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Vintage, Part Three

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The following is brought to you by the letter V, the number 3 and a soulless multinational defense conglomerate that may or may not have been responsible for the MK-Ultra program.  Hope you like it.  If you’re new to this tale, Parts One and Two are just a scroll down away.

About a year ago, a traveling opera company had staged a production of La Sirena Ridere at Calerre’s Palais des Printemps, which Etienne had been terribly excited to see, coming as it did in a well-timed and well-deserved sabbatical from his regular duties.  La Sirena was famed for the magnificent and demanding multi-octave-spanning aria by the female lead in the second act that few sopranos were capable of achieving.  Even a sublime talent like the radiant Chelys Anjour – Etienne’s longtime favorite performer – could only execute it successfully on perhaps every third attempt, if she was having a good day and the acoustics in the venue were favorable.  The foreign troupe in question had none of these factors working in its favor; still, sitting in his box on that night, Etienne had commended them for their audacity in the attempt and held out hope that he might find himself pleasantly surprised.  However, as Act Two drew to a close, the Commissionaire’s discriminating ears were lacerated by what he now considered only the second worst thing he had ever heard.

Neck locked in Corporal Valnier’s seasoned grip, the cat screamed and hissed and flailed its paws, curled claws sinking into the thick, hewn leather of his glove.  Valnier hoisted the cat into the air, and, holding it a safe measure outside swiping distance of his face, carried it howling away from the table as Etienne dabbed his mouth politely with a napkin and rose from his chair.  The old woman began wailing and weeping as well, and though her arthritic arm flails weren’t quite as frenzied as the cat’s, they still merited restraint by two of Etienne’s men.  No one else in the room, particularly the rotund Maire Bernaud Joyal, dared move, intimidated at every turn by the soldiers eyeing their merest twitch.  Valnier pressed the cat against the back wall, the brutish man taking care not to injure its fragile head even as his fist was but one nervous impulse from crushing its spine.

Etienne pointed at the old woman.  “Quiet,” he said simply, and stared at her, unblinking and even, until she ran out of breath and her cries shrank to whimpers.  He then joined his corporal at the wall, where the cat too was squirming with far less vigor as each second slid by, its screeching fading from incessant and grating to halting and merely distracting.  Controlling time, Etienne had discovered, was the best way to take command of a room.  The patience to allow your opponents to wear themselves out was a skill that took longer to hone than any particular proficiency with a blade, or incisiveness with one’s wit.  Too many were eager to try to win such battles with haste.  Patience was most certainly required in a scene such as this, which, Etienne could admit, would look quite ridiculous to a passer-by.  A mighty detachment of the King’s soldiers, led by a distinguished Commissionaire, capturing a cat.  And it was not by any stretch the strangest assignment Etienne had ever found himself leading.

Said feline was mewling weakly now, its paws resigned and limp.  Its tail hung straight down.  Corporal Valnier kept his hand locked around its neck.  Etienne allowed himself a smirk.  “Cats are renowned for their sense of self-preservation,” he said.  “I have heard tell that when their owners have died and left them to starve, cats will not hesitate to eat the flesh of the very hands that once fed and cared for them.  Loyalty, it seems, cannot conquer the cries of one’s stomach.  I suspect, however, that this situation is somewhat different.”  No one answered him.  “Well then.  This has gone on quite far enough, don’t you think, my dear?  I suggest you save us all a great deal of bother.  Or, you can watch your friends’ entrails spill onto the floor in turn.  Your choice.  But I don’t imagine you’re that hungry yet.”  He nodded to his detachment spread about the room, their swords drawn, herding the villagers into manageable clumps of quivering flesh.  Blades edged nearer to necks.  Etienne removed his watch from his pocket again and flipped it open.

It took only a fragment of time for the maire to lose his nerve.  “Gen!” he hissed.

The cat stopped moving.  Panicked round eyes narrowed to calm slits again.  If one did not know better, one might have even noted a shrug of its shoulders, an acceptance that all was lost.

A white shimmer began to gleam from beneath the cat’s fur, spinning into the air around it like dust motes hovering in a beam of sunlight, caught and whisked into a tizzy by a sudden breeze.  Strands of light layered tenderly over themselves and grew into a cocoon shrouding the cat’s form, yet the unflappable Corporal Valnier kept his grip tight, even as the light expanded beyond the silhouette of the animal and extended to the floor.  It reshaped itself into the more familiar and logical contours of a human being and began to withdraw into ether, each tendril slinking into nothingness like a wave shrinking from a shore.  Left in the wake of the transformation and the vanishing rush of white was the terrified shape of a girl, edging past her teenage years.

“Salut, mademoiselle minette,” Etienne said.

She was pretty enough; witches usually were, in Etienne’s experience.  But he had long ago conditioned himself against the pull of base instincts.  He could sate his appetites for feminine companionship back in Calerre; on assignment, he was stone.  His dedication to his work, his devotion to the Bureau, his appreciation for the romantic aesthete’s life the pay allowed him to lead at home crushed any logical inklings of temptation he might feel.  It was drilled into them in training:  beauty was only another weapon in a witch’s formidable arsenal.  Few of her spells could be as potent as a mere whispered plea from a pair of soft, inviting lips.  More than one Commissionaire had been undone in that way, and Etienne had no intention of being the next addition to that embarrassing list.  He focused immediately on the flaws:  the limp, stringy hair, the squarish chin, the overlong, gawky neck straining beneath Valnier’s grasp.  And he avoided the eyes.  Eyes invoked sympathy.  Instead, he turned away to address the rest of the people.

“Behold, mesdames et monsieurs, the creature you have risked your lives to protect,” he said. “Had you exercised some prudence, had you not desired to use her talents to fatten your purse…”  He narrowed his focus to the pathetic visage of Bernaud Joyal.  “Who knows how many years you might have scuttled safely out of reach of the vigilance of the Bureau Centrale.  Yet you all know the law.  And you know the consequence for breaking it.”

“Please, monsieur,” interrupted a meek, shaking voice, new to the exchange.  “They have not done anything wrong.”

“Well, that is certainly more palatable to the ears than anything else from you so far this evening, my dear,” Etienne said.  He allowed himself a glance at her, yet it remained in motion, flitting across her body, never meeting the eyes that he could tell were beginning to tear up, based on the trembling evident beneath the forced steadfastness of her begging.  Staying clear of a look was more than just preventing any hint of empathy, it was also showing her that he did not acknowledge her as a person, let alone as the remotest semblance of an equal.  Yet another tenet of the Bureau Centrale.  “And you will forgive me for disagreeing.  The village of Montagnes-les-grands has indeed done wrong; it has committed treason by harboring a weapon that might be used against the interests of our King and great country, as egregious an offense as giving aid and comfort to enemy combatants.”

“My magic harms none!” the witch said.  “All I can do is help plants to grow.  I have only tried to help this village survive the drought.”

Etienne laughed.  “All you can do, hmm?  Apart from being able to transform yourself into any number of creatures that could infiltrate our most secret installations?  Spy on our senior officials and compromise the confidential proceedings that keep our country safe and secure?  Get yourself near enough to the royal family in order to to carry out an assassination?”

“I would never–”

“Mademoiselle,” the Commissionaire said, “Gen, is it?  Short for something?”

The young witch’s eyes fell to the splinters in the floor.  “Genvieve.”

“Genvieve.  The hour is growing late and I have not wish to tarry in this dunghill of a village any longer than my assignment requires.  Therefore I present you with two options, admittedly neither of which you may find overly favorable, but the preferred choice will see each man and woman walk out of this room alive.  That is, if you surrender to my men and I.  The other path involves you attempting to use your powers to extricate yourself from this predicament, which, talented as you undoubtedly are, presents at the least the possibility of a temporary reprieve.  It does, however, ensure that we will kill everyone here, beginning with this gnarled creature who seems to hold you in such high regard.”  One of the men restraining the old woman touched the tip of his blade to her throat and pressed against it just enough to draw a single drop of gleaming red blood.  It trickled a snaking path down the polished metal, pooled and fell to the floor, landing with a tiny plosh that everyone could hear, so taut the silence as all waited on the next move.

Genvieve looked to the old woman, wrinkled skin stretched smooth as she cringed at the touch of the soldier’s blade.  The witch’s own neck chafed in the grip of Corporal Valnier, who, unlike Etienne, had no problem with staring into her eyes, as his black pupils were dead to a concept as foreign to him as mercy.  Etienne attended with arms clasped behind his back, affecting indifference as to her ultimate decision.  For him it was merely a question of how much blood would be joining that solitary drop lying on the floor.

“I will go with you,” the witch said, tears drying from her eyes but filling her throat.

The old woman began sobbing as the soldier removed the blade from her neck.  Etienne nodded to another of his men, who fetched a satchel from beneath his feet and dropped it in the middle of the table.  Etienne broke the seal on the top flap and extracted a pair of metallic items, fabricated by the Bureau’s engineering section:  one large, dinner plate-sized locking ring and two smaller ones connected by a chain.  Etienne had never been certain what kind of metal it was.  It resembled fine silver, but it never tarnished, never even absorbed the oils of fingerprints.  It was effective enough, however, that Etienne had long ceased wondering about its origin.  He motioned to Valnier to bring the witch over.  “Your hands, please, mademoiselle,” the Commissionaire said.

Genvieve held them out without protest.  Valnier took the manacles from Etienne and snapped them into place.  Etienne retained the task of attaching the collar around the witch’s neck.  “Certainly more fashionable than the good corporal’s glove, n’est-ce-pas?” he said.  Genvieve had no rejoinder.  She was a young woman utterly defeated.  And now, wearing the Bureau’s custom collar and manacles, she would find herself incapable of casting any magic.  Quite harmless.

“Monsieur Valnier, you will see to Mademoiselle’s traveling arrangements?” Etienne said.  Valnier seized the witch by the arm and forced her towards the door.

The old woman screamed again, and the soldiers held her back.  “Where are you taking my granddaughter?” she howled.

“Fear not, my dear lady,” Etienne said.  “Your young one is just in need of a little re-education in the ways of polite, law-abiding society.”

The woman collapsed into a torrent of grief and pain, her pitiful sobs shaking the walls.  Etienne stepped past her to the frozen face of Bernaud Joyal, a man just as condemned as the witch being marched out of the salle.  “Monsieur le maire,” Etienne said, “an officier from the Bureau will be arriving tomorrow to take charge of this village and supervise the reparations due the King for your actions.  He is not a subtle man, and he has no taste for cuvée.  I would strongly urge that you place your affairs in order and give due consideration to abandoning your post.  I hear Fauniere is quite lovely this time of year, if you succeed in making it that far.”  Without giving the man an opportunity to answer, Etienne spun on his boot heel and exited the salle with the rest of his men, and never again wasted a further thought on Bernaud Joyal.

Outside, the afternoon heat had scarcely abated a blink, even as the late sun began to dip at their backs over the crest of the Araquogne Escarpement.  The persistent drone of cicada wings cut the thick air, accompanied by the first hint of crickets emerging for the night.   Efficient as ever, Etienne’s detachment had already loaded the witch into the cell at the rear of the carriage and readied his horse.  With dispatch, he climbed into the saddle.

There was a garrison about two hours’ ride south of here, where they could discharge their young prisoner into the custody of the maître provinciale for this district, and find a quiet night’s rest before setting out on the three day journey back to Calerre in the morning.  Etienne sighed at the thought.  He had been too long away from the tables, the opera, the restaurant where his rank afforded him the best table and a complimentary selection from their cellars.  He was tired of holes in the ground like Montagnes-les-grands and the snivelling types who squatted there like so many filthy moles.  And he was tired of the heat.  The drought had weighed upon the country for what seemed like years now, but at least Calerre had the benefit of cooling breezes blowing across it from the neighboring sea.  He remembered his father taking him to the harbor to watch the great masted cargo ships coming and going, and the smell of the brine and the salt and the sound of the almost musical patois of the sailors.  And his father cautioning him against repeating the profanities he heard in front of his mother.

Corporal Valnier’s horse edged up alongside his.  “All ready,” he announced.

“Valnier,” Etienne said, “is it possible you might ever have more than two words for me?”

The corporal shrugged and spat.  “Doubt it.”

Etienne laughed and shook the reins.  A chorus of hooves signaled the departure of the detachment from Montagnes-les-grands, a place destined to be forgotten the moment it vanished from view.

No one talked as they made their way south.  The carriage cell had no windows barring a small slit at the very top to keep the occupant from suffocating.  Usually, whoever was in there would scream and cry for at least an hour until their lungs gave out and the promise of hope went with them.  By contrast, this witch, Genvieve, did not utter a sound.  Etienne had never encountered one so seemingly indifferent to what was happening to her.  She did know what being apprehended by a Commissionaire for practicing witchcraft meant, did she not?  Etienne was half-tempted to climb aboard the carriage and ask the girl himself, but he quickly thought better of it.  A little longer and she would be someone else’s problem, and he would be on his well-earned way home.

Etienne felt the hairs on his arm stand as a shiver touched his back.  Odd.  He was too tired, he reasoned.  The heat refused to abate and here he was suffering a chill.  He did not relish the notion of voyaging back to Calerre and waging a battle against a fever at the same time.

The shiver returned, this time snaking its way into his boots and bracketing his sides.  Etienne yanked back on the reins and brought his horse to a stop.  Corporal Valnier, bringing up the rear, noticed and hollered at the rest of the caravan to halt.  He trotted to his Commissionaire’s side.  “Monsieur?” the corporal inquired.

“Shh,” Etienne said.  Apart from the occasional whicker of one of the horses, the oncoming night had gone completely silent.  No animals, no insects, not even a fragment of wind rustling through a bush.  Etienne blew out a long breath and watched it condense into icy mist in front of him.  It was as if they had crossed a threshold into deep winter.  “What the hell is going–”

A clap of thunder exploded next to him as something hurled him from his horse and sent him sprawling across the hard, dry earth, which tore through his silks and ripped away patches of his skin.  He came to a merciful stop in a web of dried thickets, and he gathered himself enough to look up for a moment and see his men flung through the air like discarded toys, the horses squealing and flailing in the dirt and splinters of wood and iron bursting from the massive carriage as it went tumbling end over end.  And a sudden, instinctive thought that a true Commissionaire would never, even in his darkest moments, lower himself to thinking, flashed through his mind.

Quelqu’un nous sauver…

*  *  *

To be continued… right here!

Vintage, Part Two

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To read Part One, scroll down past this post.  Otherwise, soldier on.

Only a poor man would have called it a feast.  Etienne had attended enough lavish banquets back in Calerre to have etched his expectations for that honorific far too high for a modest, forgotten place like Montagnes-les-grands to even approach.  He was not, however, so closed off that he could not at the least admit that Maire Bernaud Joyal and his gathered citizenry were trying their best to keep him and his detachment sated with the meager selection it was within their capacity to offer.

They sat at the long, plain, pitted dining table in the salle publique, the venue here most suited to accommodate a visiting Commissionaire and his entourage, even if it reeked of horse and a hint of years-old vomit.  Etienne leaned back in his chair at the head of the table, sipping at a red served inelegantly in a glazed wooden goblet, and grinning at the mortification souring the put-upon maire’s round face to his immediate right.  They were fourteen at the table, swarmed by twenty hurrying to clear used plates and replace them with dishes fresh and hot.  The din of base conversation and the constant clanking of cutlery was troubling Etienne with the beginnings of a headache.  Or it could have just been the cheapness of the wine.  EIther way, Etienne winced and took another sip – in for a sou, in for a livre.

Amuse-bouches of spiced bean soup with ginger root and appetizers of tartes flambée with smoked bacon and caramelized onion had been first, followed by a small mid-meal dish of brandied pears.  Valnier and his men were gobbling the food down as fast as the villagers could ladle it out, with the crass single-mindedness – and flagrant ignorance of table manners – one would expect from career soldiers.  The aging villagers were not the most nimble in keeping up, either, and three times the persistent hum of the meal had been shattered by an errant plate spreading shards of itself over the floorboards, followed by Joyal’s effusive apologies.  A stringy tortoiseshell cat roamed the mise-en-scene, wandering amidst legs and licking at the occasional scrap tumbling from crude forks.

“You are not a young village, are you, Bernaud?” Etienne said to the maire, with a nod toward the sun and year-scarred cracks in the face of the hunched man who refreshed his cup.

“N-no, Monsieur le Commissionaire.  Many of our young were lost in the war, and the rest do not stay.  There is very little to fire a young man’s soul in Montagnes.”

“Oh, come now,” Etienne said, lifting the goblet to inhale the bouquet, which reminded him distinctly of a charred, wet bucket full of rotting apples.  “Opportunity is where one creates it.  Did you know that Gysbert Lashace composed fifteen of his greatest arias before he had set foot outside Fauniere?  And Fauniere has not the fortune to reside in the shadow of the Araquogne as you do.”  Fauniere had little fortune at all; it was a backwater slum of maybe a hundred bedraggled peasants cobbled from the remnants of a remote border garrison that had not had the good sense to be overrun during the war ten years prior.

“W-with respect, Monsieur,” Joyal said softly, “Grand Duc Lashace grew up at his family’s lakeside summer retreat ten miles from Fauniere and was apprenticed by esteemed composers who had studied at the Conservatoire Royale.  He did have a certain advantage that we here do not.”

Etienne smiled at the maire’s impressive display of trivia.  “Yet would he have been able to invest his work with such a poignant sense of melancholy from amidst the velvet and frills of the capital?  The nobility of the suffering he portrays could only come from having walked with the common people, listened to their stories, shared in their prayers.”  Etienne set his cup down and leaned forward.  “You see, my fellow Commissionaires often miss this point.  They are slow to volunteer for the assignments that take them far from home.  I tell them, the true spirit of a people is found not in its cities, but in the farthest reaches where convenience is but a dream and ceaseless toil the ultimate measure of one’s life.  Out here is where one finds the honor one professes to seek.”  He leaned back and cast a glance toward Valnier, seated next to the maire.  “What say you, Corporal?”

The gruff soldier looked up from his soup bowl.  A bead of thick amber trickled from the corner of his mouth.  “Good food,” he grunted.

Etienne grinned.  “There, you see, Bernaud,” he said, “praise does not come any higher.  And Valnier has been with me for five years now in our journey across the country visiting communities like this one, serving the government of His Majesty the King.  Occasionally having the opportunity to enjoy a fine meal in good company.  Speaking of which–” He slid his disappointing cup toward the maire.  “When are you going to open your better selections?”

Joyal swallowed hard, looked over his shoulder and threw his arm into the air.  Half the servers crowded forth to tear away the remnants of the tarts and brandied pears while the others retreated to the kitchen to bring out the mains.  Etienne watched Corporal Valnier fume silently as his soup bowl was taken from him; the man was as deliberate in eating as he was vicious in swinging a sword.

The kitchen doors swung open and the aroma of braised meat filtered into the salle.  “Entrecote marchand de vin?” guessed Etienne.  Joyal nodded.  “Splendid,” said the Commissionaire, and he leaned back to watch the procession of elderly servers try to stay vertical as they slid the heaping plates in front of his eager men.  The servers were a nervous lot, with a hefty dose of fear driving their arthritic limbs past capacity, apart from one:  a short, plain-faced woman with wild, wiry gray hair, reminding him of brambles.  Her movements were languid where the others were rushed, her demeanor placid where her colleagues could scarcely contain their desperation for the night to end.  Curious.  The hag seemed to be without fear.  Etienne might have even guessed that she was bored.  Bernaud Joyal could stand to take a cue from her; he might gain a few more years of bureaucratic ennui.  Right now though, Etienne preferred the maire where he was; teetering on that precarious edge of complete nervous collapse.

Etienne felt the cat brush past his boot.  It wandered beneath the table, tucking its tail away from the threat of stumbling old feet.  Lucky thing to be residing here instead of a town like Fauniere, where the drought might have seen it carved up and served with a tumbleweed as garnish.

Joyal located a modicum of courage beneath his hairless pate as the last of the servers withdrew from the table.  “I-if I may be permitted to inquire as to the purpose of Monsieur le Commissionaire’s welcome visit to Montagnes-les-grands?”  Etienne glimpsed the bramble-haired woman, standing back by the now-closed kitchen door, watching them with an even, expectant stare.

The Commissionaire looked to Corporal Valnier.  Valnier stopped eating and threw a glare at his men, who responded as they had on scores of similar occasions.  Silence cut the conversational din as swiftly as a knife far sharper than those which could barely hack through the leathery cuts of meat on their plates.  A nerve pulsed beneath the pink skin of Joyal’s forehead.

All attention was on Etienne now, and he knew how to play it as well as any performer he’d seen on the stage.  He often joked to himself that watching opera in Calerre had taught him more than the reams of texts the Bureau had thrown at him in the course of his official training.  People were predisposed to be an audience; easily manipulated by theatricality, desperate to bestow their admiration upon someone they considered famous, or merely their superior – even if that person wasn’t.  The rank of Commissionaire was mere formality, really.  Etienne could have limped into this village on the back of a manure cart and still had them begging to listen to him.

He met Joyal’s frantic gaze, locked and directed the maire’s eyes to the empty wine cup sitting between them.  Joyal shook his arm into a waving blur and the bramble-haired woman stepped forward, a glass decanter clutched between gnarled fingers.  Etienne sat back and allowed her to pour.  He could tell by the color alone as the decanter emptied that this was what he had come to sample, not whatever glorified donkey urine they’d fobbed off on him earlier.  The maire probably thought he was being clever by choosing this moment to lavish gifts upon the Commissionaire.  It wasn’t an unrealistic ploy; certain less scrupulous bearers of the title had been known to look the other way when a sufficient bribe crawled into their pockets.  But here, Joyal was merely sealing his village’s fate.

“M-may I present the fruits of our summer harvest, our cuvée speciale,” the maire said.  “I h-humbly hope Monsieur le Commissionaire will find it a bold, inspired choice.”

The old woman took a discreet step back to watch Etienne lift the cup to his lips.  The bouquet had the expected frame of oak surrounding a distinct flavor of plum.  He allowed the first taste to slide over his tongue and into his throat, evaluating each of its nuances as a man of science would pore over the results of his experiment.  Searching for commonality, for contradiction, establishing connections, analyzing those elements that remained separate.  Testing his hypothesis to its limits and arriving, presently, at the inescapable conclusion.

C’est vrai.

Etienne set the goblet back on the table.  “Monsieur le maire,” he said, abandoning both familiarity and any semblance of a regional patois, and reassuming the scholarly tones of upper class Calerre, “there is but one purpose for our visit to Montagnes-les-grands.  Indeed, from the instant you glimpsed the approach of our company you would have known our purpose, and it is something of an exercise in pedantry for you to ask me to state aloud that of which every person in this room is already quite cognizant.  The time we are granted to walk this world is brief, and I am not renowned for my patience with having mine polluted by unnecessary conversation.”

“M-monsieur–”

Etienne slammed his hand on the table.  Plates and glasses and people alike jumped – it was as if for half a second the contents of the entire room suddenly shifted upward, and came to rest again, slightly off-kilter from where they had been before.  A change that could not be reversed.  “Don’t interrupt,” the Commissionaire said evenly.  In that instant, Joyal looked to have lost a few inches from his height and a few dozen more hairs from the limited reserve upon his head.  The indifference on the old crone’s face began to wither as well, usurped by the creep of dread.

“So,” Etienne went on.  “This country, of which we are proud to call ourselves citizens, is a land of rich and noble traditions, protected by a fabric of laws and governance which protects those traditions in much the same manner as a blanket protects the sleeping child on the winter’s night.  So long as the blanket remains intact, the child remains safe and warm.  Yet as any weaver will tell you, the finest cloth will be reduced to tatters in time, if it is not mended with vigilance and care.  Threads may snag on the edge of the bed frame, moisture and dirt may rot it from the inside, moths may devour patches greedily until the blanket is destroyed and the child freezes.”  He glared at Joyal.  “You are the moth, Monsieur le maire, and I… am the needle.”

“Monsieur le Commissionaire, I truly must protest–”

“You’ve lost your stammer, Bernaud,” Etienne noted, “if not your capacity for interruption.  Valnier?”  The corporal stood.  “If our benevolent host speaks again before I give him leave, kindly break his face.”  Joyal’s protests turned to water and fell silent once more.

“There is witchcraft in this country,” Etienne said, raising his voice to ensure he could be heard even by those cleaning pots in the kitchen – though they dared not move now.  “It is a merciless, clawed and fanged demon, tearing relentlessly at the blanket which keeps us safe, seeking to leave us naked before the storm.  And no matter how many demons we slay, more rise to take their place.  Why?  Because of villages like this one.  You, who think that you are too remote to be noticed, that the matters of the rural communities mean nothing to the bureaucrats sitting on their silk-swaddled culs counting tax revenue in Calerre.  You think you are exempt from the law.  From reason.  From sanity.  The Bureau Centrale, and its Commissionaires, are the first defense against what you would seek to spread across our homeland like the plagues of centuries ago.  Like expert winemakers, we are tasked to separate the rotten grapes and ensure that the resulting vintage is of the most impeccable quality.”  He removed his timepiece from his pocket, exposed its face and placed it on the table between himself and Joyal.  “Now, Monsieur, you have sixty seconds to explain to me why I am wrong, and I why I shouldn’t have you and the entire population of this village macerated into must.”

The tortoiseshell cat chose that moment to leap onto the table, startling a few of Etienne’s detachment into snickers of accidental laughter.  It parked itself in an empty section between half-finished dinner plates and tucked its paws beneath its belly, diamond-shaped eyes following the room’s only conversation.  Etienne kept his eyes on the movement of his watch’s second hand, each passing tick one fewer chance for Bernaud Joyal to save his community from a torrent of sword and flame.

The flushed red in the maire’s cheeks approached that of his cuvée.  “This is an outrageous accusation,” he said, jowls shaking out flecks of spittle.  “We are a poor village.  There are no witches here.  The law is the law.  We would not dare offend His Majesty by offering harbor to such people!”

The Commissionaire closed his watch.  “With thirteen seconds to spare, no less.”  Etienne cast his glance to the bramble-haired woman standing just behind the maire.  She was attempting to inch back to the shadows, clearly out of hope of escaping notice.  Her look of boredom had been replaced entirely with fear.  “I’ll take another glass, my dear,” he said to her.  Joyal eyed her nervously as she took a halting step forward and tilted the decanter over Etienne’s cup, spilling more than she poured.  “Oh, shame,” said Etienne.  “Fitting, however, because this is what tipped your hand.”

Joyal’s stammer returned.  “I-I don’t understand.”

“The life of a Commissionaire affords one the privilege of travel across the entire country, the chance to sample selections from vineyards both majestic and meager.  To develop a palate that can identify the origin of wine down to the singular patch of earth from which its vines sprang.  Your cuvée, monsieur, bears the signature taste of plum that marks every wine from the southern slope of the Araquogne, as indeed it should.  Yet you are remiss in thinking a seasoned connoisseur cannot tell the difference between a grape grown in a wet season and one in a drought.  When vineyards are drying out left and right beneath this punishing sun, you present me with a wine from soil so damp it might as well have been cultivated at the bottom of the ocean.  Bold and inspired indeed.”

All color washed from Joyal’s complexion like an ebbing tide.

Etienne favored the maire with a smug grin.  “Your village is using witchcraft to boost the productivity of your fields.  How many harvests did you enjoy this year?  Four?  Five?  Wines from Montagnes-les-grands are turning up in towns and bourgs as remote as Leunais and Doyen, providing you with a steady stream of revenue to see you through the drought, and fulfill your tax obligations to the last sou.  A fine scheme, worthy of a grandmaster.  Yet painfully obvious to anyone who knows his wine.”  He raised his cup in a mock toast, and drained the last dregs.  “Alors, monsieur, like the habitual gambler we find ourselves down to the last of our chips and only twos and threes in our hand.  Shall you reveal the witch to me and my men, or shall we put each of you to the question in turn until severed limbs drag the truth from bruised lips?”

Joyal’s voice cracked into the whisper of a mouse.  “M-monsieur, I-”

“No matter,” Etienne said.  “In point of fact, the witch is here in this room.  Too curious by half, it seems, to safeguard herself.”  He slipped his watch back into his breast pocket and rose.  Valnier and his detachment followed suit.  Etienne turned to the bramble-haired old woman standing behind the maire.  “Corporal Valnier,” he said.

“Sir.”

The crone was trembling now.  The corner of Etienne’s mouth turned up into a smirk.  “Arrest the witch,” he said.

A wail tore through the room as the corporal’s gloved hand coiled itself around the neck of the cat.

*  *  *

Much more to come.  In fact, you can read Part Three by just clicking in this tender spot.

Vintage, Part One

vintagetitle

This will be unlike any post you’ve read here before.  A brief digression by way of preamble – this is a concept that has been kicking around my brain for a while.  My fiction muscles are a bit rusty and they need flexing, so I thought it might be worthwhile to try them out on you, my cherished and loyal readers.  Mostly, I need to prove to myself I’ve still got the chops.  This piece is tangentially related to my novel in that it is a side story, set in the same world (i.e. same rules), though a thousand miles removed, in a different country, maybe not even at the same time.  And the tone is significantly different, as is the protagonist, the style and so on.  My thought is posting this as an ongoing saga, with new chapters released periodically (shamelessly cribbing the strategy from Amira Makansi with her wonderful “Porous” tale); a story unfolding in real time, witnessed by you, evolving as it goes.  I’m eager to hear what you think.  So, without further ado, here is VINTAGE.

Allons-y encore.

A sour tincture of desperation and manure reeked from the village, the same aroma that permeated every meager settlement from here to the abandoned ports on the Delprician coast.  It was the pungent signature of squandered potential and wasted life – of poverty, if he was being frank – and it spewed from the cracks baked into the earth by a misanthropic sun.  Etienne began to smell it a mere five miles out; a parasite borne by afternoon zephyrs, slithering up and into his nostrils, daring him to retch at its familiarity.  He had trudged through too many of these villes, bourgs and communes in the course of his work, and each one had the distinct gift of making him miss the perfumed pale flowers lining the stone-paved streets of Calerre with pangs ever more acute.

Sweat trickling over his brow for the first time today, Etienne tilted his head down and grasped at a whiff of the starch and fresh cotton of his cravat and lapels.  The rank of Commissionaire granted him the privilege of riding in the more palatably scented carriage at the rear of the procession, but he’d always spurned that nicety in favor of riding ahead, of watching the road unveil itself before him and the locals ducking out of his way.  They were a small detachment, as always, just him and a dozen armed escorts, but it was all they’d ever needed.  Everyone knew what a Commissionaire was, what he represented, what they risked in defying him.

“Damned heat,” spat Corporal Valnier in his customary manner, which could charitably be called minimalist restatement of the obvious.  A roughened palm found the corporal’s brow and came away coated in wet, salty sheen.  He rubbed it against his horse’s neck and the horse tossed its mane in protest.  Etienne permitted himself a silent smirk.  It was rare to elicit more than a few words from Valnier at any given time, but Etienne had not hired him for his skill at badinage.  None of the men in his company were talkers; he preferred to think of them not as men but as extensions of his will.  To secure the coveted position with the entourage of a Commissionaire, one needed only to be adept at taking orders, and when required, breaking bones.  Valnier was particularly skilled in the latter discipline, and Etienne was glad for the heat; it would render the corporal especially irritable and eager to demonstrate his facility with the shattering of limbs should this approaching venture go sideways, as it occasionally did.

Plus de joueurs?

The briefing had been short, as usual.  The Directeur had summoned him from his habitual seat at the green baize-draped tables of the Splendide on Calerre’s Rue de la Reine and given him the name of the village and a rundown on the smattering of oddities that had led the Bureau Centrale to focus its suspicions on it.  In the last months, since the executive decree increasing the penalties for collaboration, a rush of informers had sprung up everywhere, like weeds defying the ongoing drought.  Not here, however.  All Etienne had to go on was a list of circumstances that did not add together.  He preferred these cases, as they were opportunities to flex his deduction.  If it was a straightforward arrest to be made, there was no need for the deft, literate touch of a Commissionaire.

The village was called, apparently without sense of irony, Montagnes-les-grands; a pretentious moniker for a collection of huts carved into the dry slope of the Araquogne Escarpement.  Until today, Montagnes-les-grands had been one of the innumerable communities through the country that had largely escaped notice of the government and of the Bureau, remaining consistent with their tax payments and demanding nothing back.  It was the former that had raised eyebrows at the Bureau; seven months into the drought now and where every tiny hamlet the kingdom over had struggled in arrears, with desperate letters swamping the capital requesting extensions and compassionate exemptions, Montagnes-les-grands stayed on schedule and nary a sou short.  In the present climate, uninterrupted prosperity was something to distrust.  It would be incorrect to suggest that Etienne had been assigned to find out why – he knew why, and the Bureau knew why, but the Commissionaire’s task was to expose the evidence and parade the guilty as a cautionary tale.  The appearance of adherence to the law needed to be maintained, even if it would ultimately have been simpler to kill everyone in Montagnes-les-grands and be done with it.  But then, as Etienne reasoned, he’d be out of a job.

The first of the village homes emerged into view now from behind an outcropping of parched brush.  With a jab to its ribs, Etienne quickened his horse to a trot, followed by Valnier and the rest.  Clouds of dust billowed from beneath the pounding of hurried hooves, and a sound akin to fist-sized drops of rain pelting against glass echoed ahead into the main road dividing Montagnes-les-grands in two.  As they crossed into the village proper, heads poked out of doors and ducked back inside just as quickly at the recognition of the gold-and-black trim of a Commissionaire’s uniform jacket, of the ensign stitched to the banner trailing from the empty carriage in the rear of the company.  There could be no doubt in any of their minds why he was here, and while they may have thought themselves immune, much too far from Calerre, much too rural to be noticed, that naivete ended the instant Etienne reined his horse to a stop and planted his polished black boots on the dry earth.

The ambient noise in the centre of the village fell away as those who had not managed to flee in time froze in place and directed their eyes toward the Commissionaire and his convoy.  The level of deference amused Etienne, but his face was a practiced monolith.  He took a step forward, separating himself from Corporal Valnier and the other soldiers.  “Mesdames et monsieurs of Montagnes-les-grands, I am Commissionaire de Navarre of the Bureau Centrale.  Authority is granted me by His Majesty the King to conduct a… survey of your village.  Your cooperation is expected, and appreciated.  Please have your maire present himself to me.”  Behind him, Valnier snorted and spat.  Etienne heard the crack of a new brushed leather glove as the corporal adjusted his grip on the hilt of his sword.  Valnier’s cohorts likewise straightened themselves and returned any errant glances in their direction with soulless glares.

A squat, disheveled, somewhat porcine man shuffled forward from scattered ranks of the two score-or-so villagers still lingering nearby.  He was hairless, but for a few tufts of gray still clinging behind his ears like old soldiers who never received the message that the war had ended, and sad-eyed, with the weight of the cares of hundreds pressing down upon him every day.  “Monsieur le Commissionaire,” he stammered from a splintering voicebox.  “Welcome to our loyal community.  I am Joyal, Bernaud Joyal, Maire of Montagnes-les-grands.”

Deux joueurs.

Etienne waited, extending the drama, and watched sweat beads run unhindered over the freckle-dappled eggshell that was the top of the man’s head.  Then he broke into a warm, oily smile and reached out to clasp Joyal’s shoulder.  “Monsieur le maire,” he said.  Etienne began to walk ahead, his arm draped around the confused local official’s shoulder.  “Such a delight to be here, finally, in Montagnes.  You have no idea the wonderful tales I’ve heard of your hospitality.”

“Y-yes, of course,” replied the maire, clearly vacillating between his justified fear of the Commissionaire’s plans and a leader’s duty to welcome new business.  Etienne had seen it so often; they always held onto a small sliver of hope that they might escape unscathed.

“Indeed,” he went on, gushing with the banality of a sycophantic opera critic, “the gourmands in Calerre speak ever so fondly your tapenades, and pieds paquets.  A dear friend advised me that I should not dare leave until I have sampled the gibassier, that it left him in absolute fits of ecstasy.”

“Naturally, we would be happy to serve you whatever you–”

Etienne firmed his grip on Joyal’s shoulder, drawing him in a little tighter.  “Magnificent!  My men, too, are quite famished from the road.  I expect nothing less than your best, my dear Bernaud.”

“I shall have the kitchens prepare immediately–”

“Poetry, my friend, poetry to a soul parched of fine verse.  And you will of course supplement this feast with a bottle or two from your prize reserve, yes?”

“If it would please Monsieur le Commissionaire–”

“I can think of nothing greater.”  Etienne stopped walking and let his arm fall from Joyal’s side.  “My men and I will speak to your fellow citizens while you make the preparations.  Let us say, seven o’clock this evening?”

“S-seven o’clock,” said the maire.  He effected a clumsy bow with hints of a curtsy and hurried off on little piggy feet.  Etienne held his practiced smile not a second longer than he needed.  The Commissionaire had no interest in talking to the rest of the people of Montagnes-les-grands.  He would learn nothing from them.  Despite themselves, despite their fear of his office, they would protect their own.  He needed to let the knife linger in the side of this village a little longer, and then twist it at just the right moment.

Les jeux sont faits.

Etienne reached into his breast pocket and extracted the golden timepiece etched with the insignia of the Bureau on the reverse of its face.  He read the position of the hands, and squinted at the sinking sun for confirmation.  Ten past five.  A little less than two hours to sample the limited, questionable charms of the village that dared call itself Montagnes-les-grands before he executed his ultimate play and left the place gutted, terrified, and ever more reverent toward the implacable Crown it was the Commissionaire’s duty to serve with unwavering zeal.

Commissionaires, of course, had but one duty.  And Etienne had two hours left to perform it here in Montagnes-les-grands.

Two hours, to find and catch a witch.

*  *  *

Part Two can be found by poising your cursor ever so delicately upon the following words and applying the gentlest pressure of a click.