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Vintage, Part Seventeen

vintagetitle

Sorry about the hiatus, folks!  Here we are with a chapter that begins with a bit of a digression, and ends with echoes of last month’s discussion on fear.  Funny how that worked out…

“Derrière moi,” dit le pirate à la belle fille alors qu’il brandit son sabre dans le sens de la sorcière maléfique.  “Vous ne pouvez pas avoir cette journee, ma dame,” il vanté.  La sorcière se mit à rire, et a fait au sol, et tout à coup la terre baratté et cracher hors une légion de squelettes.  Leurs os claquaient comme ils grimpé hors de la boue.  La fille a crié.  “Ne vous inquiétez pas,” dit le pirate.  “Je dois plus de cran que tous ces autres réunis.”

Pernel laughed aloud and thumbed at the next page.  That part still drew a chuckle, even if he’d read it so often that the paper was curled and the ink upon it flaking.  But it wasn’t as though he had to worry about disturbing anyone.  No human souls lingered within a hundred miles of earshot, just his quartet of geldings pulling the great laden carriage on which he was perched, its large wooden wheels creaking over cracked earth.  These languid supply runs offered him plenty of opportunity to catch up on his books, and he could usually make it through two or three between departure and destination.  Le Pirate et la Sorcière was his favorite.  The horses knew this old road well, so he could let go of the reins and lean back and lose himself in the gripping tale of swashbuckling and magic, even if he did almost know it by rote now.  As much as he loved the story, it did sometimes make him a little sad to know that his own life would never see much adventure, at least, not battling witches and saving bosomy damsels.  He was just a man doing his job, and people like him didn’t even rate a mention in these sorts of books.  If they did, it would be merely to help push the plot by delivering an informative line of dialogue to the protagonist.  “They went that way, monsieur.”  He wouldn’t get a history, or any unique or memorable traits, or even a last name.  Pernel’s kind would be a splash of color for the background, granted only a few forgettable adjectives.  They’d never emerge as the heroes they might have the capacity to become.

Given the opportunity, Pernel was certain that he could be.  He had a sword.  It was dappled with rust and he’d only ever used it against a fairly unthreatening wooden post, but he thought he understood the basic principles enough to handle himself if a fight broke out.  He’d sometimes imagine being accosted by villains of all shapes and forms, and dream up witty lines with which to berate these spectral menaces, in an appropriately theatrical voice.  “Vous ne pouvez pas avoir cette journee!”  What he would not give for a pivotal moment like that.  What a tale it would make for his colleagues back at the depot who generally paid him as little attention as the peripheral characters in his beloved books.  A chance to be a hero, just once.  It wasn’t asking a lot.

Traces of dusklight began to filter past the setting sun, and Pernel figured he had about another hour before he should pull off the road to water the horses and make camp.  He was ahead of schedule as usual and there was no sense in pushing things.  Surely he could make it through a few more chapters.  After the battle with the skeletons came the escape on the pirate’s ship and the encounter with the hurricane conjured by the witch, then the wreck on the haunted island.  Pernel did not understand why more people didn’t like reading as he did.  They were missing out on so much.  One could also argue the opposing point, that those who spent all their time pressing their noses to paper were missing out on life, or at least on the essential details of life, such as noticing the nine masked men who burst from the lengthening shadows on the roadside and surrounded Pernel’s carriage before he had occasion to see the pirate escape the witch’s conjured skeletons once again.

“Arrêtez, monsieur!” announced the leader.  Pernel’s beloved book tumbled from his hands as he yanked on the reins.  The horses whickered their displeasure.  Romantic notions of heroism vanished from Pernel’s mind, chased away by more familiar fear.  His rusty sword, wrapped in fabric, was nowhere within reach, while the eight companions of the man who had spoken were in clear possession of their own blades and aiming them straight for Pernel’s heart.  He lifted his hands over his head.  Not the most courageous action, but likely the safest.

Pernel cursed rotten luck.  This day of all days, this run of all runs, when he had, in addition to the hefty cargo in the back, a strongbox containing 500 livres in gold coin buckled to the floor beneath his boots.  His supply runs rarely included money for this very reason.  But somebody owed someone else, and he’d been persuaded to accept the box to courier back to the depot.  Now it would never arrive, and Pernel – assuming he survived – would be held responsible for paying every sou of it back, no matter how long it took.  He would not be purchasing any new books anytime soon.

“Merci beaucoup,” said his chief accoster through a tied black scarf.  “We have no wish for unnecessary violence.  If you cooperate you will be on your way promptly.”

Pernel nudged the strongbox with his foot, trying to push it out of sight.  “Everything here is the p-property of Partenaires fusionnées mercantiles,” he declared in a voice warbled by nervous cracks, following as best he recalled the script he and others in his role had been given in the event of such an occurrence.  “I am r-required by law to advise that they have placed a generous bounty on the heads of anyone who interferes with their shipments.  I am also authorized to say that if you release me without incident no f-further action will be taken against you.”  Any trace of courage, any remnant of that long-nurtured wish to be a hero, was dying with each stammer.  This was Pernel’s moment, the opportunity he had dreamed of through all those books, and it was collapsing beneath the weight of his cowardice.  He was well-read enough to understand the dramatic device of irony, though he was understandably too frightened to recognize it in the present situation.

Beneath the mask he saw a smile crease the mouth of the lumbering hulk of a man who led the bandits.  “That’s all well and proper, tête de cul, but I am required to inform you that your partenaires may cheerfully sucer their own bites, and if you do not stop trying to conceal that box at your feet I will have my friends here cut your throat.”

Pernel froze.

“Now then,” said the large man, “if you would be so kind to unlock your rear doors, we will help ourselves to…”  He turned to a nearby associate.  “What was it he said?”  The other fellow whispered something in his ear.  “Ah, yes.”  He raised his eyes to Pernel again.  “Your cloth.  We want every bolt of cloth you have in your carriage.”

Pernel tripped over his tongue.  He had barrels of sugar, salt, spices, grains and teas, along with iron and copper ore, not to mention the 500 livres in gold, and yet… “You want what?”

Mutual disbelief choked off a response and held both men in a shared, silent stare.

Much later, long after dear hapless Pernel had been left to his remaining cargo, his precious books and whatever meager possibility the rest of his quiet life might afford him, Le Taureau strolled back into the meeting hall in St. Iliane where Etienne was working, and without ceremony dropped a heaping pile of assorted liberated fabrics on the table in front of him.  “As ordered,” he said.  “Between nine of us we couldn’t carry it all.  We had to leave most of it behind.”

Etienne rose from his chair and sifted through the many-hued collection of wools and cottons as he ran scenarios in his head.  “This is good,” he said.  “This will do.  Merci, Corben.”

“Don’t call me that,” snapped Le Taureau.

This scene had played out in a variety of iterations over the last few days, as Etienne had reconsidered and rewritten his scenario and accordingly required a fresh infusion of specific supplies and materiel, which Le Taureau had, obligingly, sent his men out to liberate from the sparsely guarded roads and villages nearby.  This had been their fourth successful expedition, and Etienne was permitting himself a modicum of optimism about the venture that lay ahead.

Whether they set out at all, though, depended on the answer he received back from the communique he had dispatched on that first day here in St. Iliane.  He had entrusted a sealed letter containing the appropriate coded message to a spry volunteer from the youngest in Le Taureau’s ranks, to be delivered with haste to a pre-arranged drop point at an otherwise innocuous tavern on the outskirts of Calerre, where a plainclothes Bureau operative would be waiting to receive it.  Following a seemingly random series of ciphers known only to Etienne and the Directeurs that would confirm to the designated reader that the message was genuine, it read simply:

WINGS CLIPPED.  ADVISE ON TIMING FOR RETURN TO NEST.

Etienne admired the economy of the phraseology, drawn from another pre-arranged list of avian imagery in keeping with the codename of the subject.  If Nightingale had eluded him and he wished to give up the quest, he was to have written EMPTY SKY.  If she had killed or otherwise incapacitated the last of his men, it was to be EGGS SMASHED.  For the most morbid of outcomes – if he had killed her – he would have scrawled a foreboding SONG SILENCED.  But the code he had used instead of these indicated that she was in his custody and ready to be brought back, and it was the one most likely to pique the attention of the Directeurs.  He couldn’t come right out and request the presence of all three – that would be far too obvious – and it was something of a risk to assume that each would want to be present at the delivery of the Bureau’s most feared adversary, but Etienne’s familiarity with the sizes of their respective egos assured him.  Theniard Preulx would have to be there; the thirsting hatred that kept his withered heart beating would need to be slaked by the sight of a submissive Nightingale.  Michel Ste-Selin would trust only his eyes in proving that the bothersome Etienne de Navarre had actually managed to complete the assignment, and Kadier Duforteste would come if only to be relieved temporarily of the tedium of his undemanding duties in the south.  But for additional incentive – or insurance – Etienne had handed a second letter to his young volunteer prior to his departure, this one a little more detailed, and marked for a different address.  There was little else to do on that front right now but to wait, to continue to sweat away in the humid hovels of St. Iliane.

For their part, Corporal Valnier and the other men had to Etienne’s surprise and relief required precious little explanation to convince them to sign on to this undertaking.  To a man they did not care whose ribs got in the way of the ends of their swords, so long as purses were full at the end of the fight.  Etienne promised them each a hefty bounty, understanding that making good on those promises would mean bankrupting himself.  The way he saw it, failing to bring down the Bureau would relegate financial concerns to the very least of his worries, and though he could not define the precise shape of success, he suspected it would not find him back chatting up comely croupiers at the Splendide’s tables.  Valnier had been the toughest to convince, but eventually he too had acquiesced, more out of loyalty to Etienne than to the prospect of riches, and he was out now, ensconced in his wheelhouse, working on getting the ragtags of St. Iliane into a shape resembling fighting.  Etienne chose to believe that the lessening frequency of grunts and moans filtering in from the yard beyond the rotting wall boards meant progress.  At the least, he could content himself in seeing that they had stopped cutting themselves with the crudely carved wooden practice swords.

Initially, Le Taureau’s men had proven themselves keen to participate; the notion that they could hand a defeat to the most hated institution on the continent proved appealing, with would-be warriors falling over themselves (in some cases literally, so weak and famished were many of them) to pledge fealty to the cause.  They were less patient, however, with the concept of training, and more than a few strong words from Le Taureau to his younglings had been necessary to prevent desertions.  But with this latest bounty retrieved from the road, according to Etienne’s most recent draft of his plan, they had nearly everything they required.  There was only one significant, glaring absence.  It had been three days now, and it was growing more apparent by the hour that hers had not been a momentary outburst of second thoughts.

It did not seem that Nightingale was ever coming back.

Etienne had felt much different since that last conversation, when she had extracted, bluntly, the hitherto unknown spell she had cast upon him at their first meeting.  He still thought of her often, but the obsession over every enthralling nuance of her that had tormented him even in sleep was gone, crushed out like a flame beneath a boot.  He could recall having those feelings, but he was unable to explain how it had felt, or remember the delicious intoxication that went with slavish love.  It was a bit akin to trying to articulate the sentiment behind a passionate, masterful sonnet written in a language that you had suddenly forgotten how to speak.  When Etienne’s thoughts turned to Nightingale now, they were a copious accounting of every obvious flaw in appearance and manner he had overlooked while he had been enraptured by her magic, things that had appeared tantalizing but came off as pretentious and annoying when seen in cold, sober light.  More than anything he grew frustrated at her failure to return, and uncomprehending of why she would choose to remove herself from the game when she was within a few moves of achieving her coveted victory over the brutal enemy that had killed so many of her sisters.  Why she would drag him into her circle, tease him, entice him and turn him finally and irrevocably against his old comrades with a shattering revelation, and then bugger off to realms unknown – jeopardizing that very victory, perhaps even placing it out of reach.  Etienne did not enjoy being angry with Nightingale, but the frustration grew with each passing day.  It did not stop him, however, from chancing a sliver of hope every time his skin was touched with an abrupt cool breeze, the kind that once heralded her arrivals.

Each time, it was only a trick of the wind.

For now, it was left to him to keep Le Taureau mollified, and patience was as elusive to the large brigand as it was to the animal with whom he shared a name.  Le Taureau’s meaty fingers crushed a wad of dyed wool from the liberated shipment of cloth, and a dead-eyed frown reminded the much slighter Etienne that those fingers could very easily shatter most of his skeleton while the other hand occupied itself with knitting or other idle pursuits.

“If I give them the patterns,” Etienne said, “your men can follow them?”

Le Taureau nodded.  “Presuming you first tell me what use this is.  We need weapons to fight the Bureau, not a bunch of fancy dresses.”

“You can’t think of what we’re planning as war.  A straight fight against the Bureau will fail.  This is theater.  The performers require costumes.”

Le Taureau was not the greatest enthusiast of analogies, though he was more than adept in picking them up.  “That being the case, you should be aware that the performers do not understand their lines, they grow weary of rehearsing, they do not trust the librettist, and more to the point, we seem to have lost our leading lady.”  Etienne too lost his fervor for the analogy as he went up on his next line.  Le Taureau noticed.  “What, you have no answer for me?”

Etienne found a nervous laugh.  “I’m just amazed that a man with a predominantly scatological vocabulary knows what a librettist is.”

Va te faire enculer.  Where in the hell is the déesse?”

Etienne’s throat begged for a hard swallow.  He strained to resist it.  “She’s… she had something she had to attend to.  She’ll be back.”  He read the dissatisfaction with that response in the abrupt mutation of Le Taureau’s frown into a glower, dripping with threat.  It was much easier to read the man’s expressions now that the forest of a beard had been shorn, as per Etienne’s earlier instructions.  “You know her, she can come and go in the blink of an eye.”

“It’s been a lot of blinks.  Days of them.  No sign.  Not a word.”  Le Taureau inched – though with his size it was perhaps more accurate to say he yarded – over the table.  “I – we – only agreed to do this for her.  I’m not sending my men into certain death for the likes of you.”

“I understand that.  But no one needs to die if we do this properly.  That means my way.”  The noise from outside got louder all of a sudden.  Valnier probably had them running laps.

“Thus far, your way is waiting around and sending me and my men out on errands to gather scraps.  And you are terribly presumptuous to believe that I answer to you in any form, or that anything beyond my faith in the déesse stops me tearing your bowels out through your throat.”  Le Taureau cocked his head to one side and directed his glare toward Etienne’s gut.

Etienne was, for the moment, unconcerned about the fate of his colon, fixed as he was on reading Le Taureau’s mannerisms and posture, and detecting, to his surprise, a measurable insecurity hiding beneath the polished shell of aggrandized, larger-than-life bravado that the large man had layered about himself.  Etienne admonished himself for not seeing it sooner.  Surely in order to rise above and command a legion of the hardest, most unruly societal dregs, one required much more than forearms the size of ham hocks.  The most confident and imposing men Etienne had ever known all shared a common trait; they were, at heart, terrified little boys who could never truly sleep.

The sounds beyond the hut exploded into competing shouts and cries, and curses that would embarrass even Le Taureau’s salted tongue.  Both men acknowledged the immediate need to table their fruitless discussion and make hastily for the door.

They stepped out into the middle of a full-on melee.

Etienne had only scant seconds to assess what was going on, but even to a layperson it was clear that Le Taureau’s gang had decided as one to fall upon Valnier and the rest of Etienne’s men with fists.  The mercenaries were trying to hold off the assault, but tactic and finesse were worth little when the opponents could simply pile on with endless reinforcements.  Etienne threw himself into it, seizing and shoving aside bodies, struggling to bark commands over a din of wailing.  Le Taureau did the same, employing his mass to a greater degree of success.  Together they carved through the crush of people to locate the two combatants who could be most logically determined the instigators:  a wiry, emaciated Ilianer railing meek blows on a prone Corporal Valnier, who was absorbing them while wearing a perspiration-free expression best described as mild annoyance.  “Stop this,” Etienne yelled.  “Stop this.  Stop this now!”  He grabbed the Ilianer by the waist and hoisted him off his corporal, dodging the flailing limbs.  Etienne pushed him back into the arms of Le Taureau and extended a hand to his fallen underling.  Valnier took it, rose and said nothing.  Sanity reasserted its tenuous grasp on St. Iliane.  “What the hell are you people doing?” Etienne said.  “Are you trying to lose the battle before you even start it?”

“We’re not bétail!” screamed the little man, smearing blood from a split lip as he tried to wipe it from his face.  “We won’t be treated like this!”  A chorus of agreement echoed him.

Etienne bit off the reply it was his instinct to hurl back.  He could see in each face reflecting anger back at him, or looking in desperate plea to Le Taureau, a bone-rattling fear at the impossible enormity of what they were being asked to do.  To the last of them, they were scared.  Though they played at being brave, and enjoyed very much the idea of going to war against the Bureau, the reality of such a choice was not the romantic option it seemed when read about in books or shared in tales recounted by a roaring fire.  They wanted to do this, Etienne was certain, but they had focused on the celebration of the victory without taking into account the possibility that not all of them might live through the task to take part.  The process of training had emphasized the latter point to a degree beyond which most of them were comfortable, and now fear was cracking their shells one by one.

As an agent of the Bureau, Etienne had mastered the art of cultivating fear.  He could identify within seconds of meeting someone what kept them awake and shivering, and he could manipulate and magnify it to the point where most enemies – or victims, to put it more accurately – would wither to a meek surrender.  How, then, could the same man put courage, and hope, into afflicted hearts?

Etienne could not simply point to Nightingale and tell them to keep faith in her, and by extension himself.  And he could not simply act the part this time.  This was not a mere case of selling a mildly reluctant buyer.  He had to know what he was saying was true.  He had to believe it.  So there was no option for him but brutal honesty.

This was his moment.

“You’re afraid,” he said.  “You’re all afraid.  You volunteered because you know the cause is a just one, but you don’t think you have it in you to see this through.  And do you know what – you are absolutely right.  You don’t.  None of you do.”  Ripples of confusion and anger spread throughout the mob; it was clearly not what they were expecting him to say.  Even Le Taureau hurled a frown his way.  “And if you are expecting reassurance from me,” Etienne went on, “some promise that it’s not as bad as it seems, that everything will be all right, well, I can’t give it to you.  You need to be clear about one very important thing.  This is the most dangerous, most terrifying, and most hopeless enterprise you will ever face in your lives, and I have no poetry to stir your hearts, nor do I know any blustering refrains to comfort your thoughts for when you’re inevitably being cut down by Bureau blades.  If I did, I’d be lying.  A charlatan takes power by convincing the fearful that they don’t have to be afraid, so long as they follow him.  The Bureau Centrale controls this country the exact same way.”

“You’re a Bureau étron,” hollered someone near him, to a round of approving shouts.

Etienne could sense the air thinning with the bodies pressing in on him, the hands poised to reach for his throat, but he smiled.  “Yes, I was.  I spent my whole life being afraid, and the Bureau told me I could come with them and not be controlled by my fear anymore.  What they didn’t tell me was that they would be controlling me instead, and I let them, for twelve long, shameful years.  I did it willingly.  I swallowed their poison and spat it back with glee at anyone who crossed me.  I didn’t realize that I was helping to perpetuate the very fear that had made me lose my way for so long, and working for the very monsters who had destroyed my family.  But I did it because not having to be afraid is comforting, and seductive.  Doing what is comfortable, avoiding the fear inside, is far, far easier than doing what is right, and what is necessary.”

That appeared to garner him some additional attention.  “Why do we revere great men for great deeds?” Etienne asked.  “Because they are rare, and the reason why they are rare is that most people are much too afraid to even try.  But here’s the truth.  With every hero you’ve ever read about, in imagined tales or in history, there was not a single moment when they weren’t frightened as much as you are right now, or even more.  The mythical warrior who put his hands on his hips and laughed at the approach of the immortal army did it with pisse pouring down his leg.”

A handful of snickers replied, but the majority were quiet and continuing to listen.  “This heroic ideal of unbreakable confidence is an illusion, a veneer slathered onto the truth to make it sound exciting, to make you want to pass the story on,” Etienne said.  “Every brave man is a coward inside.  Fear pushes them forward, not courage, not some misguided notion that they are indestructible and that they’re going to win no matter what happens.  I know I am a coward, and yet I know what I have to do regardless.  So be afraid, but be afraid of the right things.  Be afraid of what staying here and doing nothing means.  Be afraid for the next young girl or old woman who is dragged screaming from her bed in the middle of the night.  Be afraid for an entire generation of innocent women vanishing from the world, for a way of life being crushed out by ignorance and paranoia.  Be afraid that you are standing idle witness to a genocide that you have this singular, perhaps insignificant chance to stop.  Be afraid that you will be forgotten as cowards, instead of remembered as the ones who stood against a great evil despite their fear, despite what they knew it would cost them.  There is a word for those sorts of people in the stories:  legends.”

Complete silence surrounded him now.  Even the crickets and cicadas were reverently still.

What next?  Was it enough?

“You heard him,” said Le Taureau.  “And if you’re not afraid enough, be afraid that the next man who tries to stir up trouble will have his crâne introduced formally to my poings.”  He graced Etienne with the merest of nods.  Etienne dared to wonder if that was the beginning of earning the big man’s respect.  In any event, it seemed to give the rest of them the blessing to accept Etienne’s words and carry on, not with renewed hope, perhaps, but at least with a sense of the importance of not letting themselves be undone by the selfish desire to retreat behind familiar, if confining lines.

The mob ebbed into a crowd, the crowd strained into orderly, regimented ranks, and Etienne tried not to betray his obvious nerves to them as he squelched the desire to sprint back to the solitude of a closed door.  He waited for the reassuring click of the latch, took a step forward, reached out for the table and felt his weight slump against it as he grabbed on.  His arms were shaking, and he could not still them.  Etienne squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his teeth so hard his jaw began to ache.  Elegant words aside, he knew he was more afraid than Le Taureau, or any of the other men.  It wasn’t the idea of dying that scared him, but rather, failing, and letting the Bureau take both the mother and the son.

Etienne opened his eyes, looked up, and let out a long breath.

It turned to mist in front of him.

* * *

First time reading?  You can catch up on the entire story so far either by plumbing the archives here or checking out my Wattpad page.  Part Eighteen will not be so long in the hopper, I promise!

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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.