through clenched teeth, unsure if he was talking about his father or himself.  “She could have saved him.”

“Don’t confuse magic with miracles, Etienne.  There is no spell to change a man’s character.”

“Is that why she left, finally?”  Nightingale did not answer.  Instead she moved next to him and laid a comforting hand on his shoulder.  “No,” he said.  It made sense now.  “They found her.”

“She wanted to send for you, but she feared that they would take you too.  She sacrificed herself to ensure that you would grow up free from their reach.”

Etienne had as much use for religion as his late father, but he suddenly found the idea of a misanthropic god meddling in the fates of men for his own amusement to be far more credible.  “Instead, I joined them.  And I dedicated myself to hunting down everyone like her.”  He flailed at recalling how many there had been.  That he could not recollect the precise detail of each life he had helped to end was a nameless shame that was far too heavy to be described merely as crushing.

Nightingale added another weight.  “To hunting your own family, Etienne.”

Etienne turned away from the angelic figure, back to the other celestial woman who had led him to this place, and offered her only a blank canvas upon which to paint.  “You, she and I are the descendants of a single unknown, legendary woman who lived over a thousand years ago,” she told him.  “She was the first to have magic.  Her daughters inherited her powers, and their sons carried the magic in their blood to bequeath to their own daughters and granddaughters.  As they went out across the world so too did magic take root in every corner of civilization.  No matter how many of us have been tortured and killed over the centuries by those too frightened to try to understand, magic endures.  As much a part of nature and as impossible to stop as the light of the sun.”

Etienne caught a note of uncertainty in Nightingale’s voice.  “But something has changed.”

“Man’s tenacity and resourcefulness when presented with the impossible is boundless, even more so when it is spurred by hatred,” she said sadly.  “He will even learn to block the light.  The weapons your friend Meservey invented are a mortal threat to us.  I have done my best to interfere, but… the Bureau is winning, Etienne.  The Commissionaires have doubled their quotas.  More witches are being captured and murdered than ever before.”  For the first time since he’d known her, the immensely powerful Nightingale looked scared, and even overwhelmed.

“Much to atone for,” he said, quoting her words back to her.  “But I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.  I’m not my mother.  There has always been more Reynand than Elyssia about me.”  He glanced at his mother again, and hoped that her spectre would not notice him, what he had become in her absence.  He was Commissionaire Etienne de Navarre of the Bureau Centrale, the son of a sorceress and a betrayer of his entire kind.  The revelation tasted of ashes.  Maman, if only I had known.  Why did you never tell me?

He hated who he had become.  He hated who he was.

“Men born to witches have gifts of their own,” Nightingale said.  “They are more intelligent, intuitive, driven… the qualities you admire most in yourself, and of which you have made such fine use in your career.  Your ability to read every nuance of a situation, to command the attention of others, what some might even call your magnetism, you owe those to her.  But you fear that your father’s weakness taints your strength, and this fear has shaped your choices.  You don’t acknowledge it, though.  You wrestle it into the dirt and grind it beneath your heel, but it’s always there.  It even shows in how you drink.  Never to excess, always in control, understanding every precise element of every vintage down to the signature of the fruit from which the wine came.  Mastering it the way he couldn’t.  Control is strength to you, because control tames the fear.  And for a very long time, magic was something you could not control, so you worked to destroy it.”

Nightingale knelt next to him and covered his hands with hers.  He felt the charge of mystical energy sizzling at her fingertips.  “Etienne, your father and mother are long dead.  You cannot wound them anymore.  You need to forgive them and do honor to both their memory and to the love they shared once that gave you this life.  When we first met, that night outside Montagnes-les-grands, I could sense who you were.  I knew you were one of us, and that given time, I could reach you.  It was why I let you go free, why I sought you out at the lake, why I’ve protected you and why I am asking you now.  If you loved them.  If you love me.  Help me end this war.”

The image of Elyssia and the baby began to dissolve, spinning away into fragments of golden light.  Etienne reached out to grab onto something, any vestige of her he could keep, but his hand found only air.  The particles swirled higher, tearing away the darkness to reveal the white room overlooking the Calerre harbor where he’d awoken what felt like a hundred years ago.  It was nighttime now, and a quilt of amber lights flickered over the hillsides at the mouth of the dark sea beyond.  “Au revoir, maman,” Etienne whispered, swallowing his emotions.  His father had wanted only one more kiss.  He would have settled for a final glimpse.

Au revoir à vous deux.

Nightingale was still holding his hands, awaiting his answer.  He collected himself and reasserted the self-confidence that she’d told him was an inheritance from Maman.  “You are wrong,” he said.  “The aim should not be to end the war.  It should be to win it.  This will never stop until we burn the Bureau to the ground and salt the smoldering cinders.”

She smirked at the improbability contained in his remark.  “I have a great deal of power, Etienne, but not against those weapons.  Not against legions of Bureau soldiers.”

“We will need our own army, then.”  An idea crested to the forefront of his thoughts, one that the former, more rational Etienne would have dismissed as lunacy, and indeed there was a not insignificant part of him that still considered it so.  “I have an inkling as to where we might recruit one.  I may need your help, though, in convincing its leader.”

“Why is that?”

“The last time I saw him, I stabbed him through the hand.”

*  *  *

Happy weekend, happy reading, and thanks for sticking around!  A break for a day or two, then it’s on with writing Part Fifteen!

Vintage, Part Thirteen

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I have nothing terribly interesting to say by way of introduction today, other than:  Here’s Part Thirteen.

He awoke to the cool salt scent of the morning sea.  Sheer curtains glowed with new sunlight as they billowed gently beneath the touch of the rising breeze.  In the distance, sea birds cried, and the wind answered, filling Etienne’s lungs with bracing, purifying air.  He was lying in an immense bed, on a cotton mattress as soft as fresh meringue.  He raised his head from a down pillow and pared a silk sheet away from a supine body.  Etienne’s bare feet sank into deep wool as he took a few cautious steps towards the curtains and pulled them back, opening the day as one would open a gift.  There were no windows.  Instead the room was absent a wall, and it looked out past a narrow balcony over the great seaside treasure that was the city of Calerre.  Jewelled rooftops rolled away over hills and valleys down to the horseshoe of the natural harbor welcoming those majestic ships that had so entranced him as a boy.  He could see the square sails of a three-masted barque unfurling as the vessel caught the early winds, while trawlers jostled for positions at the jetties to unload the nets containing the dawn’s haul of espadon and vivaneau.

He was home.

Etienne took a moment to inhale the view, to envelop himself in its tranquility.  He felt better-rested than he had been in months, if not years.  Old aches were silent and recent wounds were forgotten.  The room he found himself in was just as serene, its lavish furnishings and decor painted entirely in pristine white, soaking up the sunlight as it poured in, radiating a cushion of narcotic warmth.  The generous donor of the accommodations was sitting before a wall-mounted oval mirror at a white dressing table on the other side of the bed, running a delicate brush through long dark locks that spilled over one seductively bared shoulder.  He did not know if she had been there the entire time, or if she had just appeared – by magic, as was her wont.

Nightingale wore only a white satin robe, tied at the waist with an amethyst-hued ribbon.  She sat with her legs together at one side, and Etienne, who until now had seen her in a succession of concealing cloaks and boots, usually at the peak of night, found toned flesh gleaming in the sun to be as perfect as he had hoped.  It was hyperbolic understatement to say that her appearance was without flaw; more than that, it was as though each part of her had been crafted, with deliberate purpose, to the highest possible measure of allure.  And her presence seemed to be magnified beyond the limits of her physical form, beyond space, beyond even the moment.  Even as he looked at her across the room, he could feel the warmth of her body against his, taste her euphoric scent permeating his very skin.  He stood at the balcony and she sat at the table, but at the same time, they slept in the bed, laughed and rolled on the floor, clenched flesh in the burst of orgasm, danced quietly beneath the crystal chandelier, ached at the other’s long absence.  It was like all the elements and emotions of a courtship compressed into a single fragment of time.  The spark of a first kiss caught and preserved in amber, at once both rapturous, and disorienting.

She sensed him watching her.  She did not pause.  The brush continued in a straight line along to the very ends of her hair, then returned to her crown and repeated the downward journey, each stroke smooth and even.

“Good morning,” Nightingale said.

Etienne felt his cheeks fill with blood.  A pang of dizziness swam across his view.  “Hello,” he said back, the most erudite phrase he could summon.  In this place, she was both a beguiling stranger glimpsed in a crowd and a lover of decades whose every facet he could recite by rote.  “Are we… is this…”  Words were elusive suddenly, as though he was a foreign man unfamiliar with the language, struggling to articulate his intentions.  He pried his eyes away from her legs.  “Is this real?”

“What makes you believe it isn’t?”

He realized he sounded ungrateful.  However she had brought him here, it was certainly an improvement over the rickety bridges of Charmanoix.  “It’s just… I know of no establishment in Calerre that has this view.”

“What is real, what is not.  Such reductive thinking, Etienne,” the witch said, a tease laced into her voice.  “The truth you’ve yet to discover is that the answer to that question is not an absolute.  It does not have to be one or the other.”  She made a gesture, and a blast of frost seized Etienne’s spine.  He turned back to the view to find that the Calerre harbor had been usurped by a chain of snow-capped mountain peaks beneath a hard, thin sky, and that their room now teetered over a thousand-foot drop into a valley of blue ice.  Instinctively, Etienne grabbed his arms to stave off the shivers.  Teeth chattered so hard he was afraid he would break his jaw.

Undisturbed by the swing in temperature, Nightingale walked toward him.  She lifted her fingers again, and the cold stopped as swiftly as the slam of a door.  He heard the lash of wave against shore and looked out to see the golden sand of a beach and the swaying fronds of towering palms.  A sticky wall of humidity pressed against him.  With a sheepish sigh Etienne released his arms from his own crushing grip.  He could offer the beautiful witch nothing but a gape of disbelief.  She read him as easily as printed words.  “Go on,” she said with a nod.

Etienne crouched and scooped up a palmful of the clean, dry sand.  “This is a crossing,” Nightingale told him.  “Of time and place and magic, of mind, body and soul.  As intangible as a dream and as real and as truthful as the most intimate connection two people can share.”  It was her gift to him, he realized.  She was granting him the opportunity to be completely vulnerable.  With her.

He rubbed each grain of glass between his fingertips.  For what might have been merely spell-wreathed mirages, they felt real enough.  He stared out at the clear ocean, watched white foam bubble at the crest of each oncoming wave, and thought of walking the beach with her hand in his.  “I’ve always dreamed of coming somewhere like this, someday.”

Nightingale placed her hands on her hips.  Her tone became strangely judgmental.  “When the Bureau Centrale has no further use for you?”

Etienne let the sand sift between his fingers and fall silently in a small pile, like an hourglass.  Time, which had so often been his to command, felt terribly short, even in the pocket of eternity Nightingale had created for the two of them.  “I daresay that will be sooner than I was hoping, and under circumstances somewhat different.”  He brushed his hands, but they still felt coated in grit.  “I murdered a Commissionaire.  My men killed his men.”  An unwanted tremor invaded his words as he turned slowly back to her.  “I’ve never killed anyone before.”

“Perhaps it feels more real to swing the sword than to sign the order,” Nightingale said.  “But the result is the same.  One life ends at the hands of another.”  No, she would not absolve him.  There was too much blood to wash away, no matter how vast the ocean beyond these three walls.

“I can’t remember how many orders I’ve signed.  I don’t remember all the names.  Mothers and daughters.  We tell the families that they’ll come back.  They never do.”

“Your Bureau has carved a chasm in the soul of this country and of its people,” the witch said.  “It has skewed the course of history down a path it was never meant to tread, and from which you may never find your way back.  How much progress and happiness and even basic decency has been sacrificed to the pursuit of the illusion of security and safety?  How much humanity has been lost to the irrational indulgence of fear?  How many dreams ended too soon?”

“I’m not sure even the Bureau has an accurate count.”  Numbers seemed a cold, inadequate measure of the tragedy she was describing.

“And yet,” Nightingale said, “until you met me you were a loyal soldier in their cause.  Had I not intervened that night, you would have delivered that innocent girl to the tortures of the Bureau and hunted down another, and another, without hesitation.  Repeating the same pattern over decades until your vices finally caught up with you.”

Etienne found it within him to smile.  “You have a way of changing a man’s mind.”

She drew closer, each barefoot step bursting with sensuality.  In flashes of time he was covering her quivering body in hard, welcomed kisses, or he was on his knees pleading with her to return as she stormed out of his life.  “Would the argument have been as convincing,” Nightingale asked, “if I didn’t look like this?”

She had never been modest about her beauty, nor its effect on him.  He was humbled by that.  “Does it matter?”

“You say that you are in love with me, but you do not love what I am.”

“Haven’t I proved that to you already?”  The taste of pleading was wine turned to vinegar.  “Was saving the sisters and killing Meservey not enough?”

“I am a witch, Etienne,” Nightingale declared.  “Of all the powers I have shown you, I have still more that you cannot fathom.  That frightens you.  And part of you clings to a choice you made years ago, to fear me.”  She aimed a delicate finger at his chest.  “I can see it there, embedded in your heart.  Festering.  Rotting away like a piece of old meat left in the sun.  It has been part of you for so long you will not give it up easily, no matter how enticed you are.”

Etienne started to tell her that he did not fear her, but the sentiment caught in his throat.  He was back outside Montagnes-les-grands, glimpsing her face for the first time.  He was suspended in ice watching her circle him with silent steps.  He was broken on the bridges of Charmanoix and reignited by her healing magic coursing through his veins.  He was somewhere half-asleep dreaming of wanting to see her, and now, standing before her, he was terrified that she might slip away.  He could see by her face that she knew all of these thoughts just as they crossed his own mind.  Pride was a fool’s option; he gained nothing by pretending her assessment was not correct.

“Then take it from me,” he said.

The room turned black.

Abruptly, he was alone, and lost, unable to glean any reassurance from his senses.  He could not be certain which way was up, or indeed, if up was even a concept that could be applied.  Etienne wanted to cry out, but he had no lips to part, nor throat from which to sound out the plea.  He struggled to find arms to wave, legs to run.

Just then, out of the middle of the black drifted a man’s voice.  A single point of reference, finally, to which Etienne could strain to listen with the ears he now remembered he had.  The voice grew louder, repeating a single question until it became clear enough for him to understand every precious word.

“Why do you want to work for the Bureau Centrale, Monsieur Navarre?”

He was in a plain, windowless room, painted in plain colors, adorned by plain, functional furniture.  The walls were hypnotic in their blandness.  A small, choking coal stove sputtered out wafts of fetid smoke he did his best to avoid coughing on.

Two men were seated behind the desk across from him.  The one speaking suited the room; he wore a plain black uniform jacket with black buttons done up to the collar, and nary a decoration on the breast.  There was absolutely nothing memorable about him.  He was the sort whose name you would forget immediately after being introduced, and indeed, Etienne could not recall it, only his pretentious title:  Coordinateur executif.  The other had not said a word past initial greetings, yet Etienne remembered him.  Sous-adjoint directeur Girard Noeme.  His uniform bore several polished gold and bronze medals, and his creased face and silvered hair were indicative of a life lived hard, while his relaxed posture, folded arms and perpetual grin were the stamp of not giving a solitary damn about anyone and anything.

Etienne reached into his arsenal of charm and served them the most obsequious response he could imagine.  “I’ve long been an admirer of the Bureau and its effectiveness at quelling the most potent threat to our society anyone has ever witnessed.  I have a great passion to serve my country and fight against those who would seek to destroy it, and I am confident that I can apply my skills to furthering the Bureau’s mandate in whatever role you would have me fill.”

Noeme’s grin edged into a smirk, while his featureless colleague turned crisp white papers on the desk.  “Your transcript from College de Calerre says that the focus of your studies was literature and philosophy,” said the coordinateur.  “I have difficulty understanding how such an education is of assistance in the pursuit of criminals.”

“Education in the arts gives one a keen insight into the workings not of the mind, but of the heart, that place where the deepest motivation springs – particularly the motive to do evil.  It trains one to seek to understand the story of the other, to recognize patterns of behavior and to establish connections that otherwise remain unseen.”

The man remained unimpressed.  “Such as?”

“Such as me being able to observe that not only are you unmarried, but it has in fact been some years since you last dallied with a member of the fairer gender, and while you were and remain quite enamored with her she thought very little of you, and refused to answer your somewhat fervent correspondence after her father terminated your courtship.  You believe you are better than your current position, and you dream of rising in the ranks, but you lack the will and the drive to seize any chance that might present itself, though there have in fact been several you regret letting slip.  Few friends, mostly family members who don’t truly have any interest in your company but feel obligated to see you for feast days and the like.  Any leisure time you might have is spent in the care of your elderly, ailing mother, and, on a more obvious note, based on the scratches on your right hand you appear to have recently acquired a pet cat.  Finally, though you are attempting to affect an air of nonchalance and even boredom with this process, you are urgently in need of a visit to the lavatory.  Too much café with your morning repast, maybe?”

Girard Noeme burst to life, slapping his hands together and unleashing a roar of laughter that startled his humiliated colleague.  “Brilliant!” he announced.  The coordinateur was not quite as amused.  Noeme punched his shoulder.  “Oh come now, Alein, you must admit he nailed you.  What was her name again, the one with the harelip and the one leg shorter than the other.  Florelle.”

Alein’s ire was not dispelled by Noeme’s sense of humor.  “Arrogance is not a quality that the Bureau appreciates,” he said, a wobble in his voice undermining the attempt at condescension.

“The Bureau appreciates any quality that assists them in apprehending witches,” Noeme said.  He turned his grin on Etienne and gestured to the door.  “Come along, young man.  Let us find some more diverting ways to waste your time.”  Etienne rose and followed him, leaving the flustered coordinateur to his precious papers and boring surroundings.

“You’ll have to pardon Alein,” Noeme said once they had left the interview room a good distance past earshot.  “His mother does harry him so.  Personally I don’t believe she’s ill at all, I think the old battleaxe just enjoys being doted on day and night.”  He chuckled again.  “That you could sense that about him is quite impressive.”

“It’s something I’ve always been able to do,” Etienne said.

“The Bureau would welcome that insight,” Noeme told him.  “Our enemy is gifted at deception and false fronts.  Though I think I’ll spare myself your impressions of me.”

“Would you mind telling me where we are going, then?”  They crossed through a narrow corridor filled with doors, each painted black and stenciled with a single identifying code.  Noeme gave no indication of which, if any, was their destination.

“I’ll let you in on a secret,” Noeme said.  “For the nature of the Bureau’s work, we are less interested in your academics than we are your character.  Alein has to do his intake assessments, and proud we all are of his fastidiousness, but what is written on paper can never truly capture the essence of a man.  You have to prove that to us in other, more direct ways.  Ah, here we are.”  He stopped them at a door with the meaningless designation RT-106.  “In you go, then.”

Etienne hesitated.  “What am I expected to do in there?”

Noeme shook his head.  “Easiest task you’ll ever have.  Just enjoy a fine meal.”  He turned the handle and pushed the door open.  Etienne ventured a cautious step inside.  Noeme sealed the entrance behind him, leaving him alone.

This room was even blander than the first, though the ceiling was mirrored, creating the illusion of a doubling in height.  In front of him was a table with a single chair, upholstered in beige velvet.  On the table was a porcelain plate bearing the largest, juiciest portion of filet mignon he had ever seen, seasoned and seared to a succulent medium rare, and accompanied by mushrooms au jus and grilled asparagus spears drenched in butter.  Thin slices of fresh baguette adorned a side plate, and crowning the presentation was a flawless crystal glass of a plum and vanilla-scented red.  The only thing preventing the famished Etienne from diving at the table immediately was the sight of his dining companion.

She was young, no more than fourteen.  Strings of unwashed blond hair drooped over her eyes.  Malnutrition had rendered her so gaunt as to be little more than a ghost there at the back of the room.  She wore filthy, shredded rags, and a thick chain attached to a metal collar around her neck locked her in place.  The stink of her poisoned the enticing aromas of the meat and the wine.

Noticing Etienne, she rose to her feet, slowly, exerting the feeble strength of starving limbs.  The chain clanked as she took one creaking, teetering step after another towards him, looking as though the next would see her topple over.  It went taut and stopped her a cruel arm’s length from the table.  She did not say a word.  By the look of her he imagined the power of speech had long since been broken.  Instead she just stared at him, letting bloodshot, bleary eyes make the desperate request her voice could not.

Etienne knew what was being asked.

He sat down, gathered the knife and fork and began to eat.  The girl wept and wailed and screamed, but he remained in the velvet-covered chair with the calm indifference of a morning lake.  He devoured the beef and chased it with satisfied sips of the excellent wine, even as the girl thrashed against her chains until she bled, pleading and reaching for the smallest morsel of food to take away her hunger.  It went on like that as he made his way through the meal, her efforts losing their conviction as the amount of food remaining on the plate started to dwindle into crumbs.

She collapsed into weak, defeated sobs as he used the last slice of baguette to wipe the plate clean of the au jus.  Etienne leaned back and dabbed the corners of his mouth with a cloth napkin, and shut his ears to her cries.  Part of him – any part that might still have been human – wanted to crawl out of his skin, or at least out of this room.

The door flew open, and in strode Girard Noeme, applauding as though he’d just witnessed a master class performance of the finest drama ever penned.  “Well done, my boy, well done.  Very impressive.  We’ve been watching.”  He gestured to the mirrored ceiling.  “You would be surprised how many give in after the first minute.  So, how was it?  Did you enjoy it?  Chef Lafraine is cooking today, I find he can’t manage pork very well but his beef filets are truly divine.  And that’s a ‘32, that red.  Nothing but the best here.  Unlimited budgets certainly help, yes?”

“It was delicious,” Etienne said with a deliberate casual manner, as if there was not in fact a starving young girl crumpled there on the floor.  Muffled moans still rose from her broken form.

“Well, I’ll be sure to pass that along,” said Noeme.  Only now did he acknowledge the girl.  “Oh, there there, my sweet little thing.  Such noise!  Come here, stand up, let me look at you.”  He made a show of offering compassionate assistance, when it was plain he was hauling her to her feet.  Noeme cupped her chin in his hand.  “Ah, I remember this one.  Interesting.  She has the ability to communicate with and direct the behavior of butterflies.  Such a useful, productive skill, don’t you think?”  Noeme chuckled to himself.  “I think you’ve been short-changed, my dear.  Give me the mighty sorceress who can throw lightning or turn herself into a dragon.”

She started crying again.  Noeme clucked his tongue.  “Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to tease.  Here, let me help you.  Etienne, would you, please?”  Noeme pointed at the steak knife lying on the empty plate.  Etienne handed it to him.  Noeme took it and swiftly slashed it across the girl’s throat.

Blood spurted in an arc from the exposed artery, choking her cries.  Noeme took a deliberate step back as she lurched forward.  She was dead before her body hit the floor.  She was so emaciated the impact scarcely made a sound.

With a sudden coldness Noeme tossed the knife aside.  It clattered on the porcelain plate.  Etienne did not look at it.

Noeme noticed Etienne’s gaze lingering on the girl’s body.  “Don’t waste your tears, my friend,” he said.  “There are plenty more where she came from.  That’s why we’re all here, isn’t it?”  He slung a congenial arm around Etienne’s shoulder and walked him to the door.  “Welcome to the Bureau Centrale, Etienne.  Shall we move on to level two?”

Etienne understood what was supposed to happen next, that he was supposed to accompany Girard Noeme to the next round of tests, most more gruesome and soul-crushing than even this.  From there he would be granted the starting rank of enseigne spéciale and begin his formal Bureau career, rising ultimately to the coveted post of Commissionaire faster than anyone in the Bureau’s history.  But this time he willed a redirection of the narrative.  He let Noeme’s arm slip away and halted, waiting behind as the sous-adjoint directeur carried onward, talking to the air as he went.  “Nightingale,” Etienne called out.  “Nightingale, stop this.  Please.”

The room turned dark and cold, and a column of bright violet light descended and twisted into the captivating shape of her.  “These are your memories,” Nightingale said.  “You cannot blame me if you find them distasteful.”

“I know what I’ve done.  I don’t need to relive it.”

“Yet you do not know the truth of who you are.  I am in your mind, Etienne, I can see it, but you need to be shown if you are to understand.  Go through the door.”

“I’m afraid,” he said, no louder than a whisper.

“I am here.  Go.”  She waved her hand, and the door slid open.  Etienne could see nothing but blackness beyond it.  He edged his toes nearer to its threshold.  Etienne drew a deep breath and clenched his fingers into fists.  He lifted his leg and stepped across.

Into the bedchamber of his dying father.

* * *

This story keeps growing, so what you’re seeing now is a novel unfolding one chapter at a time.  Believe it or not, that wasn’t my initial intention, but now I suppose I’m stuck with it!  I have a few other projects to tackle first but I’ll be back with Part Fourteen soon enough.  Kind of excited to do the big reveal Nightingale hints at in the closing section…

Vintage, Part Twelve

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Always hate when I have to make you wait for it.  Allons-y without further ado then.  (This is a lengthy one, so settle in a comfy chair first.)

For most of his life, hope had been less a comfort to Etienne than it was a tool in service of an end, something to be dangled before the less fortunate and then snatched away at the most opportune moment.  Why certainly mon cherie, of course the Bureau will be lenient with you and your family, so long as you come with us and sign this full confession.  The idea of hope had fascinated him, this notion that one can aspire to the faintest hint of salvation no matter how bleak the circumstance, no matter how universally promises were dashed.  Etienne had applied a scholar’s lens to its study and dedicated himself to learning how to manipulate hope in those he was assigned to pursue.  So singular had been his focus on the exploitation of hope that he had never bothered to examine the solace and solidarity it provided to those perennially downtrodden who clung to it in the reality of a harsh world usually given to breaking hope across its stone back – the backs of men like himself.

The sound of the walk to the Pont d’Eglise was funereal, even if the pace was anything but.  Meservey’s soldiers marched in two parallel lines behind the Commissionaire, who led the way on horseback at a brisk trot.  Etienne shambled along next to him, feeling very much the puppy trying to keep stride with its perturbed master.  Meservey did not speak to him as they pushed onward over the bridges of the now-silent town, and each moment of quiet doubled the tremors surging through Etienne’s stomach.  Too much cheap and fast whisky thumped his brain against unforgiving skull and amplified the rush of the blood urged careening through veins by a racing heart.  He rued not having eaten today, but reconciled himself to the notion that he probably would have vomited it up by now.  For Etienne, the march was that of the condemned to the inevitability of the gallows.

The remainder of Meservey’s armed detachment, absent only those needed to keep the rest of the town in line, was waiting for them at the steps of the stone church on the far side of the bridge.  Without words, or even a nod from their Commissionaire, they fell swiftly into rank.  Meservey wheeled his company to port, and Etienne was presented once again with the sight of the row of festering hovels he had visited not a few short hours before; the sad, reeking, rotting underbelly of poverty he had chosen to ignore in every town, village and bourg he’d ever passed through.  This was where the dream of prosperity had failed and left utter ruin in its wake.  But by looking after the destitute in their last days, granting them some measure of dignity and peace, the witches Adelyra and Kathaline had managed to become a thin thread of hope for the impoverished of Charmanoix.

Now Serge Meservey and a dozen men with swords were only a hundred feet from their door.

They halted at the base of the creaking stairs.  Meservey descended from his horse and selected twin braquemarts from scabbards buckled to his saddle:  wide blades that were straight and short, good for hacking one’s way through both thick foliage and oncoming opposition.  They emitted blinding gleams under the hot sun, crafted obviously from the magic-bonded mix of iron and silver.  Meservey had even troubled to have his monogram engraved in bronze script on the pearlescent hilts.  He spun the blades twice and holstered them at his thighs.  “This one same as any other,” he told his men.  “First company with me.  Rest, secondary protocol in four minutes.”  Etienne did not know what that meant, nor did he understand what his part was to be in Meservey’s unfolding scene – that is, until the other Commissionaire froze him with a glare, nodded at the staircase and growled at him in a voice that dropped into the grave.  “After you, Navarre.”

“What is it you expect of me here?” Etienne asked him.

“Just knock on the door.  Can do that, can’t you?”  Without subtlety, Meservey tightened fingers around the hilt of his sword while gesturing broadly up toward the entrance.  Etienne looked at him, shifted his eyes to the humorless faces of the other soldiers, and realized he was without options.  He took a slow breath and began the ascent, listening to each painful crack of each sagging wooden step beneath his heel.  Meservey followed him.  Five of the soldiers came after.  Etienne worried the staircase would not support them all, and this grand venture would end with the lot of them pitched tête-first into the adjacent canal.

But the staircase bore them well enough, and Etienne planted his feet before the door with the peeling green paint and rapped firmly on the section where the fewest splinters could potentially lodge in his knuckles.  “Bureau Centrale,” he announced.  “Ouvrer la porte maintenant.”

No response.

Serge Meservey’s hard mouth twisted into a grin; his appetite for a fight was piqued.  Drawing both braquemarts he stepped forward and kicked against the door, punting it open and sending a chunk of the frame skidding across the floor for its trouble.  Again he motioned Etienne to enter first.

Despite the sun blazing down from a placid, cloudless sky outside, the room was dark.  Heavy opaque curtains had been drawn over the enormous rear window, leaving only a single thin stick of light to sneak through where they separated.  Listless air hung there with death’s fragrance on each breath.  Etienne thought he saw Meservey wrinkle his nose at it.  Unlike his first visit, when the walls had echoed the moans of the dying in their beds, this time everything was silent.  Those who slumbered beneath their clean white blankets did not stir, even as the soldiers filtered inside.

The lack of reaction to their arrival rattled Etienne’s counterpart, as if the man had expected to find the two witches enjoying a cup of tea.  Letting fly a choice repertoire of curses, Meservey gathered a meaty handful of curtains and tore them from the wall.  Brilliance flooded into the room from the exposed window, completing the setting but revealing nothing and no one further than the bodies in the two rows of beds.  The storm brewing on Meservey’s face swelled from squall to tempest, and he stomped over to the nearest bed and pulled the blanket off, exposing – in what one might grant as an understandable instant of shock – the unexpectedly young and hale occupant.

“Bonjour, monsieur,” said Corporal Valnier.

When Nightingale had attacked his convoy outside Montagnes-les-grands, Etienne had noted how time had seemed to slow to a snail’s crawl.  Here it screamed ahead beyond the gallop of the fastest horse, as his men leaped from their concealment in the beds with swords drawn and assailed Meservey’s soldiers before the latter group could collect their respective jaws from the floor.  Polished metal flashed shards of light over the walls, followed by flecks of fresh blood.  Cries of pain erupted, and just as quickly dwindled into choked, ebbing gurgles.  Bodies fell to the floor in turn like so many discarded gambling chips.  The Directeurs had not lied when they had promised Etienne a detachment of the best; a virgin betting man would have balked at the odds for their opponents.

Showing no respect for gentleman’s rules – part of why he was so good at what he did – Valnier clubbed Meservey in the groin with both fists, and as the Commissionaire crumpled and doubled over in a wheezing fit his swords fell from his grip.  Etienne shoved the large man aside and scrambled to collect the weapons.  The whole enterprise concluded faster than it would have taken one of the Bureau’s clerks to describe it.  Meservey, red, tears streaming at his temples, raised his head to witness his five men cut down, Etienne’s group with nary a scratch shared between them and Etienne himself directing the serious end of a custom, pearl-handled braquemart at his nose.

In spite of this, Meservey found it within himself to laugh.  “Well played, Navarre,” he said.  He coughed and spat.  “Belleclain sisters?”

“A hundred miles gone, give or take,” said Etienne.  His plan, shared with his corporal in that brief exchange outside the inn a few hours past, had gone as intended.  “My dear Valnier here was good enough to see them away the minute your detachment arrived.”

Meservey sighed, though he could not erase his grin.  “Real pity.  Heard the rumor back in Calerre, didn’t want to believe it.  Gave you every chance to prove me wrong.”

“What’s that?”

Despite the congenial veneer, his words were ice.  “Got spoiled by a taste of hot witch’s teat.  Didn’t think treason was your bag though.  Hope you shared her chatte doux with the rest of your boys, ‘cause you’re all going to swing for it.  After they gut you to force a confession first.”

“What will they gut me with?  Your magic swords, Serge?” Etienne said.  “You want to toss around accusations of treason, let’s discuss a violation of the Bureau’s very constitution, designed and engineered by you.”

“Sanctioned by the Directeurs,” Meservey reminded him.  “Blessed by them.”

“Even they answer to someone else.  The King’s executioners are going to need a lot of rope.”

“Think anyone will listen to a defrocked Commissionaire under the spell of a witch?”

Etienne edged the sword tip closer to his colleague’s skin, close enough to clip the near-invisible hairs sprouting from each pore.  “Want to live long enough to find out?  Tell me where the weapons are being made.”

“You’ve got nothing,” Meservey said.  “Kill me, you’ve still got nothing.”

A new aroma slipped between the beats of their conversation, an insidious odor slithering up between breaths of old decay and new dead flesh beginning to spoil in the heat.  It was a smell from memory, from cold nights and warm kitchens.  Wood, searing into smoke.  Etienne’s eyes itched as a gray haze faded across his field of view.  “What the hell’s going on?” he said to no one in particular.  Valnier motioned for one of the men to investigate, but need not have bothered; Etienne knew swiftly enough who was responsible.  “Secondary protocol?” he asked.

Meservey’s grin nearly split the corners of his mouth.  “Rest of my men don’t hear from me in four minutes, they seal the building and set it on fire.  Kill everyone inside.”

“Including you.”

“Big bear brings home the prize catch or doesn’t come home at all.”

“You’re insane,” Etienne said.

Meservey stepped closer, letting the sword point touch his chin.  “Going to die with me, Navarre.  Fitting end for a couple of traitors.  Shame we don’t have more of that Fián to toast with.”

“Monsieur?”  Corporal Valnier pressed him with an atypical urgency.

Sweat curled across Etienne’s forehead with the doubling of the heat, and lungs closed tight as the room filled with smoke.  He opened his mouth to issue orders and instead found himself hacking on befouled air.  Meservey seized enough uncontaminated breath to laugh.

A furious, bright amber intruder exploded through the entrance, collapsing the timbers in the ceiling as flames erupted from the first floor and began to devour the second.  Meservey used the distraction to pivot away from Etienne’s blade, and hurl himself through the great window.  Skin shredded by shattered glass, the Commissionaire fell amidst a clattering rain of hundreds of shards to the street one storey down, breaking his fall with a loud crash through crates of fishing gear.  Etienne’s indecision lasted only long enough to see Meservey pry himself out of the detritus of lures and rods and begin to run – to find and return with his reinforcements, to get word sent to Calerre about Etienne’s treason, whatever.  Etienne knew he could not let the man escape.

“Get everyone out,” he told his corporal.  “Whatever you need to do.  Go!”  Etienne climbed up to the open window frame and crouched on its edge.  He looked over the alleyway below to the clay-tiled roof of the next building, and his mind found spare a fraction of a second to wish that he had been a younger man, or truly, that he had bothered to eat something this morning.  Sheathing Meservey’s braquemart in his belt, Etienne stood, bent his knees, threw his arms forward and leaped.

Realistically, he should not have made it.  Even an inch short and he would have, should have, smacked against the side of the building and ended his journey through this life in a crumpled heap of broken flesh in the alleyway.  But whether from determination blended with stupidity, audacity stirred by adrenaline, plain mindless luck – or perhaps even a lingering trace of Nightingale’s sublime magic – he wrested that needed inch.

Etienne’s fingers clawed at the raised edge where one tile lay over another, securing a fragile hold by which arms exerted nearly into sprains could haul the rest of himself up.  Rising, he steadied himself with a deep breath.  In the street below he could see Meservey running north, back toward the town square.  Etienne set out after him, pushing his legs hard, trampling tile and wooden plank in leaps from rooftop to rooftop of the buildings lining the streets and the canals.  He kept the other man ever in his sights like a hawk set on a particularly succulent mouse for its lunch.

Behind him, fire had risen to consume the entirety of Adelyra and Kathaline’s infirmary and begun to spread to the adjacent buildings, aided by the onset of a stiff wind.  The cheap, weathered timbers of the poor quarter were unable to repel the onslaught.  Etienne could not spare a thought for the men he’d left behind, however.  He had to trust that Valnier would see to their safety.  The deep alarm bells started ringing again, and in the streets and along the canals, the people of Charmanoix emerged from their hiding as if from a long hibernation.  This complicated Meservey’s flight, as he now had to buck and weave around wandering bodies when it was plain from his course – as observed by Etienne above – that he was not entirely certain which way he was going.  Understandable, given the mazelike quality of the layout of this place, and fortunate for his pursuer, who otherwise would not have been able to keep pace.

Meservey veered off the narrow bridge onto a much narrower wood plank walkway adhering to the rear facades of a row of buildings, bowling over the villagers and smashing through their meager belongings, very much a bull on a charge.  Etienne followed across the rooftops, his own steps more the delicate springs of a deer.  A high suspension bridge at the north end of this stepped path connected the two sides of the canal and led to the main route back to the town square; it was Etienne’s best chance to stop Meservey before he reached reinforcements.

A renewed sense of determination braced Etienne’s tiring legs.  However, architecture, or rather its failings, had planned otherwise.  Etienne’s right foot loosened a flimsy roof tile that promptly shattered and interrupted his stride.  Overwhelmed by mislaid weight, his ankle twisted too far and snapped.  The crack of the bone was so loud it cut through the sudden spike of pain.  Absent that support the rest of him tumbled forward, and fingers scrabbling for a steadying grip came away only with crumbs of broken clay.  He slid towards the edge and rolled off.  For an instant he felt nothing but the fissure in his foot as air parted to make way for his falling form.  He pierced a rotted cloth awning, which slowed his descent ever so slightly, and deposited him with a final thump on a pile of hard burlap sacks, which seemed to contain only bricks.

Etienne did not know which hurt to react to first.  He rolled over onto his side, and sensed in between sheets of lacerating agony that the braquemart was gone, that it had obviously come loose in his fall.  Quickly he spotted it lying a short distance away on the walkway, the blade hanging over the edge.  Before he could reach for it a pair of boots stepped between him and the sword, and a hand reached down to grasp it; a hand belonging to the owner of the initials monogrammed on the pearlescent hilt.  Etienne’s eyes rose to meet the rest of him.

Serge Meservey smiled, and swung the blade down at Etienne’s head.

Etienne flung himself forward.  The sword sliced deep into the burlap sacks, lodging itself deeply into whatever was inside them.  Growling, Meservey yanked at it.  It took him a few seconds to free it again, and Etienne used those priceless seconds to pull himself up and limp away, forcing his good leg ahead and dragging the dead weight of his right.  He heard Meservey stomping towards him and spun.  Meservey tried a lateral slice at neck height this time, and Etienne dropped and heard the sword thock against the wooden railing.  He pushed himself up with his working knee and landed his fist in the crook of the elbow of Meservey’s sword arm.  The Commissionaire grunted and dropped the blade, letting it clatter on the planks below them.  His emptied hand became a fist and hurled a powerful blow against Etienne’s jaw.  Etienne’s mouth filled with blood, and in it swam something small, loose and jagged as well.  Had he a moment to reflect on this development, he might have fretted about still being able to chew the medium rare-grilled spice steaks he’d often enjoyed in the Splendide’s dining salon.  But as he fell, the priority was to ensure that Meservey did not get his hands on the braquemart again.  He twisted himself to land on it and cover it with his chest.

Meservey urged him in the strongest possible manner to give up the blade by locking his large hands around Etienne’s neck.  Dark spots swarmed Etienne’s vision as he tried to turn the sword beneath his weight and get his hand around the hilt, while at the same time he fought for breath.  His fingers shook as he searched for it, dug for it, scratched at it.  Fingertips grazed the hilt as the light began to dim.  Meservey continued to throttle him without pause.  Etienne finally felt his hand wrap around the leather grip.  He shifted his weight onto his left side, giving his right enough space for his arm to tear the sword out from underneath and slash blindly at his aggressor.  The blade sliced a deep gouge into Meservey’s cheek.  Blood spewed over both men.  He stumbled back, clutching at the fresh wound.

Bruised larynx wracking him with spasms of hard coughs, Etienne dragged himself vertical and turned to face the other man again.  One side of Meservey’s face was painted in strings of dark red, and part of his earlobe was gone.  Yet his mouth was still curved in a sadistic grin, and he kept advancing.  “Never were a fighter, Navarre,” he said, with a voice full of gravel.  “Should have taken my head off with that.  But you’ve got the delicate hands of an accountant.”

Etienne held the walkway railing with one hand, retreating slowly toward the suspension bridge, and swung the sword in sharp bursts with the other, keeping Meservey at a distance.  Propelled by the wind, fire was continuing to spread through the streets of Charmanoix, and over Meservey’s shoulders he could see it coming closer, eating one building after another.  “Tell me then,” Meservey went on, “this all worth a few rounds between a witch’s legs?  Did it feel that good when you took her?  Or did you let her take you, like a good little salop?”  Etienne swung the sword harder.  Meservey laughed.  They were on the bridge now, Etienne limping in reverse and Meservey continuing to stroll towards him – to an observer it was the slowest chase in the history of mankind.  Not that anyone was paying them any heed; the villagers were running pell mell trying to save their homes and belongings from the blaze.

Etienne dared a thrust toward Meservey’s stomach, and Meservey grabbed his arm and squeezed.  A vise closed on his bones, pressing them together.  Etienne let the blade fall.  Meservey pulled him in and blasted his face with another punch.  Etienne crumpled into a heap of throbbing pain.  If there was ever a time for hope, about now would have been terribly convenient.  Meservey was right:  Etienne did not have the physique of a fighter.  He was crippled now, unable to walk, and even at peak form he had perhaps half the strength of his opponent.  This fight had been over before it began, and Etienne had been stupid to think he could have offered a challenge any fraction greater than laughable, that he could have beaten Meservey at any contest more substantial than cards.

He felt soft fingertips on his face.  They were not real, of course.  His fantasy of her was taking hold again, the instinct for self-preservation offering him an illusory measure of comfort as reserves dwindled below critical.  Etienne, she whispered to him.  My sweet Etienne.

My beautiful Nightingale, he said.

You have never understood why the lost turn to magic, she told him.  Do you understand now?  Do you understand what it truly is?

The answer came to him between heartbeats.  He did not know if it was his own thought, or one given to him by her.  But it felt logical, it felt reasonable, and moreover, for once it felt right.

Magic is their hope, Etienne said.  Magic is hope.

He could feel her everywhere.  Her voice was both within and without him.  Then let it be yours now, she said.  White light washed over him, and she was gone again.

Meservey looked down at Etienne, then leaned on the bridge railing and stared out at the approaching fire, which was snaking its way along the walkway that had seen the commencement of their struggle.  Blackened timbers splintered and tumbled into the rushing waters of the canal below.  “What do I do with you now?” wondered the Commissionaire aloud.  “Finish you myself or leave you to the flames?”  What Etienne said in response, Meservey could not hear.  “What’s that?  You begging?”  He leaned closer.

“No mercy…” Etienne repeated, “for you shall have none.”

He punctuated his citation of the Bureau’s infamous motto with an impossibly brutal kick to the back of Meservey’s knees.  Balance stolen by the unexpected blow, Meservey pitched forward and, unthinking, tried to plant his feet on what turned out to be just past the very edge of the bridge.  He went down, striking his chin on the railing, and as he spun his arms flailed to hook himself desperately around one of the thick suspension ropes.  Meservey dangled there, grip precarious, over a seven-storey drop to the coursing waters of the canal.  And he watched, astonished, as Etienne rose and stood on legs that had been made whole.  “The hell,” the incredulous Meservey spat.

“Hardly,” said Etienne, flexing the healed limbs approvingly.  He ran his tongue over his teeth; they were all there, just where they should be.  Medium rare steaks were still a possibility.

The fire had reached the end of the bridge and was progressing in towards them now.  The heat piled on top of them like unforgiving iron weights.  “Same question, then.  Finish you or leave you to the flames?”

“Pissing it all away, Navarre.  Bureau will hunt you down like the witch-loving rat bastard you’ve become.  You’ll never sleep another night.”

Meservey’s braquemart was lying in the path of the fire; a tiny flame burned at its tip.  Etienne scooped it up and contemplated it.  “I’ll wager you’d love to lead that particular hunt.  Tell me where the weapons are made and you’ll have your chance.”  He touched the smoldering blade to the rope onto which Meservey was clinging.  The little flame licked at the woven fibers as if tasting them, trying to decide if they were worth sinking its teeth into.

“You’ll never get near them,” Meservey said, finding resolve enough to sneer at him.

“Then there’s no reason not to tell me, is there?  Decide, Serge, I don’t remember how long it takes for rope to burn.”

Etienne had seen plenty of hate directed his way in his life; to be a Commissionaire was to invite it, to become a fulcrum for it, to walk about wearing it as a cloak.  He had been cursed, threatened, even burned in effigy once by a particularly creative and crafty group of villagers out in Brennes.  The difference was that in those cases, it was never personal.  It was the Bureau they hated, and he was merely the representative.  Here, locking eyes with Serge Meservey, Etienne could sense raw, venal, personal hatred such as he had never experienced.  It was difficult to believe that they had shared a congenial round of drinks only an hour before, when now it was more than evident that Meservey would derive an almost carnal pleasure from discovering into how many pieces he could chop Etienne’s breathing body.  That incinerating alive whilst hanging from a bridge would be preferable to granting Etienne a victory.  That Meservey’s hatred of himself for capitulating would be just as fierce.  That in the old days a blood feud would have begun today to endure seven generations.

Each word was drenched in humiliation and distaste as Meservey forced it past his lips.  “Bureau headquarters,” he said, choking on the syllables.  “Sub-level six.  That’s where the weapons are made.”

Etienne kept the blade next to the rope.  He furrowed his brow.  “There is no sub-level six.”  The headquarters building had only five floors below ground, mostly for storage and some training facilities.  He’d been on sub-level five a dozen times and had never noted anything – doors, stairs, what have you – suggestive of a sixth.  “You’re lying to me.”

“Entrance is separate, not in the main building.  Tunnel comes in from across the street.  The old Korbolde garden house.  Now get me off this maudit rope!”  His hands were beginning to slip, and the fire had reached the ropes next to his.  Wood cracked and split.  Heat pressed against their faces.

It was enough for Etienne to go on.  And it did not come as a terrible surprise to know that the Bureau would want to keep the manufacture of its forbidden materiel so close to home.  Only one question remained – what to do with the man responsible.

This is not my choice to make, Etienne.

Etienne shifted his grip on the sword.  Meservey’s eyes widened.  “Wait,” he pleaded, hate softening in the final seconds.  Flames coiled around the top of his rope and descended toward his hands.  “Why are you doing this?  Has to be more than just because of a woman.”

Etienne had nothing to offer but a shrug of his shoulders.  “I have hope,” he said, before burying the customized, monogrammed braquemart in its owner’s stomach.

The rope snapped, and Meservey fell, sword sticking out of his gut, blood leading the way to the waters below.  There was a tremendous splash, and the body was carried silently out of sight, destined to float the remaining course of the Sept Frères to the ocean and from there, beyond all memory.  Etienne expected that none would mourn Meservey’s passing beyond the anonymous insignia that would be placed on the Bureau’s memorial wall.

“Etienne,” said a melodic voice behind him.  A real voice.

However beautiful his memory of her, it always paled when he could behold her in the flesh, as if the human mind was simply incapable of keeping an accurate record even approaching what she was.  Someone else had once referred to her as a goddess, and seeing her standing there in the middle of the flames, long dark hair teased by her servant the wind, Etienne felt a compulsion to sink to his knees and offer her his inadequate worship.  “Nightingale,” he said.

Nightingale raised a slender, perfect hand above her head.  Purple light whirled at her fingers, and around them, the fire began to vanish – not extinguish into smoke, but simply disappear as if being painted off the canvas by an artist who had quite casually changed her mind.  It rolled back and away from them, evaporating from the buildings, all that scorched wood regaining its color and shape.  Once again he found himself awed by the sheer, intangible scope of her powers.

“Thank you for saving me,” Etienne said.  “Have I earned the privilege of your real name yet?”

Amaranthine lips smiled.  She reached out to touch his cheek.  He could feel sparks of her energies tingling the surface of his skin.  I want to kiss you so desperately, he thought.  I want to have all of you, and I don’t care if you know it.  Yet he held himself back.  He wanted her to consent to his desires.  He wanted her to want him with as much pure, untamable yearning as he felt, and he wanted them both to revel in stratospheric throes of passion he could only guess at.

“Come with me,” she whispered.  Her hands glowed with a rush of magic again.

And all that was the town of Charmanoix faded from Etienne’s sight.

* * *

Remember, you can now read the complete story on my Wattpad page by clicking the icon to the right.  Lucky part thirteen is on its way.

Vintage, Part Eleven

vintagetitle

Happy Friday the 13th!  Will Etienne thwart the curse of that notorious day in this new installment?  Read on to find out…

Etienne remembered the route back to the inn.  It helped that everyone else in the town was hurrying the other way in a thunderous dirge of shouting and hollering, a typical response to the heralded arrival of the Commissionaire and his entourage.  Etienne found it strange referring to someone else with his old title and thinking that under different circumstances it might have been himself sending the town into its tizzy.  But he was only Citizen Etienne de Navarre now, and even that appellation was of dubious accuracy given his decision to warn the two sister witches of Charmanoix.  So it was just as well no one else here knew who he was.  He swerved with blessed anonymity through the crushing mass, wincing both at the audible sagging of the bridge boards beneath hundreds of panicking feet and the alarm bells which had blared in discordant persistence for what felt like hours now.  Perhaps the men on their ropes were paid per ring.

Valnier and his men were waiting for him just outside the inn, the corporal’s perfected nonchalance symbolized by the raising of a single eyebrow as he saw his master drawing nearer.  “Meservey?” he asked, with a nod to the metal clanging from the bell tower on the adjacent building.

“At least two dozen men with him, maybe more,” Etienne said.  “I need you to do something for me.”  He leaned in and whispered – relatively speaking, owing to the need to be heard over the background noise – a condensed briefing and further orders into his corporal’s ear.  Valnier took it all in, processed it with a casual smirk and motioned for the rest of the men to follow him.  They marched off in single file, leaving Etienne alone.

He imagined Nightingale’s delicate hand touching his shoulder, her soft hair brushing against his cheek as amaranthine lips imparted sweet recollections.  You owe these men nothing, she sang to him.  I will meet you once again.  He remembered his own response:  I am yours, do with me what you will.  It was insanity, and he knew it, and still he wanted to wrap himself in it and let it permeate his very pores.  A fleeting thought of her braced him with more dizzying pleasure than any real experience he could remember, and so the next step required no independent thought, no further tortured decisions.  He could allow himself to be guided by his love for her.  This path held a purity and clarity that was, even in itself, deeply alluring.

For you, my Nightingale.

Etienne began walking back toward the center of town.  The bells pealed on but the bridges had grown quiet, the stampede having withered to a few stray wanderers like himself.  Hardly a ripple disturbed the canals beneath, the great fleet of boats now docked and tethered.  Those who had not flocked to witness the arrival of the Commissionaire’s party were hiding behind locked doors within their homes, praying to be spared the honor of a visit.

Etienne knew Serge Meservey well enough; that was to say he knew his manner and his methods, and where Etienne prided himself on being a chef’s knife making delicate, informed and precise cuts, his counterpart was a blunt hammer wielded in wild, careless swings.  He would not put it past the man, in order to flush out a mere two young women, to set this entire town of three thousand people aflame.

You’re afraid, the spectre of Nightingale whispered to him.

Her breath was at his shoulder again.  No longer satisfied with reiterating only the words he’d heard her speak, he began scripting new interactions in his mind, picturing her as a constant if invisible companion, a charming fantasy to tease him and spur him onward.  She flitted about his head, laughing and dancing out of his reach like her winged namesake.

You’re perceptive for a figment wrought from my imagination, he answered, his awareness floating between wisps of her and the regular dull taps of his boot heels on the wood of the bridge.

I am exactly as you would envision me to be, she said.

Then tell me what I’m supposed to do.

What it is within you to do.

The absent crowd revealed itself now, collected in the open nexus of Charmanoix.  Here individual paving stones in vivid shades of coral had been laid in a spiral mosaic over an adjacent series of longer, pile-reinforced bridges to create a bright and spacious square, ringed by equally color-splashed buildings containing Charmanoix’s most prominent shops and the offices of its maire.  Unwelcome installations flanking the grand meeting place at its corners, however, were the humorless black-and-gold banners of the Bureau, penning the hapless townspeople into what had become a cruel arena.  The great swell of bodies was being marshaled by uniformed men into two lines, one on either side of the open promenade.  Soldiers patrolled the perimeter by horse and nudged the angry ends of steel pikes into stragglers.  But it was not requiring much encouragement to get them mustered, given the motivational spectacle lying facedown in the very center of the square, a pooled, dark mass of sticky red staining the porous pink stones surrounding him.  From the decorative sash draped over the shattered torso it was plain that the aforementioned maire’s office had suffered an abrupt vacancy, and that the methods of Commissionaire Serge Meservey had undergone no evolution since Etienne’s last encounter with him.

Is this you? asked the illusory Nightingale at his back.  Is this what you wish to be?

She vanished, usurped by a soldier giving his shoulder a hard shove.  “You, mangeur de vers!” yelled one of the men on horseback.  “Get in line now!”

Mangeur de vers?  Worm-eater?  Etienne bit down on his usual quick tongue and committed the speaker’s obnoxious features to memory, assigning him some theoretical future retribution.

Without protest – without spoken protest, anyhow – he filed into the nearest queue of frightened villagers, blending into their ranks.  Rank odors of fish and sweat wafted from bodies cooking in the unrelenting sun.  A hum of agitated chat hovered over them.  He could hear husbands reassuring their wives, mothers comforting their sons, and others whose natural trepidation at what waited at the end of the shuffling procession was escalating with each step forward to the edge of nervous collapse.  Etienne imagined it would not be long before someone here with information on the whereabouts of the sisters decided to give them up for the sake of his own hide.  Courage, or even mere intestinal mettle, evaporated when those dread banners were raised.

He had seen this sort of fear before.  He himself had been happy to engender it when it suited his purpose.  But never had Etienne felt so drenched in it, standing here, advancing with these innocents one precarious footstep at a time.  The heat of a high sun aside, it was like drowning in a cold, murky pool, mouth only inches from air and light, not knowing that the surface was frozen over.

Would you be afraid if you were here? he asked her.

If I was here, she replied, none of this would be happening.  Certainly not.  Her magic would have swept Meservey and these men aside as easily as it had his own.

Then why aren’t you here?

Because this is not my choice to make.

Etienne’s queue veered into a deceptively aromatic bakery where the display shelves and tables in the front windows had been kicked over, breads and pastries be damned, to provide a clean desk for the thin, bland, balding Bureau functionary questioning each person prodded forward by the trio of soldiers attending him.  He was asking three simple revelations from them:  name, occupation, and the identity and location of any witches.  Based on his opinion of the answers, those so interrogated were divided again into two more lines, one that led out the side door and presumably to freedom, and another that stretched through shadowed hallways to the back of the bakery where the ovens were located.  Etienne did not want to picture what was being done back there; it was enough to know based on the hard heat and the smell of ash that the ovens were operating.

This is not my choice to make, Etienne.

“Name,” sighed the functionary as Etienne stepped forward.  Ennui shaded the word.  He did not look up from the bound ledger in which he was scribbling out near-illegible notes.

“Etienne de Navarre.”  No reaction, just a pause from writing to dip his bird-quill into the tiny ink pot at the corner of the table.  Etienne studied the long, thin brown hairs that had been yanked meticulously across the man’s crown in a vain attempt to stave off the end of the growing season, and create some faint, grasping hint of youth and virility.  Only the sightless would be fooled.

“Your occupation?”

“Honorable Commissionaire of the Bureau Centrale.  On leave at present.”

The quill stopped.  Ink pooled at the end of the word he’d just written.  The man with the combed-over hair set his pen down and looked up at Etienne for the first time.  “Impersonation of a Bureau officer is a hanging offense, monsieur.”

“As is willful or otherwise deliberate obstruction of Bureau business,” Etienne snapped back.  “Tell Commissionaire Meservey that Etienne de Navarre is here and wishes to speak with him.  Or, go see the tailor and have your neck measured for a noose.”

A few of those swept hairs deserted their last post as the man’s face lost at least three shades of its color.  Without word he rose from his improvised desk and beat a humbled path down the corridor.  The three soldiers remaining each edged a foot nearer to Etienne.  Deliberately, he took no notice of them, and instead cast his glance down to the shame of a rather flaky mille-feuille lingering in the corner of the floor, reminding him that he had not yet eaten today.  His stomach had obliged by remaining silent in the face of more pressing priorities.

Heavy boots preceded the next arrival, their echo stomping into the room well ahead of their owner.  Serge Meservey, his uniform jacket discarded, sleeves rolled to the elbow, cravat missing and buttons undone to mid-chest, looked less a Commissionaire and more as though he had just come from shoeing his horse.  Sweat and grease dappled a granite, creased, rectangular face and callused hands, which he was wiping with a stained towel.  His hairline was shaved to a receded crop of gray stubble, and a day’s worth of beard showed at his chin.  Etienne had never been certain why Meservey had wanted the post of Commissionaire and its assorted paperwork; his love was the exuberance of leaping into the mud and unleashing his fists.  The Directeurs played to his strength by sending him on those assignments without nuance or need of the refined reason that Etienne considered his own specialty.

“Navarre, you fils de salope,” he bellowed, and though the tone was jovial, Meservey could never shed the essential glacier at his core, not completely.  “The hell are you doing here?”

“Good to see you too,” Etienne said.  He extended a hand, and as Meservey clasped it, he noted blood and bruising on the other man’s knuckles.  “Sorry to have interrupted.”

Meservey shrugged beefy shoulders.  “Welcome change to talk to someone who isn’t whimpering and begging.”  He tossed his towel to the functionary, who recoiled at its stains and retreated from view.  “You’re a long way from home.”

“I go where the excitement is,” Etienne told him.

“Need a better map, Navarre.”  Meservey threw a scowl at the doorway, and at the townspeople waiting anxiously to be questioned, whom Etienne suspected would find this pleasant exchange quite bewildering given its proximity to the corpse of their maire lying in the square.  That was, if they could spare a thought from fretting over what was about to happen to them.  “Overgrown barnacles wouldn’t know excitement if it bludgeoned them in the conneries.  Hold their tongues well enough, though.”  He rubbed at a dark crust of blood on his knuckle.

“Well, if I can tear you away from scraping them off your boots for a few moments, I wondered if I might have a word or two with you, in private.”

“Of course,” Meservey said.  “Must be a decent drink somewhere in this floating trou de merde.”  He pivoted to deliver orders to his men.

Pity he killed the man who could have recommended a place, said Etienne’s vision of Nightingale.  He pictured her with a contemptuous sneer curling the perfect amaranthine lips, a pointed soft hand poised to release a spear of light into the other man’s back.  It made him smile, and he squelched it quickly before Meservey looked back at him.

The other Commissionaire led Etienne back into the square where the two large lines had begun to thin as citizens were processed and either held for deeper questioning or sent on their way, suitably chastened.  They strode across the scene as casually as two old friends on a nostalgic walk through the environs of shared and vanished youth – flanked by two of Meservey’s guards, lest some villager locate his courage and attempt a spur-of-the-moment assassination.  Etienne ensured his eyes did not stray to the body of the maire again.  His gut was troubled enough.

“Heard you were dismissed,” said Meservey.

Etienne nodded.  “I lost a subject.  The Directeurs wanted to make an example.”

“Bit harsh of them.  Lost subjects before.  It happens.”

“This was different.”  Because you fell in love with the witch who freed her, sang Nightingale.

Meservey let out a chuckle.  “They’ll have you back.  You’re too good at what you do.”

Do you really want to go back, Etienne?

L’Aiglefin Soif, a small tavern on the opposite side of the square, was abandoned and silent when it should have been bustling, thanks to Meservey’s intrusion into Charmanoix’s day.  The two guards went ahead to secure the inside before Etienne and his colleague were permitted to pass over the threshold.  Meservey treaded noisily to the pitted oak bar, selected a dusty bottle of cheap, indifferently-blended Armut whisky from sagging shelves, pried off the cap with his teeth and emptied the contents into a pair of tumblers.  “Salud,” he said, raising his to Etienne.

Etienne nodded and threw the drink back.  It scorched his throat, and he swallowed a cough.  Meservey grinned.  “Sure they pissed in it when they saw me coming,” he said.  He drank his share and poured two more.  “So,” he added, “how many of these do I have to force down your gullet before you tell me why you’re really here?”

Etienne hesitated before reaching for the second glass.  Now, of all imaginably inconvenient moments, his stomach decided to verbalize its complaints regarding its empty state.  The barely palatable Armut would be just the ideal balm.  “I was looking for you,” he said.  “I need some counsel, and I figured you were the best man to provide it.”

Meservey roared.  “I’m hardly the man to help you get your job back.”  He took the half-empty Armut and a bottle of imported Fián an Thraudh and circled from behind the bar to claim a seat at a small table.  Etienne took the chair across from him and spun his glass slowly, trying to stretch out his sips while Meservey, it appeared, was content to get himself inebriated.  Etienne could see the pores in the man’s forehead and cheeks redden with each gulp.

“That’s not precisely what I was talking about,” Etienne said.  He leaned forward.  “Do you know any more about why I was dismissed?”

“None of my business.  Figured the Bureau had its reasons.”

“They usually do.  Have you heard of Nightingale?”

“Here and there.  Supposed to be some all-powerful witch.”  Meservey shook his head and took another deep swig of the Armut.  He’d gone through most of the bottle on his own already.  “What do you know about it?”

Etienne thought he caught a taste of her perfume on the tavern’s stale air.

“She’s been freeing captive subjects all over the country.  She ambushed my men and let loose a shapeshifter we’d taken, and we couldn’t do a dieuxdamnés thing to stop her.”  Etienne allowed himself more of his drink.  It did not sit any better on this attempt, setting every inch of his throat aflame on the way down.  He did his best to pretend it did not bother him.  “She is targeting us.  She wants to destroy the Bureau.”

“Doesn’t do much for your career prospects, does it?” said Meservey.

“You don’t seem concerned.”

“Witches don’t scare me.  Never have.  Know why?”  Etienne shook his head.  Meservey set his drink aside.  “Forget the talk about the law, morals, religion, this god versus that.  Only constant in the world is fear.  Little animals are scared of the big ones, because the big ones eat them.  Big ones don’t need to be afraid of their dinner.  Think about it, Navarre.  They’re so mighty with their magic, what the hell are they hiding for?  Why aren’t they fighting back?  Because they’re afraid.  They’re afraid of me.  I’m the big bear.  And I’m not scared of anyone who’s afraid of me.”  Meservey concluded his oration by seizing the Armut and finishing it straight from the bottle.

You haven’t met me, little cub, whispered Nightingale.

“I don’t know,” Etienne said.  “If they’re so afraid of us, why do we see them as such a threat?  Why have you and I devoted our lives to hunting them?”

“Beats real work,” muttered his counterpart, reaching for the Fián an Thraudh.

Etienne intercepted Meservey’s hand and poured the Fián himself.  It was marginally less pungent than the Armut, and infinitesimally smoother on the stomach.  Between the bells from earlier, the lack of food and two full tumblers’ worth of undiluted whisky, his skull was beginning to emit a percussive, aching throb.  Apart from the increasing amount of crimson in his face, Meservey seemed unaffected.

“I worry,” said Etienne.  “I worry that the Bureau is losing its way, that we’re becoming what we profess to despise.”

“What makes you say that?”

Etienne let a thick pause hang between them for a moment.  “The weapons, Serge.”

The granite in Meservey’s face and the coldness behind his eyes revealed nothing.  If this had been route de perle, Etienne would have just dared to augmenter with an irretrievably weak hand, and with the croupier only a single draw away from a flotte.  What transpired next would depend on how expert a gambler Serge Meservey fancied himself to be, and how deeply that Armut had infused itself into his blood.

The Commissionaire only clucked his tongue.  “Gone soft, Navarre.”

“You designed them,” Etienne said.  “You–”

“Someone’s coming at me with a sword, think I’m going to defend myself with a stick?”

“It’s using magic, Serge.  Not only is it against the law, but it goes against the principles on which the Bureau was founded.  The principles you and I swore an oath to defend with our lives if need be.  If we’re using the same forbidden powers then how are we any better than the ones we’re chasing?”

“Difference does it make if it’s witch’s magic, or Qarceshi steel, or baby’s candy beans?  This is war, and when I walk into a battle I’m making damn sure I have the strongest arms.  Send a thousand Nightingales against me and I’ll still be the last man standing.”

“Who’s making them?”  Meservey sat back instead of responding.  Etienne leaned in again.  “Come on, Serge, you’re not a witch.  Who’s making these things for you?  Hmm?”

Meservey’s lingering joviality vanished, and Etienne knew he had overplayed what feeble cards he had.  “What’s it to you?” the Commissionaire asked him, icicles dangling from each syllable.  Etienne felt the eyes of the guards lock onto his back, and an oppressive silence seize the air.

Nightingale, too, was gone from his thoughts.  He was alone.

Etienne was spared answering by an urgent knock at the door of the tavern.  One of the guards opened it, and the functionary from the bakery appeared.  “Monsieur,” he announced.

“Have something?” Meservey asked.

The balding man hurried to his master’s side, bent low and whispered into Meservey’s ear.  Etienne could hear only hushed fragments, and studying Meservey’s face for clues was fruitless.  Abruptly, the Commissionaire stood.  “Knew these people had no spines when I first rode in here.  One of them finally proved me right.”  He looked to his guards.  “Get my horse and tell the rest of the men to meet us at the Pont d’Eglise.”

Sobriety smacked Etienne with a brick.  He chanced ignorance.  “What’s going on?”

“Two more for the trophy case,” said Meservey.  “Kathaline and Adelyra Belleclain.”  He smiled to himself.  “Never taken a pair of sisters before.”

Exactly as Etienne had predicted.  One of their friends or neighbors had given them up, out of the understandable fear at the consequences to themselves and to their families, to say nothing of whatever physical coercion Meservey and his men were applying in that part of the bakery he hadn’t been able to see.  It had been, truly, only a matter of time, and the sisters, whose sole crime was easing the passage of the dying, had run out of it.

Meservey made for the door, his functionary and guards in tow.  He stopped and looked back at Etienne, who had not moved from their table.  “You,” he said.  Not his more congenial ‘Navarre,’ just ‘you,’ as if Etienne was another of the barnacles he took limitless delight in crushing beneath his heel.  Accordingly, the next words out of his mouth were not an invitation, they were a command, and Etienne had no choice but to obey.  “Come with me.  I want you to see this.”

* * *

Of course there will be a Part Twelve.  Just wish that I could write it faster…

Vintage, Part Seven

vintagetitle

We humbly present our newest installment.  From the writer’s perspective, it’s fascinating to watch an idea that grew from a single image flesh itself out and bring in new characters and situations that were never part of the initial conception.  This part contains such a creation.  Enjoy…

“Where is Nightingale?”

Etienne had lost count of how many times he had asked that question.  The permutations in which one could use the same three words were limited, the range of tone confined to a scale from mildly inquisitive to angry and accusatory, and it felt as though he had exhausted them all by the conclusion of the first week on the hunt.  The answers, also, were entirely variations on the negative, whether offered with formality across a posh dining table or squeezed from a stubborn neck.  Oh, they had all heard rumors equal in vagueness, but specifics were as elusive as the object of the quest herself.  It became plain to Etienne, though he was hesitant to share his revelation to Valnier or his new crop of recruits, that Nightingale would be found only if she wished to be.

The search took them back into the vast stretches of the province surrounding the wilds where they had first seen her.  Enough miserable and often nameless villages dotted this portion of the country to occupy Etienne’s detachment a good twenty years if they had the means to check through each one.  Though it had gone unsaid at his meeting at the Bureau, Etienne understood that expediency was expected, that the Directeurs demanded a swift victory to repair the damage to the Bureau’s image that Nightingale had caused.  But it had been like sending a captain on a sea voyage without a sextant or a map, or, as it sometimes felt, even a sail or an oar.  Certainty had always guided Etienne’s assignments in the past, and he was not accustomed to fumbling about in the darkness.

This next town was called St. Iliane, and if Montagnes-les-grands had been a dunghill, St. Iliane was home to the flies who would have gleefully swarmed over it.  Befitting its deceptively holy name, it had once been a monastery, and at some point in a forgotten page of history had been overrun by a band of brigands who had slaughtered the peaceful friars and planted their flag in the blood and the ruins.  What remained of the monastery, a few brick walls infested with weeds shriveled and browned from the drought, teetered on a hillside overlooking a distasteful hodgepodge of ramshackle lean-tos cobbled together from whatever rotten wood was available.  It was the last place in the world anyone could expect to find witches hiding – let alone women, for that matter – but Etienne was leaving nothing to chance.  Montagnes-les-grands had also presented itself as a routine assignment.

His new entourage rode into the village with customary bluster, yet the deference and fear Etienne had come to expect was absent from the crusted faces of the ruffians stumbling along the pitted, bending road that divided St. Iliane in two.  Most ignored them.  A couple of tattooed bruisers pointed and snickered.  Of course, neither Etienne nor any of his company bore the usual trappings of representatives of the Bureau.  No uniforms, no insignia, no formal carriage flying the ensign.  In their weathered, nondescript civilian garb, Etienne and his men might as well have been a visiting company of jesters.  Certainly, they did not look like anything for the hard-living men of St. Iliane to concern themselves with.  They did not even look worth robbing.  Pity, for the cache of weapons concealed inside each man’s saddlebag would likely fetch a considerable price.

The Directeurs had promised an arsenal to even the odds, and they had delivered a handsome supply of swords and arrows crafted of the same strange, non-tarnishing silvered metal that formed the collars and manacles so useful in blocking a witch’s access to her magic.  Etienne had never been a swordsman so he could not vouch for the blades, but Corporal Valnier had been dutifully impressed by their light weight and the sharpness of their edge.  “Feels good,” he had offered by way of comprehensive review.  The other men had derived tittering amusement from the blue sparks that burst forth each time the blades touched during sparring practice.  The arrowheads, too, were atypical, long and slender with rounded rather than pointed tips designed to wound, not to kill.  For himself, Etienne had procured a new dagger which sat sheathed inside his vest, though for the moment he could not imagine bringing himself to use it.

He still dreamed of Nightingale, when he could still his mind enough to achieve sleep, that is, and the dreams were growing more intense the longer the search took.  The contour of her perfect face became ever clearer amidst the hurried flotsam of thought and image, even as the moment of their single encounter receded with the passing of weeks.  It was the very opposite of the custom of memory, and it only deepened his fascination.  He craved understanding how she could so imprint herself upon him – but mostly, he craved her, the very shape and idea of her.  A hollow ache that he could not salve gnawed at his soul, and the dreams were torturous reminders of what remained teasingly absent.  He thought he had been overstating the matter when he confessed to himself that he was in love with her, and he could reel off a litany of reasons why:  it had only been one sudden, brief meeting, he was mature enough to know better what love was supposed to feel like, and it could all be very well merely a dark spell she had cast upon him, but he did not care.  He had tasted the greatest vintage imaginable, and the only answer to the madness was more.

Etienne raised a hand and bade his company to a halt.  Pausing first to pat the dagger next to his breast, he tossed his horse’s reins to Valnier, then lifted himself from the saddle and stepped down onto the road.  He took a few cautious steps forward and waited.  No one emerged to greet him.  The people of St. Iliane affected a remarkable indifference to the presence of Etienne and his men.  It was difficult for Etienne to quash a rising of bile.  Common courtesy demanded that attention be paid to arriving strangers, yet these louts could scarcely be bothered to fling a glance in his direction.  For a moment he missed the yoke of a Commissionaire’s formal wear.  The simple pleasure of a loosened collar had brought with it such disrespect as he was unaccustomed to experiencing.

“Excusez-moi,” he said, largely to the air as the St. Ilianeux brushed past him; the hot, dry breeze seemed to be a more receptive audience.  “We wish to speak with whoever is in charge.”

From a window, someone let loose a broad, belly-shaking chortle seething with mockery.  Etienne looked up, scouring the edges of the scene for whomever had found his legitimate question so risible, but said culprit obviously lacked the courage to deliver such a broadside in person.  Etienne had long ago learned that it diminished the value of his time to spend it concerning himself with the actions or opinions of the worthless, so he shrugged off the slight, raised his voice and and repeated his question, embellishing it now with invented details:  “My name is Amaury Léand, I am an agent of La Première Société de l’exploitation minière et le commerce, and if you would prefer not to hear what I and my colleagues have to say, we will gladly take our business elsewhere.”

That would snare their attention.  ‘Amaury Léand’ was meaningless, a portmanteau of the working-class names of a pair of long-forgotten distant cousins, but PremSoc was the largest private mining and trading company in the country, and their appearance in a new town meant jobs and wealth were soon to follow.  Etienne gave blithe ears a moment to digest his words.  Sure enough, two men off to his right ceased what appeared to be drunken meandering and begin whispering to one another in cold sobriety.  They exchanged nods and started in Etienne’s direction, and their pace suggested that either they had realized the fleeting nature of the sumptuous opportunity that was presenting itself, or remembered that PremSoc had once flattened their mother’s house in the course of its mining operations.  Either way, Etienne did not turn to face them.  He kept his feet planted.  They would talk on his terms, not theirs.

The clothes of these two were as patchwork as the homes throughout St. Iliane, stitched together from the remnants of a variety of outfits that might at one point have been considered fashionable in their own right:  two-thirds of a leather vest punctured with rusting studs, one cotton pant leg and one wool, dangling, stringy scraps of a fur scarf wildly unsuitable for a drought but worn apparently for lack of anything else.  Their faces bore the warts and deformities of poverty, malnutrition and general apathy regarding personal hygiene, and Etienne had to saturate his thoughts with the sheen of Nightingale’s perfect skin to stomach a glance even at the less afflicted of the pair.  “You,” one of the rubes barked at him.  “What do you want?”

“Not to have to repeat myself to someone in no position of authority regarding what I have to offer,” Etienne said, turning his head away.

“You are really from PremSoc?” asked the second man, a rather stupid expression warping further an already damaged face.

“I would show you credentials,” Etienne said, “though it would do little good as I suspect neither of you gentlemen are the reading sort.”  Baiting them probably wasn’t the sharpest approach, but Etienne doubted they comprehended half the words he was using.  “Do you have a leader here, or do I turn my company around?”

“You want Le Taureau,” said the first man.

“Le Taureau,” Etienne said.  “You gentlemen are his executive appointment secretaries, then?”  He thought he heard Corporal Valnier stifle a snicker.

“They’re my brothers,” announced a fresh voice, belonging to an imposing man who appeared from one of the huts, flanked by a quartet of sycophants.  Truthfully, imposing was understating it; he was imposing in the way a waterfall would be considered imposing by a minnow.  He had the broadest shoulders Etienne had ever seen – that or he was sporting a curtain rod beneath the tanned deer hide draped around his neck – and a ridiculously barrelled chest that preceded the arrival of the rest of him.  There was a robust, peaty odor of whisky about him, probably from those very barrels on his chest, and his skin was rosy with untreated sunburn and untempered drink.  A full but unkempt beard dangled from his chin, matched in unruliness by dark eyebrows the size of most men’s mustaches.  Valnier was the best fighter Etienne had ever known, but this new player looked as though he could dice the good corporal into mirepoix with his left hand, providing he could stop that hand from shaking with sot’s tremors.  Yet his eyes were so dark as to be almost without color, and Etienne could see no light behind them.  It was like being stared at by a corpse.

At least, the nickname made immediate sense.

“Monsieur Le Taureau,” said Etienne.  He affected a slight bow of acknowledgement.

“Same question, tête de cul, asked by the gentleman it concerns,” Le Taureau said back.  “What do you want?”

Etienne offered up a salesman’s smile.  “A cool drink, perhaps, and a more shaded venue in which to discuss my company’s proposition?  I think you will find it to your liking.”

Le Taureau looked over the faces of Etienne’s men.  He and Corporal Valnier locked eyes for a longer moment than the others, as if the two were sizing each other up.  It was plain from the sneer curling Le Taureau’s scarred lip that he did not think much of the good corporal.  “Inside,” he grumbled.  “We will take charge of your horses.  Leave weapons behind.”

“Monsieur,” said Valnier, registering his objection.

“It’s all right,” Etienne said.  “We’re here to do business.  These are reasonable men.”  He had no intention of surrendering his dagger.  It remained concealed inside his vest as the rest of his entourage dutifully handed over their swords.  Valnier’s face was that of a man being asked to sever his own arm with a rusted spoon, and the slight villager who accepted his blade noted the corporal’s displeasure and scampered away before Valnier could change his mind.  Fortunately every curse Valnier knew was fewer than two words, and Etienne detected more than a handful of them muttered beneath each breath.

Once inside Le Taureau’s preferred meeting hall, or meeting hovel, as it were, it became apparent that the amenities offered by this place were as lacking as the appearance and the manner of its inhabitants.  The cool drink Etienne had requested was lukewarm brown water he was certain would infect him with nine kinds of intestinal ailments, so he left it untouched on the pitted table in front of him.  Le Taureau had no cup for himself.  He explained, brusquely, that he did not drink with men from the city, and would break his custom only if they concluded a deal.  He sat, said nothing further, and attended on Etienne making his pitch.

The challenge for Etienne, then, was to get to the business at hand.  He took a swift survey of the room:  Valnier and the dozen-odd, silent men of his company gathered on his side of the long, narrow table, Le Taureau and a handful of scruffy, chattering Ilianeux on the other.  Etienne felt his confidence swell at the meager opposition, and he launched with verve and volume into what he considered to be a finely crafted speech of complete and utter gibberish.

It was symphonic in its flow, with themes based on key notes introduced boldly and repeated for emphasis, varied with each iteration but adhering always to his main point:  the (entirely fictional, naturally) notion that PremSoc wished to build a new major trade route to the northern border that would pass conveniently through St. Iliane, and wouldn’t there be such bountiful opportunities for the locals to establish inns and other merchant ventures to ensnare the heaps of cash flowing over the coffers of those passing through.  Etienne was careful to hold this specific nugget back until he had first laid out the basic details and built upon each layer like a confectioner perfecting each layer of cake before frosting it.  The men listening could draw the desired conclusion and congratulate themselves for being clever, and only then would Etienne affirm what floated unsaid.  The best way to sell anyone anything was to lead him to convince himself it was his idea to buy it in the first place.  Etienne wondered, as Le Taureau’s goons fell quiet in turn, enraptured by his presentation, if he had not misspent what could have been a lucrative career in mercantilism, or the practice of law.

Le Taureau himself, however, remained the immovable object.  When Etienne concluded the concerto, he sat motionless behind his beard and his enormous chest for a long moment, hurling an enforced silence into the air.  Finally he leaned forward, and the table creaked and sagged beneath the weight of gauntleted arms.  “What do you need us for then?” Le Taureau asked.

Etienne was impressed by the question.  “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“The mighty Première Société doesn’t need our permission to build this grand road.”

“That’s true.  No, we could probably build it right through your kitchen and there would be little you could do to stop us.”

Le Taureau narrowed lifeless eyes at him.  “Then why are you wasting my time?”

“Safety,” Etienne said.

A smirk.  “Safety.  Ours?”

“Ours.”  Etienne leaned forward himself, close enough to be greeted by a fetid waft of Le Taureau’s stale breath.  “My superiors are concerned about, well, it seems strange to say, but they are worried about the unusual happenings in this part of the province, if you take my meaning.”  He lowered his voice.  “You must know about her.”  Le Taureau’s face went blank.  “What is it they call her…”  Etienne feigned a foggy memory and threw a look to Corporal Valnier to sustain the ruse.  “Ah, yes.  Nightingale.”

“You’re worried about a bird?” Le Taureau said.  “Tête de cul indeed.”  His men exploded into fits of laughter.  A murderous frown twisted Valnier’s lips.  Etienne might have fretted that they had wasted their time here, but for one miniscule detail that only he managed to notice:  Le Taureau curling his meaty fingers into a tight fist to stop them trembling.

The instant he had spoken her name.

Etienne smiled.  “Yes, a bird.  A rather rare bird, with an unusual, unique call.  And terribly lovely feathers.”

“And if I’ve seen this bird of yours,” Le Taureau said, “what can I expect in return for the favor of helping you cage it?”

“I think you’d find there would be few requests we could not accommodate.  Certainly enough to reverse the fortunes of every man in St. Iliane.  Dramatically.”

Le Taureau shrugged.  “A dramatic offer deserves a dramatic response.”

Metal against leather has a distinct sound, like a shriek, as if the sharpness of the blade can yet wound what is already dead, and send a warning to those nearby.  As Le Taureau’s men leaped to their feet and drew swords from their scabbards to point at Etienne and his company, that same damnable shriek cut into Etienne’s ears and transformed itself into a dizzying wave of fear that plunged straight to the pit of his gut.  The doors burst open and twenty more men brandishing weapons poured in to surround the table.  Etienne did not move.  It was the best action he could take under the circumstances, but it had the happenstance to be born of a moment of pure indecision.  His men had surrendered their swords and bows.  They were better trained that these ragtags, professional soldiers to the last man, but training was of limited use with the tip of someone else’s blade aimed between your shoulders.  Instead, Etienne stared ahead at Le Taureau’s satisfied grin, and fear evolved quickly into loathing.  Le Taureau’s eyes suggested that the sentiment was mutual.

“What say you now, Monsieur le Commissionaire?” said the large man, gesturing to his mustered forces.  “Still want to build me a road?”

At this juncture it did not matter how the man had deduced his identity.  That could be puzzled out later, if they managed to escape this room.  Etienne spoke slowly.  “You have no idea what you are risking here.”

Le Taureau sneered at him.  “Oh please.  You Bureau types.  You come into our homes in the middle of the night, you take our sisters, our wives and our daughters from us, and you expect us to thank you and sucer vos bites for our trouble.  What am I risking?  Look around.  Because of you, we have nothing more to lose.”  He leaned closer.  “And if you think I am going to help you lay a murderous hand on a beautiful goddess, your Bureau has reached a new plateau of insanity.”

Etienne saw it then in Le Taureau’s eyes:  a flicker of life.  A sudden infusion of youth and vigor and blood running hot inside the veins.  And he knew exactly what it was.

The man was in love with Nightingale as well.

Le Taureau stood back and addressed the rest of Etienne’s company.  “Here is what is going to happen now,” Le Taureau said.  “Your men will surrender the last of your valuables to us, and then you will strip down to your breeches and march in single file back to your Bureau.  You will tell those cowards of Directeurs that they can put the men of St. Iliane to the most dreaded of their many infamous tortures and we will still never, ever betray her.”  He planted his fists on the table and fixed his stare on Etienne again.  “You cannot stop what she has begun.  She is the wind and the ocean, and your Bureau is a castle of sand.  And you know it.”  Le Taureau smiled, the smile of the condemned man recognizing another who shares his fate.

His knees became water as a moving veil of sparkling purple mist enveloped him and permeated deep into his skin…

“Well,” Etienne said.  “I for one won’t mind being rid of these clothes.  It is so frightfully hot today, don’t you agree?”  Valnier raised an eyebrow at him.  Deliberately, Etienne pushed his chair back from the table and rose.  Le Taureau’s compatriots followed him with their swordpoints.  He reached a hand inside his vest.  “Though I’m not sure this will fit the way you like.”

Metal made no sound scraping against cotton as Etienne snatched the dagger from its concealed sheath.  But everyone heard the crunch and squish and ensuing scream as he plunged it straight through Le Taureau’s hand.

* * *

Like the Energizer bunny, this just keeps going.  Unlike batteries, however – and hopefully – the energy won’t run out.  Part Eight is on its way.

Vintage, Part Six

vintagetitle

Sorry for the delay on this one.  The balance of life is off-kilter lately and the real world must take precedence over the creation of the fantastical one.  Hope this was worth the wait.  It kinda wound up having some shades of Apocalypse Now

The headquarters of the Bureau Central Royale pour l’Enregistrement et la Réglementation des Questions Surnaturelles, or, “Bureau Centrale” for those who could not bring themselves to utter its feared full name, was an ugly building marring the center of a city renowned worldwide for its striking architecture.  The fanciful flourishes and artistic embellishments of the surrounding churches, hotels, even the supposedly illegal casinos, were utterly absent from the squat, squarish and functional concrete block lurching up from the north side of the otherwise picturesque Chemin des Fougères.  It was a building that no one walked by unless they had absolutely no choice, and the dour armed guards posted at the main doors atop eighteen flat gray steps certainly did not encourage the approach of visitors.  Despite its forbidding facade, every citizen was grateful that the Bureau, this gangrenous tumor jutting out from a thriving, inviting cityscape, was there.  It was the unyielding wall between their safe, happy and boring lives, and the looming chaos and anarchy the witches sought to wreak.  The solemn duty of protection could brook no indulgences for taste or style.

Etienne remembered the first time he’d taken his walk up the eighteen steps, recruited as a fresh and bright graduate of College de Calerre eager to begin serving his country.  He had paused upon reaching the top to contemplate the Bureau’s motto, etched in stone over the doors:  Pas de pitié, pour vous doit avoir aucun.  No mercy, for you shall have none.  A simple statement that codified the Bureau’s very reason for being, an ethos that had guided Etienne’s actions in the twelve years he had devoted himself to its cause.  And had been disproven that night outside Montagnes-les-grands.  The witch had allowed him and his men to live, when she had been more than capable – and some might have argued had the right – to kill them all without hesitation.  What was he to take from that?  The Bureau had driven it into him and every person who worked for it that their enemy was an implacable evil determined to see them dead and the entire country brought to heel.  Witches captured by the Bureau left its custody in one of two ways:  forever forsaking their abilities and condemned to make lifelong reparations to the Crown, or, as headless corpses.  So stubborn were most of them that the former was an option rarely selected.  There was, admittedly, a degree of insanity about it that Etienne had been content to overlook, until now.

Pas de pitié, pour vous doit avoir aucun.  As the guards opened the doors for him this morning, Etienne, hungover and bruised and feeling terribly aged from the young man of so many years past, wondered if he was to find himself finally on the receiving end of that notorious threat.  Even the presence of Corporal Valnier at his side did little to quell his nerves.  He tongued the scab that had formed on his split lip, an unwelcome souvenir from the previous evening’s escapade at the Splendide.  The neck of his dress uniform felt tighter today, like a hand ever at his throat.

The lobby was always so damned quiet, nothing but boot heels squeaking and tapping on polished granite tile.  The air smelled of paper, stale ink and dust.  The starched, uniformed, axe-faced woman who manned (not a sexist term in her case) the reception desk, looked up, did not smile and spoke without a trace of pleasantry.  “De Navarre,” she said, purposely omitting his title.  “Salle 1401.  You are expected.”

Etienne attempted to tame his obvious discomfort.  1401 was used only for disciplinary hearings.  If you were to be expelled from the Bureau, or worse, 1401 was where it would occur.  Etienne suspected that the Directeurs derived some perverse enjoyment from forcing their subjects to pay homage by climbing the long flights of stairs and arriving before the tribunal breathless and unable to defend themselves.  It was also high enough from the ground that the adjacent windows offered a convenient fourteen-floor route to oblivion for those who could not bear the shame.  But Valnier had said they were giving him an assignment, so why they had summoned him to 1401 was a mystery.

By floor six his legs had begun to ache.  By floor nine sweat had flooded his skin, and finally, by floor twelve his mindset had evolved from trepidation to a resigned sense of getting things over with no matter what they turned out to be.  He was panting by the time they reached the fourteenth, but Etienne swallowed his heavy breaths and willed his heart to slow its loud thumps against his ribs.  As he and Valnier crossed towards the carved mahogany double doors of 1401, Etienne eyed the ornate lead-lined windows at the end of the hall.  He permitted himself a smirk.  After the wearying ascent, out there did not seem such a bad way to make the return trip.

Depending, naturally, on what was said inside.

An oddly welcoming scent of rich, roasted café caressed his sinuses as the doors cracked apart.  Despite the humidity baking the streets outside, the room was cold and dry.  It was sparsely furnished and decorated of course, in keeping with the strict non-aesthetic aesthetic of the building.  The walls were bare and painted in a distinctly unmemorable shade of bureaucratic taupe.  But the ceiling was high and vaulted, magnifying whispers and squeaks into shouts and roars, and in entering, supplicants were forced to step down into a recessed floor, position themselves at a tiny podium and look up with deference to the raised, varnished oak table at which those presiding over the meeting were privileged to sit, flanked on either side by flags bearing respectively the ensign of the Bureau and the royal standard.  Etienne understood the architectural trickery at work, that the room appeared more imposing than it actually was thanks to clever use of forced perspective, but knowing that was irrelevant; the illusion had its desired emotional impact, and all the café in the Lower Continent would not assuage the diminishment he felt, particularly in the presence of the three men waiting for him.

A formal meeting with a Directeur was standard duty for a Commissionaire, if infrequent, perhaps only four or five times yearly.  Meeting with two Directeurs could be hoped for once every other year, or perhaps by happenstance at a social gathering.  Stepping into a room and seeing all three of them, the triumvirate of executive power that commanded the behemoth that was the Bureau Centrale, was not only unprecedented, it ran contrary to the safety protocols embedded in the Bureau’s very constitution.  For security’s sake, no more than two Directeurs were permitted to be in the same physical location at the same time, the conceit being that should two of them be killed the third could serve to operate the Bureau alone while successors were swiftly recruited and installed – a sort of pre-emptive defense against the notion that you could kill the body of a serpent by cutting off its head.  Just ensure the serpent had three heads and keep them each a good distance from the axe.

On the left was the elderly Directeur Theniard Preulx, the last, lingering bastion of the old guard and the old ways.  One might say he wrote the book on the Bureau, but given his age it would be more accurate to say he must have painted it on cave walls.  It was customary for a Directeur to stand down once they reached a certain plateau of years of service, but Directeur Preulx had made his name by defying custom, and it was expected that natural causes would claim him long before the thought of resignation would dare cross what was suspected (by Etienne at least, and not an insubstantial number of others) to be a mind teetering ever nearer the threshold of dementia.  He was relied upon now more for matters of counsel rather than day-to-day operational decisions.  Those fell to the younger men sitting with him, Directeurs Michel Ste-Selin and Kadier Duforteste.  Ste-Selin was Etienne’s chief contact for his assignments; it was he who had ordered Etienne to Montagnes-les-grands and had personally screamed at him and suspended his rank following the disastrous outcome.  The Directeur had also made the mistake of revealing to Etienne in less heated, more liquored moments that he considered Preulx a senile old cretin and Duforteste a paragon of incompetence, and that the Bureau would function better with a single source of authority – himself, of course.  Etienne did not know Kadier Duforteste well enough to make any judgement as to Ste-Selin’s opinion of the man; he supervised the more lawless, backwoods, southwestern portions of the country where Etienne had little experience and even less reason to wish to visit.

Opposite the presiding table, and behind where Etienne was presumably meant to stand, small carrels accommodated the clerks and recording secretaries – that is, if there had been any present.  The Bureau was humorless about its note-keeping; at least three floors were devoted exclusively to the storage of records, where, if one had a few decades to spare, one could browse a copious written reconstruction of every action taken by its personnel since the Bureau’s inception, details stopping short only of the amount of time each man spent in the lavatory.  Every meeting was minuted by at least three secretaries keeping independent accounts, every sou expended or accrued was audited and re-audited on a clockwork schedule.  Even actions considered highly confidential were documented to the last inflection of the last syllable spoken in the room, just in case someone, somewhere, sometime, should need to know.  Clearly, no one beyond himself, the three Directeurs and Corporal Valnier was to know anything of what was about to transpire.

Dénégation plausible?

“Etienne,” said Directeur Ste-Selin matter-of-factly as he hoisted a porcelain cup of café.  “Entrez.”  He gestured to the podium in the sunken portion of the floor.  “Corporal, fermez les portes, s’il-vous plait.”  Valnier did so as Etienne took a few tentative steps towards his assigned position.  He paused to wonder, as he stood behind the podium, how many of his predecessors had seen their careers evaporate on this very spot, how many once-proud and respected Commissionaires had been reduced to nothing with a few words and signatures scrawled upon executive decrees.  Abruptly Etienne did not know what to do with his hands.  They needed to go somewhere, but balancing himself on the podium would make him look weak, in his pockets would make him look sheepish, and at his sides would make him look like he didn’t know where to put his hands.  Etienne opted to clasp them tightly behind his back.  He straightened his spine and kept his gaze steady.  The damned uniform would not stop choking him.

“Merci for joining us today,” Ste-Selin said.  “Been making the most of your time away, I trust?”  The Directeur nodded at the bluish jaundice of the bruise mottling Etienne’s jaw.

“Somewhat,” Etienne replied simply.  The scab on his lip itched, and he wrestled down the impulse to tongue it again.  Behind his back, he gripped his hands tighter in silent reaction against Ste-Selin’s superiority and hypocrisy rather than rise to the obvious challenge.

Ste-Selin affected an air of disappointment that he did not.  “Well then,” he began again, “in those fleeting moments of sobriety I’m certain you have been pondering the outcome of our deliberations regarding your status.  I need not remind you, monsieur, that this is not a matter the leadership of the Bureau takes at all in light vein.  Out there the Commissionaire is more than just himself, more than merely a man:  he is the living embodiment of the integrity of our institution, and just as the building cannot withstand a crack in its foundation, neither can the institution suffer the slightest failing in its most prominent representatives.  We do not live in a time when errors can be easily forgiven, nor are we pitted against an enemy who will overlook them in the name of good sportsmanship.  Would you not agree?”

“Of course, monsieur le Directeur,” said Etienne.  Ste-Selin’s words always rang a touch clumsy in Etienne’s ears, as if the man did not fully understand the meanings of the polysyllabic vocabulary and metaphors he peppered his syntax with in the hopes of appearing smarter than he actually was.  It was a revealing sign of insecurity and vulnerability on the Directeur’s part.  Of course, whether one was being condemned by a genius or an idiot, the outcome remained the same.

“You should understand that the purpose of today’s meeting is not to discuss your case,” added Ste-Selin.  “Our judgment has not changed.  The invalidation of your rank and your suspension from the Bureau shall continue indefinitely.”

“Thank you, monsieur le Directeur.”  Rien à faire.

“We’ve been looking over your last report and comparing it with our own findings,” said Directeur Duforteste.  A much more casual, disinterested tone from him, blended with his distinct regional accent.  He had his own fiefdom in the south stretching from Delprice to Ville-des-Cinq-Lacs, and the goings-on in a northern flyspeck like Montagnes-les-grands, to him, would be the apex of tedium.  “If you would indulge us, we’d like to hear more about the subject responsible for the attack on your caravan.”  Never witch.  Always subject.  Standard Bureau terminology.  “Your official filing is a bit vague on that portion.”

Etienne drew a long breath.  What would you wish me to say, Monsieur le Directeur?  That she was the most beautiful and most enticingly powerful woman I’ve ever encountered, and that not a minute has passed since then, in sleep or in waking, that I have not found myself thinking of her?  “The subject represents an imminent and significant threat to our civil order,” he said instead.

“We agree,” said Duforteste.  He gestured toward Etienne’s podium.  Only then did Etienne notice the file folder tucked on the lower shelf.  It was black – a color he had never seen assigned – and bulged with at least a hundred pages of different stocks of paper and parchment, suggesting a collation of years’ worth of reports and other data.  A drop of red wax embossed with the Bureau’s ensign barred further perusal.  “Go ahead and open it,” advised the Directeur.  Etienne did so, breaking the seal and lifting the folder with fingertips, as though it was made of glass.  The top page bore the Bureau’s letterhead, the warning “HIGHLY CLASSIFIED,” and a single, puzzling word.

“Nightingale,” said Ste-Selin.

Etienne looked up.

“What you have there before you,” Ste-Selin explained, “is a complete history of the subject under discussion, whom we have been aware of for over two years, and who was generally conceived to be a myth until she accosted your company outside Montagnes-les-grands.”

Duforteste picked up the narrative.  “For some time now we’ve seen an alarming drop in the rate of apprehension of subjects and their secure delivery into custody.  They have been able to defeat our usual methods and escape beyond our jurisdiction.  Subjects who, logically, should be the easiest to catch… old women, young girls, even those whose threat level–” meaning the extent of their magic, more official Bureau terminology “–is admittedly negligible.  We’ve established, from interrogation of those subjects we have taken in, a patchwork of compelling evidence pointing to the existence of a single, highly empowered individual who has been responsible for the liberation of these enemies of the Crown.  Her official Bureau designation is ‘Nightingale.’  We believe this is the subject you encountered.”

Etienne’s eyes fell to the file again as the Directeurs talked on.  He turned pages, browsing through what in the incident reports and correspondence he might once have dismissed as wild flights of fancy, but was instead instantly familiar:  tales of potent magic, bizarre flashes of violet light, trained soldiers rendered as helpless as kittens in a matter of seconds.  What he did not see in the reports, however, was any description of the witch herself; only half-remembered, half-formed swirls of shadow indiscernible from the dark.  But that meant…

“As you have no doubt divined,” said Ste-Selin, nodding to the file in Etienne’s hands, “you are the first person to have encountered this Nightingale in the flesh.”

Etienne closed the file folder.  The Directeur made it sound like such an ordinary meeting, as if they had brushed shoulders on a busy street.  Etienne wondered if any words could capture with the faintest hint of accuracy the experience of being wrapped in an impossibly seductive presence, with magic wreathing itself about him like exotic perfume, and nearly losing himself to it; of being a garden for a seed of longing and obsession that had taken root and grown unimpeded ever since, despite his efforts to drown it in wine and gambling and a general disregard for his own safety.  Nightingale.  The moniker was suitably poetic for her:  a mysterious bird singing beneath the moonlight.  He wondered if it was at all close to her real name.

“I am uncertain as to what Messieurs les Directeurs wish of me,” he said.

Ste-Selin and Duforteste shared a look.  Preulx seemed half-asleep.  “From your description,” said Ste-Selin, “and those in the other incident reports, it is clear that Nightingale possesses powers that might very well succeed in undermining the order this Bureau has worked to maintain for so many years.  Worse still, she is becoming a symbol for others of her kind that the Bureau Centrale can be defied with impunity.  You will agree that such a dangerous subject cannot be allowed to roam free.  The security of this very nation and the lives of all its people are at momentous risk.”

“Of course,” Etienne said.

“We believe, however,” said Duforteste, “that we have an opportunity to reclaim the advantage.  Nightingale has kept her existence secret from all.  She has defeated three other Commissionaires who never knew what hit them.  Yet for whatever reason she chose to reveal herself to you.  This, combined with your current status, puts you in a unique position.”

Etienne’s throat filled with sand, and he swallowed.  “Unique?”

Ste-Selin frowned.  “We grow concerned that Nightingale may have compromised the Bureau itself, that she may have an informant or multiple informants within these walls sharing with her our movements and tactics, and that we are seeing only the beginnings of a targeted campaign against us, and against the Crown.  A disgraced Commissionaire, for all intents and purposes operating outside the Bureau’s purview and without its official sanction, will be better equipped to root out the corruption and locate the traitors within our midst.”  The Directeur shuffled the papers in front of him.  “Corporal Valnier shall accompany you as usual, and we will assign you a fresh detachment of men.  We shall also provide you with new weapons that should better balance the odds against Nightingale’s powers.  But as you can see by the absence of secretaries in this room, this mission will exist in no records, and will be disavowed by us should any inquiries be made.  You shall be as a rogue, operating on your own, with no support from the Bureau.”

“And what, unofficially,” Etienne asked, “is the mission?”

“Kill Nightingale,” barked Directeur Theniard Preulx, springing to creaking, doddering life.  The creased, tooth-spare mouth spat out the name with a venom that seemed to ooze up from the depths of a hate-wracked soul.  “Better yet, bring her to us, broken, so that she might be re-educated.”  Yellowed, foggy eyes gleamed over the last word with an unnerving sense of mirth.

Pas de pitié, pour vous doit avoir aucun.

Etienne looked down as he stifled a laugh.  “And my incentive for taking this assignment from the Bureau that has labeled me a disgrace?”

“I have had a long and storied career,” said Preulx, “and the flesh willing, I would carry it on until the last witch and the last traces of magic are purged from this world.  Time, however, shows as little mercy as does our Bureau.  I can think of no prouder legacy than to be succeeded by the man who defeats this evil sorceress and restores the Bureau’s good name.”  Ste-Selin and Duforteste both nodded agreement.

Directeur Etienne de Navarre.  Quite a carrot to be dangled before him.

He knew, as did they, likely before he had even walked into the room, that he would say yes.  The alternative was to retreat to the tables of the Splendide and watch his money evaporate into the caisses of the barmen and the beautiful croupiers.  They were offering Etienne the chance to redeem himself and advance to one of the most prestigious and most handsomely-rewarded positions in the Kingdom.  To secure for himself his entire future, and all he had to do was what he did best – find and catch a witch.  Catch Nightingale.  There was, he foresaw, only one problem with the entire scenario.

He was fairly certain that he was in love with her.

*  *  *

Part Seven available right here.

Vintage, Part Five

vintagetitle

Happy Halloween!  As you can gather I’ve had something of an explosion of productivity this past week.  Please enjoy part five, which takes its inspiration from one of my favorite stories.

“Encore une autre, monsieur?”

Etienne shook his head of the haze that had been creeping over him for the forgotten accumulation of hours he’d been idling at this table.  He blinked hard to clear his view of the exhaustion-and-boredom-crafted filter of muddy glass and swung his attention to the decanter in the white-gloved clutches of the server, who was far too young and chipper for this late in the evening, or was it early in the morning?  Etienne tossed him the barest of nods and turned back to his disappointing cards, shuffling them in his hand in the futile expectation that a different physical arrangement would somehow improve their value in the game.  The server, sensing that this was not a customer who should be pestered overmuch, refilled his glass with the Cabernet Forêt Haute whose bold tannins and ripe underpinning of oak and currant long been a favorite of Etienne’s but to which he now found himself utterly indifferent.  He let the glass sit untouched.  The server noted quickly that the odds of a gratuity were not favorable, and he retreated with haste.

The croupier glanced at Etienne from beneath long lashes.  “Ouvreurs?” she asked.

Etienne sighed as he contemplated his diminishing pile of chips.  He stacked two hundreds’ worth and slid them across the baize.  “Ouvert,” he replied.  “Avec cinq.”

“Fermer,” said the thin, greasy man to his right, laying his cards face down and leaning back from the table.  The bland, timid man next down the row did the same, and the loud, sweaty man on the end shoved an obese pile of chips forward and belted out “Ouvert avec sept.”

“Deux joueurs,” announced the croupier.  She began to shuffle the cards.  The loud man sucked on an ivory pipe and exhaled a withering stream of blue smoke over the green baize, making it plain with his leer that he would enjoy having the girl suck on something else of cylindrical shape.  Etienne winced at the nauseating odor, which worked to exhaust him further.  He finally sampled the wine, its precise flavor tainted by the stench of tabac wafting through his nostrils.  Of all the tables available to play route de perle, the boor chose this one.

The Splendide was one of the seven major establishments lining Calerre’s Rue de la Reine, or “rue des casinos” as it was known (informally, because although technically gambling was illegal, a regular schedule of bribes, preferred tables and free drinks ensured that the law had not been enforced in over a hundred years).  It was not the largest or the most finely gilded of the “Lucky Seven,” but Etienne had always preferred it for one simple reason:  where its competitors hired male dealers and female servers exclusively, the Splendide had cleverly reversed those roles.  The Splendide’s proprietor solicited the most attractive and capable women he could find, and spent a fortune tidying them up, focusing on their hands:  dousing skin in expensive creams to soften away the callouses of hard living, shaping and lacquering fingernails so they gleamed beneath the crystal chandeliers and the flicker of the thousands of candles replaced fresh each morning, training them in the art of movement and music and grace.  The effect was, of course, to distract the gamblers; to fixate their stares on the refined female fingers shuffling the cards and not on the cards themselves.  (Low-cut uniforms supplying generous glimpses of cleavage did their part as well.)  It worked.  Beguiled, oafish men seeking to preen for the comely presence across the table bet more, stayed in the game longer, and lost big.  The house at the Splendide made more money than the other six major casinos combined.

Etienne had identified this scheme years ago, and he could mark players whom he knew would be especially susceptible to the Splendide’s formula, leading him to a significant run of luck at its tables.  Tonight, though, he was losing, badly.  He was down two thousand in the last hour alone.  Three times he had lost count of the play, letting his eyes against better judgment be entranced by the balletic flourishes of the croupier’s fingers as she spread the cards about the table.  Her name was Sylvette, and she was young and new but carried herself with the confidence and poise of a seasoned professional twice her age.  She spread the deck in a fan shape and trailed the tip of a wine-red fingernail over the back of each card, laid out precisely one half-inch from the next.  “Vos choix, messieurs,” she said.  “Grand ouvert premier.”  The pipe-smoking man grinned and leaned forward to take his card.  A smug grin exposed a row of brown teeth as he appraised his selection.  Hardly the most effective gaming tactic, and Etienne should have noticed it, but he was distracted by Sylvette, a luminous thing even framed in the smoke.  He gazed at her hands, folded in front of her on the table now, and studied the precise shape of each long, tapered digit, the clean pores in her unblemished skin, the brushstrokes of the rich paint decorating her nails.  His mind was lost back on the road outside Montagnes-les-grands in the frosty night, on the sparkling purple glow winding about the equally delicate hands of the witch as she decimated his regiment with effortless finesse.  On her devastating beauty, on her captivating smile, on the kiss that defeated the mighty Commissionaire.

It had not, much to his regret, been a dream.

He had awoken from her spell into the stark midday heat, the wintry air the witch had carried with her vanished along with both her and any trace of the other one, Genvieve.  His men, he was frankly shocked to discover, still lived to the last of them, though most had broken bones and so many cuts and scrapes that they looked as though they had been dropped from an impossible precipice onto a sea of rocks.  Corporal Valnier was wheezing through cracked ribs, his temper flared beyond its regular level of merely foul.  Their horses were long gone, so they salvaged what they could from the carriage, mended their wounds with the field gear as best possible, and resumed what was now the humiliating long walk to the district garrison.  Etienne had said nothing on the voyage, leaving Valnier to marshal the others and maintain their morale, what little remained of it.  He retreated into his thoughts to ponder his failure.  Should he have left Montagnes-les-grands earlier?  Had it been truly necessary to stage the theatrics of the dinner?  Should they have chosen a different route to the garrison?  Had it perhaps been needless to pursue Genvieve in the first place?  No, as to the latter he had no choice.  It was a directive from the Bureau, and no matter your misgivings, you did not disobey those.  The realization was sobering; Etienne had grown complacent with his record, his indefatigability.  The witch had shown him just how miniscule he truly was.

“Monsieur?” said Sylvette.  She giggled and gave his distracted face a coquettish wave with her perfumed hand.  He saw the witch sweeping his men from the road with hers, saw her touching a flirtatious kiss to her fingertips and unleashing her power against him with a breath.  That face.  Its hypnotic perfection was burned immutably into his vision like that of the child who despite his parents’ warnings stares at the sun too long.  It haunted each step along the endless road to the garrison, hovered on the fringes as the patrolling constabulary happened upon his bedraggled band, manifested in the hearing room days later as his superiors in the Bureau castigated him for his negligence, suspended his rank and ordered him back to Calerre without pay while they considered further sanctions and possible expulsion from the Bureau itself.

Etienne had not argued the decision.

Calerre usually felt like home, but not this time.  The restaurants did not sate his appetite, the operas did not stir his soul, the gambling offered him no joy in victory.  His sleep was sparse and shallow.  Tellingly, he had not gone near any of his customary venues in search of temporary companionship.  The witch’s beauty had been such that it had destroyed his capacity for perceiving it in any other woman.  Those many local belles who had once enchanted him and lent their fire to his nights had become second-rate reminders of the sheer awe that he had been fortunate to witness in a moment ever too fleeting.

Enough of this foolishness.  He was Etienne de Navarre, a decorated Commissionaire of the Bureau Centrale, dedicated to hunting down witches wherever they lurked and practiced their evil deeds.  The hunter was not meant to long for, let alone lust after his prey.

“Monsieur,” said Sylvette again.  A red fingernail tapped the table.  “Ces gentilhommes attendent sur vous.  S’il vous plaît, choisir votre carte.”

The fog in Etienne’s mind broke, and his face soured.  Deliberately, and certainly taking no pains to avoid inconveniencing his frowning, bourgeois pipe-smoking table-mate, Etienne reached for his glass and drained it in one gulp.  He winced at its bite, coughed hard, and groped at a card from Sylvette’s pile.  It was a seven of moons.  Etienne shuffled it into his hand and mulled over the possibilities.  He pushed another pile of chips forward.   “Augmenter à neuf,” he said.

Sylvette cast eyes to his competitor, whose confidence was abruptly rattled.  “A vous?”

At the least, the unexpected move on Etienne’s part motivated the man to crush out his infernal pipe.  He had the option to fermer now and lose only half his stake.  If he stayed in, the house would double the pot, so a possibility of a large win loomed, but a far more probable loss would claim his entire pile of chips.  Yet men loathed appearing cowardly in front of gorgeous women, and Sylvette’s appeal to this fellow was palpable.  The man sighed, mumbled “dupliquer,” and matched Etienne’s dangerous bet.

“Le jeu continue,” said Sylvette.  She gathered her fan of cards into a single pile, cut them and selected five from the bottom half.  They snapped as she lay them in front of the two players and the lingering two spectators who had already opted for fermer.  An eight and three of ships, a nine of moons, a pair of captains of oceans and a solitaire of stars.  The boor looked mollified, at least for now.  Those two captains in the croupier’s hand combined with the solitaire were a potential threat, but they were undercut by the weakness of the other two cards.  It was all betting and odds now.

“Augmenter à douze,” said Etienne.  He had placed far more chips in the center of the table than remained in his reserve now.  The other man had no option but match him again.  Sylvette spread the rest of the cards in another fan and invited them both to choose.  Route de perle favored boldness, but it had an equally nasty tendency to punish the faint-hearted.  Etienne drew a five of stars.  His opponent did not seem pleased by what he had taken.  Sylvette collected the cards, cut them again and laid five more next to her original draw.  She had added an admiral of oceans and commodore of moons to her hand, along with two useless deuces and a four of ships.

The smart move here would be to end things, to montrer rather than risk the dealer complete what she was very near to achieving.  On another night, in another mood, Etienne would have done so without hesitation.  He smirked, and pushed the last of his chips into the center of the table.

“Augmenter complet,” he said.

Gasps circled the table.  More sweat pooled on the boor’s forehead, seemingly enough to drown a small bird.  His hands were shaking.  With a complet, there would be only one more draw of a single card for both the players and the dealer.  The pot would now be trebled by the house, but it required all players to bet everything they had left.  The other man looked down at the large pile of chips next to his trembling fingers.  Etienne watched greed and sense play out their ageless duel across his opponent’s expression.  If only he could wager on that particular contest.  The man shoved his chips forward and buried his face in his cards.  “Complet,” he repeated.

Sylvette spread the cards out once more.  Etienne and the other man both drew.  Six of stars for the Commissionaire, and again something obviously unappealing for the boor.  The croupier touched a card in the center of the fan and pulled it slowly towards her.  Etienne grinned.  She was just as gifted at drawing out moments as he.  Sylvette slid the tip of her lacquered nail beneath the side of the card, paused for one interminable second and flipped it over.

Mermaid of moons.

“Flotte,” announced the croupier.

“Putain merde de diable!” exploded the other man, confirming his loutish tendencies by slamming fists on the table so hard that drinks spilled, neatly arranged stacks of chips scattered into heaps and both spectators jumped.

“Désolé, monsieur,” said the fetching Sylvette, though not without a perceptible hint of bemusement as she swept his and Etienne’s chips into the receptacle on her side of the table.

“You!” spat the man, redirecting impotent rage at Etienne.  “You made us lose on purpose!”

“Garçon,” said Etienne, lifting his finger to summon the server and ignoring the taunts.  “You could have fermered at any time, mon ami.  Don’t fault me for your inability to read the cards.”

The thin, greasy man and the bland, timid man sensed trouble and tripped over each other attempting to withdraw themselves from the field.  The server approached and Etienne gestured at his empty glass for a top up.  He winced at the odor of the boor, a fetid mix of onion and tabac smoke, as his opponent lurched over him, trying to intimidate Etienne with bulk.  “You owe me ten thousand,” the man wheezed.

Etienne waited until his glass was replenished and he’d taken a cleansing sip.  “Tell you what,” he replied.  “I’ll give you half the money and use the other half to purchase you a decent bath.”

He wasn’t sure what he heard first:  the shriek from Sylvette, the shattering of his wine glass on the marble tile, or the crack of the boor’s chubby, wet fist connecting with his face.  But ending up sprawled on the ground was becoming something of a habit for him.  A gaggle of bodies – Splendide workers, the other man’s allies, and random drunken toffs spoiling for an excuse for a fight – piled on top of him, crushing out the light and the air.  Etienne felt blow after blow land on his body, and he simply closed his eyes and let the assailants have at it while he awaited the inevitable passing out.  He craved seeing the witch once more, and in unconsciousness, his visions of her were the most vivid.

…With seductive amaranthine lips, the witch smiled at him.  Her hand began to glow again as she raised it and planted a delicate kiss on her fingertips.  Etienne felt the dagger in his hand, but did nothing.  The witch lowered her fingers just so and blew.  Etienne’s knees became water as a moving veil of sparkling purple mist enveloped him and permeated deep into his skin…

The whine of rusted hinges creaking to life startled his eyes open and admitted awful light into his throbbing head.  Ache seized every muscle.  The iron tang of blood filled his mouth from a swollen and split lip, and wafts of stale urine from a cold, lumpen floor floated into his sinuses.  Definitely not the Splendide’s Suite Royale.

“Monsieur,” he heard a wry voice say much too loudly.

Etienne forced his head to turn.  Corporal Valnier was standing at the opened entrance to the jail cell, grinning from ear to ear.  Etienne permitted himself a deprecating laugh.  “I’m sure this is not how you expected to see your Commissionaire again.”

The corporal shrugged.  “Seen worse,” he said.

Etienne groaned as he attempted the impossible feat of sitting up.  He rested his head against the pitted brick wall.  “You have come to liberate me from my path of self-destruction, have you?”

Valnier shook his head.  “The Bureau.”

Etienne felt a chill.  He swallowed razor blades.  “What do they want with me?”

“An assignment,” said the corporal with an eagerness in his eyes more suitable to a child handed a new toy than a grizzled hulk of a man with an uncountable slate of kills to his name.

“What kind of assignment?” asked Etienne.

Valnier took a step forward.  “Retribution.”

*  *  *

Hope you are enjoying this tale!  It seems to be sprawling a bit beyond what I had originally thought, but hey, as long as one derives fulfillment from crafting it, there is surely no reason to stop.  Unless, you know, it becomes boring, but I’m sure you’ll advise me of that.  Roll on Part Six…

Vintage, Part Four

vintagetitle

A flash of inspiration has allowed me to present this next installment to you on a much shorter timeframe.  Hope it was worth the (shorter) wait!

People often talked of time seeming to slow during an instant of extreme crisis, but it was a phenomenon that Etienne had, up until this point, never himself experienced.  By contrast, he prided himself on being the man who could subjugate time to his will and take control of moments.  This particular moment, however, was bombarding his senses with information he couldn’t process fast enough, let alone contemplate reactions to.  Each impulse required dragging his limbs through a morass of glue.  Breaths themselves had to be forced.  He gulped at frigid air and tried to concentrate on the simple action of putting one hand in front of the other, hauling himself along the ground as the world went mad.

He heard yelling, but it too was stretched and deepened by elongated seconds such that he could not decipher the words.  He tried to follow the line of sound to its source, but could see nothing but blurry shadows slithering beneath a sky too old for the sun and too young for the moon and stars.  Sparks and clashes of metal were next, followed by screams.  Etienne kept pulling himself forward, out of the thorns and branches that stabbed into his flesh like probing, skeletal fingers.  He winced at the unfamiliar sensation of pain.

“Valnier!” he heard himself call out, hollering through the soup.  Where was his reliable corporal?  He could not distinguish any of the voices out there in the dark; he knew that they had to belong to his men, but he could not recall ever hearing them so full of panic, chaos, and worst of all, fear.  Etienne needed to take command again, to unite them against whoever – whatever – was attacking them.  Yes, that was it.  It was an attack.  Perhaps a company of thieves, waiting in the wilds for a wealthy company to blunder by.  But how could that be?  Mere thieves couldn’t swing the temperature from sweltering to freezing in a heartbeat.

He needed to reach the road.

More yelling now.  The shrieking of escaping horses, apparently the only ones in their company with any sense.  Boots trampled the ground near him.  Shadows had graduated into silhouettes, and Etienne could see outlines of his soldiers, the cut of their standard uniforms comfortably familiar, blades raised as they hurled themselves into the fray.  He watched them run towards the road, back up the hill the company had just descended before they were besieged.  Etienne tried to glimpse who they were charging, each logical part of him expecting to see an opposing line of cutthroats with swords and bows, perhaps even a catapult judging by the level of destruction the enemy had been able to wreak thus far.

And each logical part of him denying the truth of what was actually there:  a solitary figure, shrouded in hood and cloak, arms raised and held out, and pulsating bands of eerie purple energy swirling and sparking about each extended hand.

A witch.

Etienne’s men converged on her, but the slightest motions of those glowing hands were adequate to sweep them effortlessly from her path.  Her fingers twitched and Etienne watched the bodies of veteran soldiers contort as they were sent careening away over the treetops before they could get within ten paces of her.  The witch was not even granting them the courtesy of a straight fight.  Etienne froze in place and fought to keep his teeth from chattering at the cold, lest he give away his position in the scrub.

Etienne did not remember offhand, and certainly would not have if asked then and there, how many witches he had captured and delivered into the custody of the Bureau Centrale in the course of his brilliant career.  They all had their tricks and their unusual abilities which made oftentimes for a challenging hunt, but he had never seen a witch with this much power.  Someone who could dispense with a full platoon of soldiers as if she were brushing dust from a table.  This was why the Bureau Centrale existed, to prevent witches with such powers from tearing their country asunder, but Etienne wondered if his superiors back home in their comfortable suites had vastly underestimated the reality of the threat out here.  What were soliders, indeed, what were entire armies against such overwhelming magic?  True, she might be unique, but worse still, she might only be the first.

He could not have admitted it to himself – indeed, a Commissionaire’s pride would never dare allow it – but he was afraid.  Raw cold dispersed into his veins by a frenzied heartbeat stole all mobility from his legs, and he tucked his arms into his chest to retain his few lingering shreds of warmth.  And he wondered, probably for the first time in his life, whether he would survive the night.

Another soldier ran towards the witch, confident sword poised to slice her in two from shoulder to thigh.  Etienne wanted to warn the fool, but his jaw held shut.  With a gesture she immobilized the man and hoisted him into the air.  His head lolled back and yelps of pain became choking gurgles as she lifted him higher.  The sword fell from his hand and clattered upon the frozen ground.  She swatted her fingers and tossed him aside.  Visible adversaries dispensed with, the witch proceeded along the road, toward the overturned carriage, her stride unbroken and casual, more of a stroll than a tactical advance.  Etienne watched her pass directly in front of him, the light enveloping her hands like twin beacons draping the night in shadows of amethyst.  Did she know he was here?  Did he dare risk revealing himself?

From bleak prospects suddenly arose a sliver of hope in the form of a single word spoken in a hushed tone by a familiar voice:  “Monsieur.”  Accompanied by a leather-gloved hand laid on Etienne’s shoulder with an atypical reassurance.  Corporal Valnier.  “Restez ici,” he barked, and he was gone again, sword drawn, making a bold line for the witch whose back was to them now.  Valnier did not seem to care whether she heard him.  His steps were heavy and defiant, characteristic of a man who from the day he learned to swing his fists had never backed down from a fight.  Etienne dared to begin to think that his reliable corporal might in fact win the day for them.

He was disabused of that notion in the fraction of a second it took for the witch, without showing the barest acknowledgement of the brute closing in on her, to nonchalantly lift her right hand as though tossing a superstitious pinch of salt over her shoulder, and consequently fling the esteemed Corporal Valnier, arms and legs flailing against invisible forces, into the distant woods like a limp chunk of unwanted carrion.  Etienne did not hear him land.  He could not see any more of his men anywhere, not that it would have mattered now.  If Valnier could not handle her, then what chance did any of the others have?  Especially himself?

The battered carriage lay on its roof in a gully not far from where Etienne was crouched.  He could see everything now.  Again, the witch made a simple flicking motion with her finger, and wood and metal cracked and whined as component fibers and filaments rent themselves asunder and the entire rear section of the carriage helpfully detached itself and tumbled out of the way – revealing the bound and rattled form of the young Genvieve, Etienne’s ostensible prisoner.  She was slumped against one side of the carriage and had a fresh gash across her cheek, a result of the crash.  She and the other witch did not speak.  Instead the witch posed her hand over the magic-inhibiting manacles, and the purple light sharpened into a quick, direct blast from her fingertips that seared the metal instantly into ash.  The collar also sizzled into nothingness in short order, and Genvieve rubbed her throat in disbelief.  Task accomplished, the witch let the energy fade from her hands, and ceded the duty of illumination of the scene to the rising moon.

Freed, Genvieve rose from the wreck.  White light wreathed itself around her, reshaping her body into another feline form, this time much larger than a stringy tortoiseshell, and one Etienne had only ever seen in illustrations of animal life on the jungles of the Lower Continent:  a panther, sleek and black and indistinguishable from the night into which it promptly raced away.  Etienne’s failures were compounding upon themselves with each passing second, and yet it seemed like it had only been a handful of minutes since this had all started.

Perhaps he was dreaming.  Perhaps he had fallen asleep on the long road to the garrison of the maître provinciale, and soon he would be roused by one of his men and see that all was as it should be, the caravan in formation riding quietly south in the hot and still night air.  But the pain in his lacerated legs, the ice making his teeth clack and grind, and the growing desperation seizing his thoughts left little room to wish that this might be resolved only by opening his eyes.

They had lost their prisoner, their custom-bred horses had all fled, the Bureau’s valuable property had been destroyed, and his men were beaten and probably dead for all he knew.  Etienne was his detachment’s last chance to salvage some honor from this near rout.  Drawing upon a depleting resolve, Etienne stood.  He had no sword, and he could spot none within easy reach.  He had only a small dagger tucked inside his uniform jacket, and it was mainly for ceremonial purposes.  Etienne did not recall the last time he had it sharpened, if ever.  He loosened a button and reached in to wrap his fingers around its jeweled hilt.  Touching a weapon usually provided comfort, but this felt to Etienne like the ultimate gesture of futility.  A scary old butter knife with which to challenge the most powerful magic he’d ever seen.  Even the most crooked oddsmaker on Rue de la Reine would not dare touch that wager.

Etienne held the dagger next to his waist, the blade pointing forward.  The Commissionaire swallowed a rock in his throat.  Frozen air filled his lungs.  He took a step.

The witch turned.  She looked straight at him.

Etienne stopped.

His training, and his years of experience, had taught him to hate witches, to mistrust every last thing about them, no matter how innocent it might seem.  His adult life had been devoted to the eradication of their blight upon his cherished country, for the greater glory of the King and the people.  So he knew better than to allow himself to be beguiled.  He knew, as indelibly as words chiseled into stone, that a pretty face was merely another deadly weapon, and that the briefest hesitation in the sight of beauty could mean the difference between triumph and death.

Yet years of training and experience vanished tonight in a breath as he beheld the witch’s face, revealed beneath the hood of her cloak.

She was that beautiful.

Monsieur le Commissionaire Etienne de Navarre admired poetry, though he could not compose it himself.  He had forgotten more literature than the average thousand ordinary peasants combined had read, but the ability to describe the sublime perfection of the face looking back at him was beyond even his highly educated means.  Calerre had so many attractive women floating about its societal echelons, and each could boast of a particular feature of her visage that might elevate her above her kin; the sly, sharp, artistic arch of a dark eyebrow, the deep shade of rose upon a sculpted cheekbone, lips that blossomed like spring flowers and ran red with the hottest blood, to name but a few that had crossed his path.  It was as if someone had measured and catalogued the highest attainable degree for each of these rare and becoming physical traits and bestowed them all into a single woman.  And here, beholding this inconceivable objet d’art made flesh, Etienne could not muster a move.  He looked back at her, stupidly, like a boy touched with the first stirrings of puberty and beginning to comprehend the depth of his helplessness before this most feminine of all imaginable worldly and otherworldly powers.

With seductive amaranthine lips, the witch smiled at him.

Her hand began to glow again as she raised it and planted a delicate kiss on her fingertips.  Etienne felt the dagger in his hand, but did nothing.  The witch lowered her fingers just so and blew.

Etienne’s knees became water as a moving veil of sparkling purple mist enveloped him and permeated deep into his skin.  Each extremity seemed to disappear in turn, the sensation of numbness racing through his body until he felt like nothing but eyes and a mouth floating in space.  Then even that was gone, and he fell into slumber with the witch’s face etched into his dreams.

*  *  *

There’s more, honest!  We’re just getting going.  Stay tuned!  In fact, just tune in here!