Tag Archives: Vintage

A Recipe for Making Sausages

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That title probably sounds a little too innuendo-ish for your liking (and even now I’m regretting the potential algorithmic implications), but rest assured that the discussion to follow is SFW to the highest degree.  Having recently completed a long work (Vintage) and looking back on it now from the safe perch of a few months’ distance, I feel the time appropriate to offer a few reflections on the process of the thing.  Perhaps it’s for posterity’s sake; when I’m looking back through cataracts from thirty years further on and my brain has become addled with age and lost memories, I might find it enlightening – or possibly embarrassing, who knows, really.

Back in “the day,” long before Internet and the age of instant gratification for even the slightest itch, there would usually be a healthy distance between the author and the work – you could receive and evaluate the story on its merits alone without getting overly bogged down by the storyteller’s intentions and inspirations.  You might see a cryptic print interview here and there providing hints, but the author would usually remain an enigma with the work forced to its betterment to stand on its own.  But that’s not the case now, with the world’s glut of writers actively pushing their stories across social media while at the same time being more accessible than they ever have been before.  Work and creator are irrevocably intertwined and intent is as important as event.  I’m forced to wonder if this is healthy even as I find myself doing it as I read (current slog:  Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, which halfway through is teetering precariously on the knife edge of pointless self-indulgence).  It might be better, truly, to let the work stand on its own.  At the same time, if learning about the “how” inspires a few more readers to check out the “what” – and tell a few more readers in turn – then maybe it’s worth the exercise.  So enough navel-gazing and let’s get on with the show, presented in the form of a hard-hitting self-interview.

What inspired you to write Vintage?

Simply put, I hated what I was doing.  I felt that I was stagnating as a writer.  I was not having any luck with the querying process and it was discouraging to accumulate rejection after rejection while witnessing what seemed like a perpetual stream of other people’s “I got an agent!” and “I got a book deal!” tweets pouring through my feed.   (You want to be happy for those folks but you still question what the hell you’re doing wrong that it’s not your turn yet.)  And I was finding it difficult to keep coming up with engaging topics for my blog – both subjects that I would enjoy writing about and those I felt would draw some new eyeballs my way.  I felt a compulsion to do something different, and fiction seemed to be a most logical outlet – where I would be creating an original story in which I could decide what happened and would not be restricted to commenting on events occurring around me.  There was a pretty good chance too that it might alienate some of my audience, but I don’t think you do yourself any favors by remaining predictable.  The best musicians are those who keep trying to do something different instead of always relying on what made them popular in the first place.

And then into my dreams one night popped this image:  a man half-frozen in the ice while a beautiful woman in a cloak looked down at him.  No context or anything, just this single image that stayed with me for a few days.  It seemed to be something that a story could wrap itself around.  Turned out it was, as details began to fall in place around it – the notion of a man who thinks he’s powerful in his own right but finds himself completely beguiled by a woman with a power he can’t duplicate or even fully understand.  I always want the stories I tell to have depth and meaning – to be about something – even if they seem on the surface to be a fairly airy, mindless romp.  Otherwise, it’s just a waste of words.  You have to be careful with this approach in that you don’t want to sledgehammer your reader with THE BIG LESSON.  I try instead to weave it in there so you don’t even notice that your assumptions are being challenged while you’re breezing along.  Whether I’m successful in that or not is for the reader to decide.

Was the story always intended to be what it turned out to be?

No, not at all.  As I alluded in a few of the chapter introductions I thought it was only going to be about four or five parts at most.  I began to worry a bit when the aforementioned image of the man in the ice didn’t turn up until Chapter Eight.  If I’d been more disciplined in my initial intent to do a short serial then I would have created a proper outline and written strictly to that.  But frankly I was just enjoying the creative exercise of writing away and finding out where the story went on its own.  This is the nature of the “pantser-vs.-plotter” debate that many writers have undergone, and it’s become abundantly clear to me through the Vintage process that I hate writing to outlines and that I’m much happier as a pantser.  I love discovering the story as I go and when I am writing to a predetermined end I find my words weaker and more forced and obvious.  Publishing one chapter at a time was an interesting challenge in itself as you had to pick up where you left off without the benefit of being able to go back and tweak things to get yourself out of jams.  You had to dance with the one that brung you, so to speak.  (I only retroactively changed one minor thing, and that was the location of the entrance to the secret storehouse beneath the Bureau Centrale headquarters, which was a pretty inconsequential detail but would have made for an awkward transition in the big finale.  So sue me.)

How did the story evolve in your mind?

I think the best way to articulate it would be to say it was like crafting a series of independent jigsaw pieces and then figuring out a way to fit them together.  I had this image of the man in the ice but I obviously had to get there, so with the understanding that the man was a witch hunter and the woman was his target, I started by writing a series of scenes that were – without sounding too pretentious – jazz riffs on other stories.  Etienne’s monologue where he figures out that the people of Montagnes-les-grands have been using magic to augment their wine took inspiration from Christoph Waltz’s long speeches in Inglourious Basterds.  The scene with Etienne in the casino is very obviously a riff on Casino Royale, and him getting his assignment from the Directeurs is the first fifteen minutes of Apocalypse Now, right down to the takeoff on the “terminate with extreme prejudice” line.  There’s an echo of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Etienne’s solo flight from Le Taureau’s village.  As a writer I’m just playing, playing different notes, having fun, trying to get a feel for what works and where this is going, until I get that lightbulb moment and think “aha!  Okay, now I know what this story is about and where it should go.”  I think that is the reader’s experience as well.  You’re standing at the bottom of the hill trying to get your hands about the tow rope, and once you latch on, you’re off like a shot.  Going back and reading it from start to finish, all those disparate early scenes fit into the spine of the story very nicely, but in a way that was almost a happy accident.  It could have just as easily not worked out.

How did the characters change from how you originally conceptualized them?

I should tag this answer with SPOILERS in case you haven’t read Vintage yet.  The major difference was that Etienne was never intended to be redeemed.  He was going to be a bad guy to the bitter end and ultimately be done in by his own arrogance and hubris, hauled off in irons while Nightingale laughed in the shadows.  His parents were never going to be part of the equation.  But really, “bad guy comes to bad end” is not that interesting a story.  Watching a bad man have a revelation and then try to atone makes for – at least in my opinion – a more compelling experience.  My own philosophy – my liberalism, if you will, is that I want to believe that the worst of us is capable of being and doing better, that there is no such thing as absolute evil.  At the same time, there is no coming back from a lot of the stuff that Etienne has done in the past.  Yeah, he got screwed over, but the answer to that is not necessarily to screw over other people yourself.  He himself recognizes that he can’t be forgiven, and so that’s why his story ends the way it does, and really, as I wrote it, as much as I began to grow attached to the character, I knew it couldn’t end any other way.

I can admit that Nightingale is a cliche:  the beautiful, seductive witch who leads men astray with her mysterious powers (she’s drawn from the same cloth as Melisandre in Game of Thrones among many, many others.)  Fantasy is full of one-dimensional sexy sorceresses placed there to appeal to our more prurient interests, but that doesn’t mean that a sexy sorceress can’t have depth and intelligence and an allure that isn’t predicated on the skimpiness of her outfit in the cover art.  Take the cliche and tear it apart, twist it around, poke at it, stretch it, flip it inside out.  What would someone like that really be like?  What would move her heart and drive her actions?  The story is told from Etienne’s POV but I wanted Nightingale to transcend the cliche and be as complete a character as possible.  I also wanted to ensure that the relationship between her and Etienne was handled properly.  It did not seem to me that someone like her could ever truly fall in love with someone like him given his history – though they could connect on other levels, most certainly the physical one.  You’ll note she never tells him she loves him, not once, and even in the epilogue she is evasive about her true feelings.  Really, they are her business, and no one else’s.

Without giving too much away, I can say that there was not a single main character who did not end up in a radically different place from where they were originally scripted to be.  Le Taureau, for example, was a one-off obstacle I dropped in to separate Etienne from his group for a little while.  I had no idea when I first wrote him that he would eventually come back at all, let alone become an important ally for the good guys, nor that his colorful language would be such a distinguishing trait.  (As an aside, until I literally wrote the line “The last time I saw him, I stabbed him through the hand,” I did not know I’d be bringing him back.)

How did you go about the worldbuilding?

Worldbuilding is my nemesis.  It really is.  I’m much better at characters and dialogue (see the blog post entitled “I Suck at Description” for a more thorough read on this particular boggle).  I just want to get on with the plot, so to speak.  But I think with Vintage I took a big leap forward in this regard.  Starting out by deciding to set it in the same universe as the novel I was querying removed a big burden as I could just start writing with the same basic rules in place vis a vis who has magic and who doesn’t and what the general society looks like.  The home country in the novel is written in a very English idiom, and quite frankly English accents in fantasy stories are yet another cliche, so I thought it might be fun to flip that on its ear and do the whole thing with a French feel instead.  (It also let me drag out my underused French language skills.)  Placenames and character names were drawn from French baby name websites, usually mashing unrelated syllables together to keep the French feel while creating brand new, unfamiliar monikers.

From there it was a matter of filling in the blanks while remaining true to the overall “French-ness” (even though the story obviously doesn’t take place in France).  For the scene in the casino I wasn’t going to rip you out of the story by using a real life card game, so I just made one up.  Calerre is a port city and the origin and center of the country’s gambling industry so it stood to reason that the cards might have a nautical theme to them, hence ships, oceans and moons instead of spades, clubs and diamonds.  (Don’t ask me how to actually play route de perle though, I just made up enough of it to fit the scene.)  When Etienne meets the two sisters and the other Commissionaire in Charmanoix, there was no specific reason to putting the whole community on stilts over a river other than we were now in our fourth different town setting and I wanted it to have a much different feel than the others, otherwise you’d get bored (and so would I).  But out of that setting grew the chase across the bridges and the fight to the death on the burning rope, so it was a terrific exercise in seeing how even the most basic worldbuilding could inform the evolution of the characters and of the plot.  Obviously these folks who go on about worldbuilding are onto something.

Why didn’t you put Chapter Eighteen on your blog?

I went back and forth on that a dozen times.  Maybe that was off-putting to a few folks, I don’t know.  What it came down to was that I was going to write a pretty racy and descriptive (yet tasteful) sex scene and I just didn’t feel that belonged here with posts about being a dad, the Toronto Blue Jays, U.S. and Canadian politics and the lion’s share of the rest of my work.  If you’re tuning in to hear what I thought of The Force Awakens I’m guessing you probably won’t appreciate stumbling on titillating depictions of tangling naked flesh.  I certainly don’t make any apologies for writing the scene, I think it was a logical progression of the story, it accomplished what it set out to, and I’m not in any way embarrassed by it – it was crucial to me that it was passionate yet completely consensual, and I think it was.  Interestingly enough, if you skip from Seventeen to Nineteen you can still follow the narrative and just guess what has happened, so I don’t think making Eighteen a little harder to track down harms anything in the end.  And nobody complained, so there you have it.

What would you change if you could do it all again?

What’s that great line of Woody Allen’s:  “If I had my life to live over again, I would do everything exactly the same except I wouldn’t see The Magus.”  I’ve looked at Vintage a couple of times since finishing it and I haven’t really found anything that screams out at me as a major sore-thumb error.  I guess I would have liked to have gotten it done faster, but overall I’m pretty happy with it, and I’m glad I wrote it.  I think the exercise of it sharpened my description skills; I made more of a conscious point to delve into the other senses when depicting scenes, and the writing feels far less clunky to me.  I also like that it moves at a better and faster clip than the novel, coming in at a relatively lean (for the genre) 95,000 words.  I like the twists, especially given that most of them were totally unplanned.  Do I think it’s the most magnificent thing ever put to paper?  Umm, no, of course not.  What I do like most about it is that I think it represents a maturity in my ability to write and to create a story, and with it I’ve learned lessons that I’m eager to apply to the next one, whatever that may be about.  Maybe we might even see Nightingale again some day in some unexpected setting.  She does have a tendency to appear in a flash of white light whenever she feels like it.

Never say never, especially where magic is involved.

In either case, thanks for letting me ramble on here.  A reminder that Vintage is available in its entirety on Wattpad or here at the main site, with all the chapters helpfully indexed for you on their own dedicated page.  If you have any comments or questions about Vintage that I haven’t addressed here, feel free to so advise in the comments.  Thank you for your patience during my radio silence and I look forward to posting on a more regular schedule once again.  Speaking of which, man, does that Blue Jays bullpen need help…

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Vintage, Epilogue

vintagetitleHere we are.  What began as a directionless lark in September of 2014 finally wraps up, approximately 95K words later.  It’s been fun.  Thank you for taking the journey with me; I hope it’s been worth it.

Autumn smelled like spring.

Cool, fresh winds swept in from the bay and ferried morning mist up into the hills above Calerre.  Throughout the city, a gentler sun shone through a veil of lapis blue upon giddy children splashing in the puddles that had collected in front of their houses on the old stone streets.  Even after only one day’s rain, the land felt greener.  Wearied bushes and trees dared to unfurl and lift their leaves, and the grasses were soft under foot again.  The long overdue downpour had doused the last of the fires, and where the headquarters of the Bureau Centrale had once jutted its hideous self into the collective fears of four million people, there stood only an abandoned, smoldering black husk, its smothered embers being quickly forgotten.

The hills concealed a secluded glade where the wall of trees parted over a view of the harbor whose docks and quays a young boy named Etienne de Navarre had once loved to explore.  His body, shrouded in white cloth, lay on a plain stone slab in the center of the glade, attended on either side by the sisters Adelyra and Kathaline Belleclain.  The Belleclains had known him only for a few moments, back in the river town of Charmanoix, but his intervention had allowed them to escape capture by the Bureau, and his sacrifice would now allow them to live free.

Two mourners stood vigil.  Etienne’s mother, Elyssia de Navarre, looked stronger and more assured with every hour as she settled back into her true self.  If one did not know she was waiting on the funeral of her son, one might have judged her demeanor impatient.  One would not, however, make this judgment if sharing in the incomparably bracing sensations of magic that sprinted through her veins and begged her for jubilant release.  Enormous wings had been unchained after twenty painful years, and Elyssia longed to heed the irresistible call of the sky.  She knew, too, that her late son would not have wanted her to live out her days in the well of grief, not when so many of them had already been stolen from her.

The other, the witch whose enemies had dubbed her Nightingale, wore the quiet contemplation of the veteran of a hundred wars.  Her own energies were spent, and while she had greater cause for optimism today, she wondered if there was a specific, definable amount of rest that would allow her to feel renewed, would spur her to step back onto the front lines.  She was not certain where she would find it.  Returning to her sanctuary, the distant beach where she and Etienne had spent their last night, held no lingering appeal.  Certain memories lived there that she was in no hurry to revisit.

Adelyra and Kathaline clasped hands over the body, bent their heads and closed their eyes.  White light gathered at their hands and spread beneath them.

Le Taureau and the others had not wished to attend.  They had set out for home before the last flames had gone out.  Le Taureau had confessed to her, somewhat less coarsely than usual, that he was a man to swing a sword, not a hammer.  He was content to lord over his little fiefdom of ne’er-do-wells in St. Iliane and had no interest in the plodding mechanics of government, or the labors of building a new country.  He did emphasize, however, that should she need him to fight for her again, that he would forever remain at the call of his déesse.

Nightingale had smiled, kissed his cheek, and wished him well.

As the light engulfed Etienne’s body, Nightingale’s mind meandered to the future.  She was grateful to no longer be alone in her battle, to be joined by a sorceress far more powerful than she.  Though their central command and their arsenal were both gone and the government had seemingly withdrawn its previously unqualified support, pockets of the Bureau Centrale staffed by hardline believers still festered throughout the country, carrying on business as usual.  Nightingale could count on Elyssia to assist in sweeping up those stubborn remnants, but even that was only one miniscule step on a much longer road.  The dismantling of the official organization did not mean that the laws were not still brutal and unfair, that the common people would not still be terrified of magic.  Witches still needed a voice, and that voice needed to be heard.

She was mindful of what she had once told Etienne, that there was no spell to change a man’s character.  That didn’t mean an occasional display of magic here and there couldn’t be incredibly persuasive.  Nightingale could sense that the climate was different now, that her long-held aspirations might finally meet a more receptive audience.  The people who had suffered most under the Bureau’s lies and persecution had seen their hope vindicated, and it was tasked to her, Elyssia and their many anonymous sisters to seize this hard-won, critical moment and show those who feared them that they could ignite a wondrous revolution and create a new, inclusive country where witches and mortals could live together in peace and mutual respect.  It amused Nightingale to think of herself as taking on the role of politician.  It would not be the strangest one she had ever adopted.

There were no guarantees.  There never were.

But there was promise.

The pure white light on the bier glowed hotter and brighter, edging to bursting.  A few tiny motes broke away at first, followed in short order by thousands more.  They drifted up into the air like seeds blown from a dandelion, catching on the breeze, sailing out across the harbor into the embrace of infinity.  Nightingale looked at Elyssia.  She was crying, but smiling, and she touched her fingertips to her lips and murmured her son’s name as the little lights spun away.  Nightingale looked back to see the last of them rise, like a chorus of fireflies flashing the final notes of their requiem, leaving the slab bare.  “Au revoir, Etienne,” she said, and she too smiled at the path of the lone tear tumbling over her cheek.

Adelyra and Kathaline released their hands.  They bowed to Nightingale and Elyssia.  Nods of thanks were exchanged.  The sisters retreated silently to the path through the woods, their duties in this matter complete and their new life about to begin.

Regrettably, the greatest poets in history had never, among their many sublime literary accomplishments, managed to produce the proper words for a parent who had just buried their child.  Nightingale too knew nothing she could say to Elyssia that would be more suitable than respectful silence.  She reached out and lay her hand on Elyssia’s shoulder.  She felt Elyssia’s fingers clasp hers.

The women embraced.

“Thank you.  For everything,” Elyssia whispered.

“I’ll see you again soon,” said Nightingale.

Elyssia smiled.  Etienne’s eyes were mirrored in hers, even behind drying tears.  Mother and son were very much the same.  Intelligent, resolute, courageous and passionate, yet touched by a deep vulnerability.  Formidable and arresting, perhaps even fear-inducing under the darkest of circumstances, but always achingly, longingly human.  Born dreamers and wish-makers who’d lost sight of the stars but managed to find the road back to who they were always meant to be.  Many others like them were still waiting for their own awakening.  Some would welcome the chance.  Others would not be so willing.

There was so much still left to do.

Offering fond farewells, the sorceress lifted a hand and twisted her fingers.  A whirlwind of golden light threw itself around her.  She vanished inside it, leaving only a few lingering sparkles in the air that rushed to fill the abruptly empty space.  Nightingale pondered the foolishness of any remaining Bureau peon who ever again dared underestimate, or worse, take up arms against Elyssia de Navarre.

Nightingale was relieved beyond measure to be able to now call her a friend.

The witch drifted next to the empty stone slab and traced her fingertips along its edge.  She slouched against it and cast her gaze to the endless blue of the ocean beyond the busy harbor.  Perhaps a respite in one of those alien lands over the horizon would do her some good.  She could take in some new vistas, a few exotic meals, perhaps some even more exotic company.

She had earned it.

Leaves rustled in the trees, more generously than the breeze would warrant.  Nightingale shook her head and felt the corner of her mouth curl into a grin.  “I can hear you,” she said to the air.

The leaves rustled again.  Shadows shifted.  Something was moving behind the line of trees.  Shadows coalesced into an oil-slick, bluish-black furry form.  A panther.  It padded its way forward into the clearing, drooping muzzle dusting the ground as though it was embarrassed at being discovered.

Nightingale arched her eyebrow.  “Cats are supposed to be renowned for their stealth.”  The panther hissed.  The witch frowned.  “Don’t take that tone with me, young lady.”

Dancing energy cascaded about the form of the panther, reshaping its sleek body and muscular limbs into a slimmer, certifiably more human form.  The stringy-haired girl who appeared raked frantic nails over the nape of her own neck.  “You try being stealthy with fleas eating you alive,” she huffed.

“Then next time, cher Gen, become something with feathers instead,” Nightingale said.

Gen, or Genvieve, as she had introduced herself to Etienne and his company that ancient day, replied with a pout.  “You haven’t shown me how to do birds yet.”

“You will forgive me if a situation arose that was a little more urgent.”

“I know.  I’ve been trying to follow and keep an eye on you.”

Nightingale’s lips twisted south.  “How much have you been keeping an eye on?”

The girl’s jaw dropped.  “Not that!”  She waved her hands in protest.  “Oh dear heavens no.  Ugh!”  She shuddered.

Nightingale offered her a sheepish shrug.

Gen shaded somber, and stared past her to the smooth gray of the abandoned stone slab.  “Did you love him?  Truly?  With everything he had done to people like us?”

The witch thought on it a long moment, letting the breeze’s tweaking of the trees fill the lull in the conversation.  “I loved him enough,” she said finally.  Young Genvieve would have to be content with figuring out what she meant by that on her own.  Nightingale intended to say nothing more, and to tend to the memory of her ephemeral relationship with Etienne de Navarre in her own private way.  To look, at some future day when the skies clouded over again, to the quiet, recollected flickers of a brief light.

Some secrets were meant to remain locked in the heart, or to use an analogy Etienne might have appreciated, corked in the bottle.

Gen nodded, accepting that she should tread this particular path no further.  “Do you think you’ll be coming home now?” she asked instead.  “The winter grapes are starting to bud.  Everyone’s really excited.  It’s going to be one of the best harvests ever.”

“I wouldn’t miss it,” Nightingale said.  “But you should go on ahead.  I’ll be along.”

“You’re going to change, though, right?  You’re not going to arrive like this.”

Nightingale sampled a quick glimpse of herself.  “Why?  What’s the difference?”

Gen sighed.  “I hate being the only person whose grandmother looks younger than I do.”

“You’d prefer this?”  A dazzling amaranthine flash, and the familiar shape of the ethereal, enigmatic woman who had first enraptured Etienne de Navarre on the night road from Montagnes-les-grands was usurped by that of the elderly, bramble-haired crone whose neck his men had once threatened to slice open with a sword.

She wondered if he had ever imagined.

“That’s better,” Gen said.  “I don’t feel as strange calling you grand-mère.  And I don’t have to think about… that other thing.”

“Genvieve, ma petite cocette.”  The old woman tugged lovingly at her cherished little one’s cheek.  “When will you learn?  People really are like wine.”

Gen smirked.  “Sour and prone to spoil?”

“Not quite,” laughed her grandmother, sparks of magic forever alive in her eyes and in her smile.  “The older vintages are always the best.”

LA FIN

***

If interest warrants, I may have some concluding thoughts to offer on the process of putting this story together at a later (but not too much later) date.  In the meantime I think I’ll have a glass of shiraz tonight…

Vintage, Part Twenty-Six

vintagetitle

Been a long journey – 17 months to be precise, but the conclusion draws ever nearer.  Here we go.

In that first moment, the golden light was everywhere.  As if it had always been there.  Infusing itself into remote corners inside every living mind and quashing conscious thoughts like a thousand-ton stone pressing down on blades of grass.  Four million souls in its thrall accepted the light as truth.  In the next moment, it was gone, snapped instantly like overstretched rubber.  The thousand-ton stone splintered into dust, and the grass was free to rise toward the sun once more.

Dizziness, headaches and bewilderment lingered in its wake.

On the blood-flecked manicured lawns of the courtyard of the Bureau headquarters, on the perimeter of the gaping hole in the center of it from which the light had erupted, and in the shadow of the flames and the black smoke that had burst from the archive floors to consume the rest of the building, soldiers and rebels stood in wait.  They were but game pieces prepared to execute the strategy of an unseen, omnipotent master.  As the light rolled back, mass awareness painted itself in one restored color at a time.  Recognition dawned about the nature of their immediate circumstance.  Questions about what had just happened could wait:  hands tightened around the hilts of swords, and glances darted about the courtyard for an unfamiliar face who could be attacked.

The battle resumed.

The notorious character who went by the audacious moniker of Le Taureau shook off his disorientation and looked quickly to rally the six men who remained in his squad.  His oversized physique was festooned in ribbons of blood, but only what oozed from the annoying gash in his side was his own.  Incredibly, he and the others had managed to fight their way from the top of the burning building to its front door, fending off better-trained professional soldiers with the sheer force of will known only to the desperate.  The company of misfits had made great advantage of surprise, confusion, narrow passages and the rapid progress of the fire they had set, not to mention the arrogance of Bureau men who simply could not believe anyone would dare attack them on their home soil.

There had been significant cost.  Old friends had been cut down.  But as Le Taureau and the others hacked and slashed their way to escape they had begun to sense an impossible yet growing hope that they might indeed survive this day.  Now, though, wounded, tired, they stared out at a hundred fresh soldiers bearing down on them, girded themselves and resolved, silently to a man, to take as many of the bastards with them as they could.

Howling a war cry suitable for a mammoth, let alone a bull, Le Taureau leaped at the nearest target:  a scrawny, scared private who could barely hold his sword straight.  He batted the opposition’s weapon away quickly and drew back his own blade to plunge it into the boy’s stomach.

A cacophony of whistles, like the morning complaints of a gaggle of atonal birds, punctured the eardrums of every man still vertical.

For the second time this morning, the fighting stopped.

The combatants gawped at the street, where a legion in coats of gold-trimmed sky blue, gleaming sabers at their shoulders, were advancing on them in crisp ranks of twenty abreast.  A shifting sea of helmeted heads followed with boot heels slapping at concrete in rhythmic unison.  At the ruins of the courtyard the new arrivals divided into equal columns and circled the edge of the giant pit.  They filtered through the groupings of fighters and took up sentry positions among them, spreading out so every bluecoat soldier stood within a blade’s reach of three men belonging to the Bureau.  Snapped at attention with weapons drawn, they peered out from beneath helmets perched low on their foreheads in a steeled silence that made them seem even less human than the men they were guarding.  A bluecoat parked himself in front of Le Taureau, and a puzzled Le Taureau held out a cautionary hand to his men, advising them to stand down.  They were dead no matter what, so Le Taureau preferred to witness first what evolved from this latest development.

A youngish, clean-cut man sporting a trim mustache waxed to curled points stepped to forefront of the troop.  Gold-braided epaulets decorated his shoulders and commander’s insignia adorned his sleeves.  He removed his helmet, and with surprising nonchalance drew a square from his pocket and polished at a scuff on the helmet’s edge.  Satisfied, he tucked the helmet under his arm, dabbed his mouth with the square and returned it to his pocket.  He cleared his throat.  Despite having marched into a battle, despite the spectacle of the Bureau building burning down only a hundred yards in front of him, he acted with no greater urgency than a man asked to wait a few extra moments to be seated at his favorite table.  “Might I inquire as to who is in charge?” he asked with a splendid, mannered ennui.

“Thank the blessed dieux you are here at last!” came the breathless reply from the soot-stained features of the harried fellow who shuffled forward to present himself – a man whose escape from the facility had been as unlikely as that of Le Taureau’s band.  He slid a cutting glance at Le Taureau.  “Michel Ste-Selin,” he wheezed.  “Directeur, Bureau Centrale.”

The points of the mustache twitched as a sneer peeked through.  “Dominique Kyliere, capitaine général.  Commandant, Gardes du Royaume, 19th Division.  Armée Royale.”  He eyed the two bluecoats nearest him and nodded toward Ste-Selin.

“As you can see,” Ste-Selin said, pointing to Le Taureau, “we have been besieged by an enemy force, led by a traitor from within.  We have sustained considerable losses, and–”  He stopped abruptly as cold iron bit at his wrists.  A face had never flashed purple with such dispatch.  Ste-Selin vented fury as though he could melt the manacles off with his voice alone.  “What is the meaning of this?!”

General Kyliere reached into his inner breast pocket and teased the folded edge of a piece of paper.  “We received a disturbing report a few days ago from an informant inside the Bureau, one of your own Commissionaires in fact, that the Bureau was engaged in dubious and highly illegal practices involving the use of magic.  Naturally we were disinclined to believe such wild allegations, but based on the spectacle you unleashed on us a few moments ago…”  He cocked his head.

Grunts of disbelieving protest arose throughout the courtyard as the bluecoats began arresting the Bureau soldiers.  Weapons fell to the ground, arms were bound behind backs, scores of men were herded into orderly lines and marched at the points of swords back down to the street, where a long line of horse-drawn wagons was being readied to ferry the lot of them to who knew where.  “I don’t understand,” Ste-Selin protested.  “What Commissionaire gave you this information?”

“What was his name… ah, yes.  Etienne de Navarre.”

Le Taureau did not think it was physically possible for a man’s eyes to leap further from their sockets.  “That’s the traitor!” Ste-Selin screamed.  “Of course he would tell you that!”

“I should think the people are fortunate to have such a patriot within the ranks of an organization that has clearly… exceeded its mandate, shall we say?”

“This is absurd,” said Ste-Selin.  “You take the word of a piece of paper over the most important institution in the country?”

“Quite frankly, monsieur le Directeur,” said Kyliere, a palpable irritation salting his tone, “there are those in the government who grow quite troubled by the extent of the Bureau’s reach, its lack of accountability.  For some time now there have been legitimate suspicions of your activities, which you were helpful enough to confirm for us in one giant burst.  But don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll have every opportunity to make your case before the tribunals.  You do recall what the penalty for magic is, yes?”

As he witnessed the rest of the Bureau personnel being led off in irons, Ste-Selin seemed to acquiesce to what he could not stop, and true to his nature he opted for the least honorable tactic available.  “Wait,” he said, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper.  “You should know, I am not really a Directeur of the Bureau Centrale.  I’m merely a stand-in for the man who is truly responsible for these unspeakable actions.  I’m more than willing to cooperate.  There must be some sort of equitable arrangement we can come to, n’est-ce pas?”

Kyliere’s eyeroll was so pronounced it was almost audible.

Ste-Selin began to weep as the bluecoats dragged him away.  Le Taureau and his compatriots remained untouched and apparently unnoticed.  They exchanged glances with one another, none knowing exactly what they should do, if they should dare speak.  It was Le Taureau, of course, who chose finally to abandon caution, doing so with a genuine politeness that anyone who knew him well would have been astonished to think was within his capacity.  “Excusez-moi, monsieur le général…”

Kyliere arched a fractionally interested eyebrow.  “You are?”

“Corben Fisserand,” replied Le Taureau.  It was the first time anyone save his late wife had heard his full, true name spoken aloud.  “My men and I were assisting Monsieur Navarre.”

“Were you?” said the general.  “Well, thank you for your service to your country.”  General Dominique Kyliere replaced his helmet, pivoted on his heel and moved to depart.

The sergeant next to him touched his sleeve.  “Monsieur.  The building?”

Kyliere gave it a halfhearted glance over his shoulder.  His was the face of a man who felt he had many more important matters to attend to, one of which might possibly include the re-waxing of his mustache.  He sighed.  “It’s just a building.  Let it burn.”

Off he went.

Le Taureau watched him go.  Behind them, the blackened concrete walls of the Bureau building cracked and began to crumble.  The ground at its base exhaled billows of smoke into the sky.

Even a world as dark as theirs was not without its sense of humor.

Le Taureau felt the strange sensation of a grin creeping across his lips, recognizing that his initial reaction was paradoxically one of deep disappointment, that he would not get to soar off the mortal plane by way of glorious victory.  At least not today.  He had to give credit to Etienne’s foresight, while acknowledging that had he known the man had alerted the gods-damned Armée Royale to their plan, he would have bisected him with his bare hands.  Perhaps that was why Le Taureau had never been fond of gambling.  He preferred the dependability of the strength of the arm, not the tenuous trust in the variable workings of the mind, or the misanthropic whims of luck.  It was his arms, after all, that had enabled him to achieve some measure of peace for his darling wife.

He hoped very much that she would have been proud.

As Le Taureau stood with his surviving friends amidst the smoldering cinders of the Bureau Centrale and peered down into the enormous hole in the earth, there was but one statement to be made, and there was perhaps not a man alive who could have phrased it with more singular eloquence.

“Merde.”

Six storeys below, Etienne was cold.  Numbing ice nibbled at his fingers, his toes, skipped along the hairs of his neck.  And yet, as he lay slumped against the rocks, staring up into high morning sunlight pouring down from above, soothing warmth gathered at his back, as though he were being cushioned by a hot spring.  Leaden weights sagged his eyelids and the promise of sleep tugged at him like velvet ropes pulling at his feet.  He was surprised at how normal it felt, how the experience was akin to a pampering bath in the best suite of the Splendide followed by a lazy crawl between silk sheets and onto down pillows as the sun set over the balcony.  Etienne could taste the complimentary strawberries and chocolate on his lips, instead of the sharp metal flavor of blood that pooled both at the corners of his mouth and the deep, jagged punctures in his spine.  It was an illusion, naturally, the desperate acts of a failing body diverting ebbing resources to the organs and abandoning those parts of itself deemed less crucial to the task of preserving a few more precious minutes of life.

Noeme’s blade had cut too deep.

“Etienne!” he heard someone call out from the darkness, yanking him back.  The blurry form of Nightingale stumbled over the debris and fell to her knees next to him.  She looked harried, exhausted, but still as beautiful as the first time he had seen her.  “I’m here.  It’s okay,” she said, laying her hands on his chest.  A familiar purple glow surrounded them and seeped into his body.

Steel spikes pried his ribs apart.  Etienne moaned and thrashed beneath her, spitting up a toxic foam of blood and saliva and bile.  Nightingale frowned and stretched her fingers.  She chewed through her lip against the strain of effort as her healing light intensified, burned white hot.

Etienne’s back spasmed.  Blood soaked through his shirt.  The spikes were wrenching at him now, and searing him from the inside out.  Arms flailed, pounded at the rocks beneath him.

He tried to shove Nightingale away.

“I don’t understand!” cried the witch.  “Why isn’t it working?”  She summoned her power for another attempt.  Energy sparked and churned in her palms.

“Because wounds made by those weapons… can’t be healed by magic,” said someone else.

Etienne caught the scent before he saw the face.

Pomegranates.

It was Elyssia de Navarre.

The real Elyssia de Navarre.

The one Etienne remembered kissing him good night when he was a boy.

She was standing there gathering her bearings like a fawn newly born, or awoken from a long sleep, perhaps only tangentially aware of the events going on around her.  The angry scars on her face were gone.  Stark white hair was restored to its natural soft auburn, her eyes were their rightful shade of deep brown.  Her skin had lost the pallor of death, and the garish garments and aesthetics that had been forced upon her were likewise forgotten.  Every trace of the avatar of dark power that had wrought the devastation surrounding them had been erased.  Though the physical effects of twenty years of imprisonment had disappeared, the unsteadiness of her steps, the broken timbre, the sorrow deep within her eyes proved that the horrific and unwanted clarity of every single day of the experience was engraved forever on her soul, an obscene sketch scratched for the sake of puerile amusement onto a unique and irreplaceable work of art.

Elyssia looked at Etienne as repressed memories burst from behind the bricks that imprisonment had laid.  She drew upon an old ability she thought she had lost somewhere along the course of those long, dark years, and made herself smile.  “My sweet fils,” she said quietly.

Nightingale shot her a pained glance.  “Can’t you do something?”

Elyssia’s gaze drifted away, and hardened suddenly.  “Not for him.”

Nightingale looked to see what had caught her attention.

Over the piles of rock and twisted metal debris that sloped in from the walls of the cavern, someone was trying to climb out.

Girard Noeme, the fingers of his right hand broken by Etienne’s boot, was grasping at ridges of stone with his left and hoisting himself awkwardly up the edge of the hole in the earth at a pace no greater than that of a crippled snail.  The prospect of escape was a function for him only of denial and stubbornness, especially as a vengeful Elyssia closed in, her steps now marked by assured intent.

“Girard!” she bellowed.  Her projected voice clanged inside his skull.  She reached out and waved her hand.  Noeme was plucked from the wall like an apple from a tree and thrown hard against the opposite side.  A loud crunch, seashells being crushed, was followed by a piercing wail as every bone in Noeme’s back shattered.  He slid to the ground.  He tried to move his legs, lift his arms, but the connections had been severed by the break.  He could do little more than raise his head, and stare up into the face of the woman he had tortured for twenty years.  The fog had lifted from her mind, and Elyssia knew who he was and what he had done.

“You took my life,” she said.  “You took me from my son.  You made me into a monster.”

“You’re so ungrateful.”  Noeme panted undying defiance.  “I made you powerful.”

Elyssia shook her head.  “No.  I was always powerful.”

Her eyes ignited with golden light as the sum of two decades of rage and hate spewed from her outstretched hands in the form of lightning and fire.

Noeme had time only to gasp.

In the instant of a breath, flesh and muscle and nerve and blood and bone was stripped away and vaporized.  All that was Girard Noeme was incinerated, purged from the very fabric of existence, and when it was done, and the fire was snuffed and the lightning fizzled, there was nothing left of him, not even ash.  Only a fell shadow burned into the stone.

Elyssia’s heart sprinted at the exercise of that much pure power, the giddy thrill of it surging inside her veins touched with the melancholy of accepting the grim truth of what she had wanted to do for so long.  She was a sorceress.  She knew that there was nothing to be gained in denying her nature anymore.  She had her life back at long last, and she wanted to begin living it as the person she truly was.  To be powerful and accept the consequences of having, and using, that power, whatever they would be.  But as her pulse quieted, she resolved that this, here, would be the last dark spell she would ever cast.  That part of her would die with Girard Noeme.

Etienne whimpered, his strength too far gone for a moan.

Nightingale covered his hand with hers.  “Etienne.  Please.  Try to hold on.”  She looked to where the other woman was seemingly lost in her own thoughts.  “Elyssia.  Elyssia!”  The sorceress joined her at Etienne’s side, her movements understandably but frustratingly languid.  “You’re much stronger than I am,” Nightingale told her.  “Together, can’t we…”

The resigned silence from Elyssia was the answer she feared.

Nightingale felt a faint brush at her arm.  “It’s all right,” Etienne whispered, letting his hand fall back.  The shaking and the shivers had silenced, and stillness held him now.

“Etienne, don’t be ridiculous.  We can save you.”

“We said we were going to destroy the Bureau.”  He found a grin.  “Every last part of it.”

“Not you,” Nightingale pleaded.  “Not you.”

“Maman?” said Etienne.

“I’m here,” said Elyssia.  “I’m here, Etienne.  My beautiful little boy.  I am so sorry I left you.  I wish I could have watched you grow up, that you could have been spared this.”

A mere index of everything Etienne wanted to say to his mother would have occupied a dozen libraries, and yet, he could feel precious minutes eluding his increasingly tenuous grasp, washing away beneath an insistent tide.  Truly, the mother and the son did not know each other, and the lifetime they needed to mend the broken bond would not be theirs.  “I’m sorry for who I became without you.  I’m sorry for what I did to those like you.”

She touched a delicate hand to his forehead.  “You saved me.  You were the only one who could.  Our paths were always meant to meet again, even if they strayed farther than we would like.”

“I wish…”

Elyssia smiled again.  “I know.”

“Nightingale will need your help now,” Etienne said.  “There’s so much left to do.”

“You’ll be helping me too,” Nightingale interrupted.  “I’m not giving up.”  She lay her hands on his chest again.  Motes of energy sparked at her fingers, spun together and melted into Etienne’s chest.

Nothing.

There was no reaction from Etienne, no twitches or spasms.  Only a sad smile.

“You have to let me go,” he said.

Tears gathered in Nightingale’s throat, and she forced them back down.  “No.”

“Do you remember the dream I told you about back there, on the beach?” he asked.  “This is always how it was going to end.  Just… a little sooner than expected.”

Etienne could feel very little of himself now, only the warmth at his back.  He was so tired.  The siren call of sleep was overwhelming, even though he knew he would never wake.

He gazed up at the two women, sorceress and witch, who had come to bookend his life, and in his eyes there was only admiration and gratitude.  He had loved them both.  One had brought him into the world and given him the confidence to take it on, while the other had guided him to atonement for what he had taken from it.  He recalled, in those old days when he had thought himself invulnerable, how little regard he had sought from anyone, and he recognized now that a man’s character would always be shaped by those he met along his journey, both in his capacity for greatness and for ill.  These women had believed in him, and what he had owed them in return was a life worthy of their faith.  Had he failed in that?  There could be no forgiveness for, or from, the hundreds he had condemned as a Commissionaire.  Those were cherished voices that had gone silent because of him, and he knew that the price he was paying for those sins was justified, even if it gave them little rest.  As he had told Noeme, the villain’s tale was not meant to reach the final pages.

But he had at least given Nightingale and his mother, and the thousands of their surviving sister witches throughout their country, a bold chance for something better:  a life, liberated and full.  As the light dimmed, he dared allow himself a breath of hope, that priceless treasure Nightingale had once told him was the province of magic itself.  It seemed at last appropriate for the only son of Elyssia – and Reynand – de Navarre.  “You are both free now,” he said.  “Go make the world we want.  The one people like me aren’t meant to live in.”

Nightingale leaned in closer.  There was only one thing left to say.

“Etienne… my name.  My real name, it’s…”

He spoke before she could finish.  “I love you… my nightingale.  Au revoir.”

Nightingale laughed through her tears.  She nodded, and reached up to hold her palm over his face.  Gentle violet light glowed at her fingers.

A last magical gift.

Suddenly, Etienne felt cool, wet sand beneath his bare toes, and heard the roar of surf in his ears.  Clean salt air ruffled the lapels of his open shirt and roused his lungs.  There was no pain.  Instead of the emptiness he had feared, the world before him was a promise in scorching cerulean as pure ocean kissed clear sky.

Etienne lifted his face to the warm sun and spread his arms wide.

Home.

“Oh,” he said with a child’s surprise and wonder.  “It’s so…”

Elyssia wept.  Nightingale closed her eyes.

In a land that had suffered the pangs of drought for a thirsty eternity, it began to rain.

***

One last chapter awaits.  Should be very soon.  Watch this space…

Vintage, Part Twenty-Five

vintagetitle

We might just get this monster finished after all.  Here is Part 25.

Grief was an inconvenient emotion at the quietest of times, and it was certainly no more accommodating when one’s enemy had his hands about your throat, or when the world was collapsing around you.  Etienne could not spare a half-second to mourn his lost love, not when Girard Noeme was attempting to kill him, not while the ceiling caved in and the floor continued to crumble.

Devastation from both above and below careened toward Etienne and Noeme as they grappled.  Noeme’s elegant dining table and his priceless wine cellar both succumbed and fell out of sight.

“Shall we join her, Etienne?” A sardonic smirk twisted Noeme’s lip.  Etienne loathed the increasingly pressing idea of letting the man go, but not badly enough to sacrifice himself for it.

Noeme knew it.

The rack nearest them began to warp and crack as its furthest edge sank over the rim of the approaching hole.  The nerves inside Etienne’s teeth throbbed as he clenched them.

Out of options.

He delivered an uppercut to Noeme’s jaw and ran, making a hard break for the slanted side wall of the cavern, where a modicum of safety might be found.  Noeme spat blood, shook off Etienne’s hit and set out on a parallel path.  Both men leaped to the wall.  They clung to desperate handholds as the last of the floor vanished beneath them.  Heads buried themselves in the crooks of elbows to avoid inhaling the gale of shattered bedrock and loose soil spinning throughout the cavern.

Hovering safely inside a protective shell of magic, Elyssia never took her empty eyes from Nightingale as she dropped the entirety of the earth upon her.  More tumbled from above, most of it falling straight through the maw in the floor, the rest piling up along the sides of the cavern in drifts, blanketed by fragments of what was left of the structure of the five sub-floors of the Bureau building.

The wrath of a goddess was thorough.

She did not relent until a new element joined the bombardment, though this one floated into the cavern more gently than the rest:  warm shafts of morning sunlight, casting an amber glow upon the billions of motes of dust suspended in the air.  A fifty-foot wide crevasse opened to the surface now, and in the silence that settled over the cavern as the last of the rock fell, faint sounds of the battle being waged up there drifted down to where Noeme and Etienne were lying.

Noeme pushed himself up from the dirt.  He looked at Elyssia, who floated quietly in the middle of the devastation she had wrought.  Her task accomplished, her broken mind awaited further orders.

“Ma belle,” he called to her.  Glowing white eyes fixed on their master.  “Nightingale is gone.  Now your power is free.  This country is yours.  Do as we planned.”  Gleeful at the impending realization of his vision, Noeme’s tone swelled into spit-drenched hysterics.  “Faites de chaque âme votre esclave!”

Etienne burst from the darkness and tackled him.

Languidly, Elyssia stretched out her arms.  From open palms threads of gold light began to rise and tangle together, like the first shoots of vines climbing from the soil.  Laced at the heart of the light though was a stream of onyx-dark energy, a tentacle of malevolence.  The light spun together, gold and black intertwined, into a single, flowering whirlwind that fanned out as it surged up through the opening to the surface, cracking eardrums with the sound of lightning ricocheting inside hollow tin.

Bureau soldiers and St. Iliane rebels hacking at each other halted in mid-slice.  Energy erupted into the sky in a single pillar and blasted outward, bathing every living person in its glow.  The treacly black tentacle lanced through the initial warm embrace, snaking and twisting through mouths, noses, ears and eyes, embedding itself in minds, sponging away every trace of independent thought.  The battle stopped and men of both sides stood silent, their wills erased.  Subjugated as one to Elyssia’s power, bodies pledged to undying service of a goddess – herself enslaved as much as they.

The spell’s strength was magnified with each foot it traveled.  Unimpeded by the structures of men it hurtled across the very limits of the city of Calerre.  Magic did not discriminate:  at kitchen tables, at casino tables, on the docks or beneath the streets, in the fur-lined echelons of political power or in the fetid rot of the slums, people were changed.  Husbands forgot the faces of their wives.  Fathers forgot their daughters.  In an instant, the collected thoughts of a hundred thousand people went silent.

Exempt were those who bore the brunt of Girard Noeme’s lifelong hatred.  Throughout Calerre and beyond, witches young and old, confused and terrified at what was happening in front of them, tried to free their loved ones from the grip of the dark spell, meeting only empty glares.  In the cavern below the Bureau Centrale headquarters, light continued to sail upward from her hands as Elyssia de Navarre swept her irresistible control out across the country, claiming new souls from every county and rural village, adding mindless conscripts to Noeme’s army ten thousand at a time.

As a single mass they waited for her instruction.

As she waited for hers.

Etienne and Girard Noeme flailed about on the sloping dirt ledge like a pair of hormonal schoolboys battling over the favor of the prettiest girl.  Etienne tried to wrest himself free of the man’s arm coiled about his neck, squeezing on his windpipe.  He elbowed Noeme in the groin, climbed out from under him and pinned him beneath his legs.  The attacks that ensued were wild, an animal fury made human.  Noeme’s gashed and swollen face bled raw from almost every pore, and still Etienne did not stop.  The skin of his knuckles purpled with bruises.  He wanted to beat the man’s smile from his mouth.  Blow followed blow, delivered with such furious conviction as if every single punch could demolish those qualities in Noeme that Etienne hated most in himself.

Girard Noeme was who Etienne had so desperately wanted to become, and was now determined to destroy.

Noeme’s fingers scratched for a handful of dirt.  He flung it into Etienne’s face.  Black chunks stabbed Etienne’s eyes.  Filled them with tears.  He wheezed, stumbled back as he grabbed at them.  Noeme seized Etienne’s disorientation and landed two jabs in his stomach, then finished with a hook to his right cheek.  Etienne crumpled.

The older man lumbered to his feet, brushed past his fallen opponent and descended the slope on which they fought.  Elyssia was floating out there in the middle of the cavern, sending her spell up and out into the world, and Noeme had but to speak to her to set his final, terrible play in motion.

Blindly, Etienne thrust out his leg.  Noeme’s foot caught on it.  He pitched forward.  Slid to the edge of the precipice.  Etienne dove after him, his field of vision a scattering of blurs.  Noeme grabbed at a handhold.  Caught Etienne’s arm.

Pulled them both over the side.

Etienne’s arms jerked painfully taut as he latched onto a spiked crag of rock that arrested his fall.  Noeme was hanging a few feet lower, trying to paw his way back up.  Frosted gusts of wind tugged at them from the massive hole beneath their feet while the flaring and hissing of Elyssia’s spell above cleaved at their ears.  Etienne stretched his hand out for another cleft in the rock, one that brought him closer to where Noeme was holding on.  Noeme watched him.

It did not require genius to divine Etienne’s intent.

“What happens after you kill me, mon gars?” Noeme bellowed.  Echoing his earlier words.  “I’m trying to save civilization, not destroy it!  Can you imagine ten thousand witches battling like this for control?  Our world will be ashes!  Balance needs to be restored!  It’s the only way!”

Etienne let go of the crag, dug his fingers into the new crevice and pulled himself over.

Noeme’s tirade continued, hollered from below like a demon trying to tempt the mortals that walked above.  Planting doubt so that they might chance to look down.  “You can’t stop your mother.  You’ve accomplished nothing.  All you’ve done is march your beloved Nightingale to her death.”

Gripping at the rock face, Etienne hung above him now.

He lowered his foot.

“Do you ever wonder why your parents abandoned you?  They knew what you were.  You betrayed me.  You betrayed Valnier and the men under your command.  You sacrificed the men you brought with you today, and you let your lover die right in front of you.  Your very existence is poison, Etienne.  How does it feel to be a man who destroys everything and everyone he touches?”

Etienne answered by pressing the toe of his boot onto Noeme’s strained hand.  He kept it there and gazed down at his old mentor, the man who had directed and controlled the course of his entire life, and so many other nameless lives as well.  The man whose life he now held in his grasp for the first time, and who, for the first time, he knew he no longer needed to fear.

Girard Noeme’s scarred mouth foamed with fury.  “You’d do this, Monsieur le Commissionaire?  I made you.  What were you before me… the unwanted offspring of a worthless drunk?  I gave you everything you have.  And there’s nothing out there for you if I’m gone.  You are nothing.”

Abruptly, Etienne’s role became clear.

“I know what I am,” he said.  “I’m the villain in this story, Girard.  We both are.  The difference is, I know my side is supposed to lose.”

He stomped his boot.

Finger bones shattered.

Noeme slipped.

Genuine surprise pried his mouth open and snapped his eyelids back, but the darkness took him before he could scream.  There was nothing more.  No sound of limbs scraping against rock, no clatter of abrupt impact.  He simply disappeared, down there in that empty mass.  Etienne heard only the cold, impersonal wind crying out from an abyss whose hunger could never be sated.

The satisfaction, the vindication he had been expecting did not come.  He did not even feel an inkling of relief.  He couldn’t.  There was no time.  Etienne could not imagine what his mother would do now that her master was gone.  He pulled himself back up to the ledge, rose to his feet and stared out at Elyssia across the great maw.  She still floated above it, power rising from her outstretched hands and seizing every mind it touched.  There was no limit to how far she could go.

He could not let it continue.

Whatever the cost.

Near the ledge on which Etienne stood, broken fragments of a weapon rack that had escaped the fall littered the ground.  Underneath twisted steel frames lay a handful of bows and a few dozen arrows tipped with piercing heads made of the silvered metal.  He knew it could cause damage, even to a godlike sorceress.  Elyssia’s shoulder still bled from where he had stabbed her with the table knife.

Etienne hoisted the bow in his arm and nocked an arrow in it.  She was facing away from him.  She would not see it.  He aimed at the center of her spine.  Drew the string back.  Felt a wave of sickness churn through his stomach and the sting of warm saltwater pooling at his eyes.

“Maman,” he whispered to himself.

Etienne, said someone else in his mind.

The bow fell from his hands.

He ran.  As he had once run in fear from the bier of his father, now he ran with renewed hope.  Over the mounds of rock and debris, around the edge of the opening in the world, toward where he had last seen her, to the very place from where he somehow knew her call had sounded out.  He fell to his knees and began tearing away the dirt, cutting his fingers, wearing them raw, biting through bloody lips as he drew upon strength he did not have.  Elyssia’s magic crackled and spat behind him as he dug.

At last he saw it.

A glimpse of flesh.

He plunged his arm into the ground, wrapped it around hers and wailed at the sky as he wrenched her from her premature tomb.

Nightingale crawled up and gulped greedily at liberated air.

“You’re alive!” Etienne declared, incredulity a hair short of the hammy instinct to slap his head in disbelief.

“Barely,” coughed Nightingale through dirt and dust.  “It took everything I had left to shield myself.”  She looked away from him, out at Elyssia in the eye of the cyclone of golden light.  “I can feel her spell.  I can feel the minds out there in its grip.  She’s so close.  She almost has everyone.  Even without the weapons… so many of our sisters are going to die.”  Resignation dimmed her features.  “I can’t stop her.  I’m not… I’m not strong enough.  She’s much too powerful.”

The inevitable cloaked itself about Etienne’s shoulders.  “Then we can’t stop her.  But what if Noeme was right, about one thing?”  Nightingale stared at him.  “Maybe balance is the way,” he added.  “But it’s not the world that needs balancing.  It’s her.”

The witch understood, but her brow tightened.  “Etienne, I don’t know if I can–”

He clasped her shoulder and smiled.  “Just be ready.  You’ll know when.”

Etienne stood, brushed the dirt from his trousers.  He straightened himself and descended the hill of stone towards the maw where his mother waited.

Nightingale called after him.  “She’ll kill you!”

He stopped and gazed back at the woman he loved, finding himself bereft of anything more substantial or reassuring to say.  Instead, he winked.

And he went on.

Nightingale secreted herself in the shadows.

With the crunch of his boots on shattered stone, Etienne thought about the occasions upon which he had been called upon to sway minds with his words.  To paint chilling scenes of violent retribution for those who would not surrender to the Bureau Centrale.  Latterly, to weave a tapestry of heroic possibility to spur those who were reluctant to stand up against it.  On more than one occasion, simply to preserve his own skin.  All those precisely crafted, flowery metaphors, dancing about multiple clauses couched in gilded sentences, defining the most pivotal moments of his life like the multifaceted flavors in the finest vintages of wine.  Mere rehearsal.  An infant’s incremental ascent to the unexpected summit on which he now stood, and where he quivered with an infant’s own fear.

Etienne toed the edge of the precipice.  He gazed up at Elyssia.  Her pale face was tilted toward the sunlight and draped in the golden glow of her magic.  Long whitish hair frolicked about her.  She looked ethereal, and oddly serene.  He knew that inside, she was far from it.  He refused to believe that somewhere in the broken soul, there did not linger still a spark of the true spirit of the loving woman who had given birth to him, fighting against the years of vile, unspeakable conditioning imposed upon her by Girard Noeme.  Etienne needed to locate that spark – and pour fuel on it.

“Mother!” he shouted over the wind.

She did not respond.

Etienne spread out his arms.  “Mother, I know you probably don’t realize who I am.  The last time you saw me, I was a little boy tripping over his toys.  You don’t recognize the grown man standing in front of you now.  Your son.  For so long you’ve been locked away in the darkness.  Starved, maimed, subjected to unending pain.  So desperate for human contact that you’ve believed the lies and the distortions of the only voice that has condescended to speak to you, all those lonely years.  Mother… it doesn’t have to go on.  The pain, being alone… it can stop now, and you can take back the life that was taken from you.”

Elyssia gave no indication that she had heard a solitary word.  Her magic kept spiraling up, through the opening in the ceiling and out across the world.

“None of this is fair,” Etienne said to her.  “None of this should have happened.  You never should have had to run.  You should have been free to be who you always were.  I wish I’d been able to know that person.  I might have made different choices in my own life.  But I do know that everything that is good about me came from you, and if there is enough of you in me to make me realize that what I was doing was wrong, then surely there must be enough left of the real you to know that you are too.  Mother, you are about to murder thousands of innocent people, and you have to stop.  The real Elyssia de Navarre, the one hiding beneath that gruesome costume they’ve wrapped you in, would never do anything like that.”

Etienne chanced leaning even further forward.  “Maman… do you remember when I was four, and I was scared that Papa would never come home, and you told me that I didn’t ever have to be scared of anything because there were people who loved me?”  He swallowed.  “I’m scared now.  I’m scared of what you’re about to do.  I know that you’re scared too.

“I need you to love me now, maman.  I need you to know that I’m here, and I won’t let you go.  You are stronger than what they did to you.  You have a generous heart, and if you can still feel that heart beating, then you know you can’t do what the lying voice has told you to do.  You can come back.  It’s not too late.  Listen to me.  Remember my voice.  Remember my face.  We don’t have to be what they made us.  We can beat them.  You can beat him.  You’re more powerful than any of them.  You have the choice, not them.  You can decide to stop.  Maman, please.  Look at me.  That’s all I ask.  Just look at me.”

Etienne willed his words to cross the divide and reach her.

It did not seem to be enough.

But there, in the middle of a pillar of magic, a goddess heard the long-silent stirrings of her human soul.

A dark sorceress felt a breath’s caress of tender light.

And a mother looked down at face of her son.

“Maman,” Etienne pleaded.  “I love you.”

The blinding white mist contaminating her eyes evanesced into wisps, falling away like a curtain.  The adoring, deep brown eyes that had watched over him as a baby emerged and beheld him again.

“Etienne,” Elyssia whispered.

Etienne smiled.

And felt fire explode in his chest.

A blade.

Piercing him through the center of his back.

Two.  Three.

Four times.

Blood bubbled over Etienne’s lips as his knees met the earth.

Girard Noeme towered over him, a sword drenched in crimson clutched in his hand.

Elyssia screamed.

From behind, Nightingale surged into the air and slammed her hands against Elyssia’s scarred face.  Searing violet light poured out from her fingertips, saturating the sorceress with healing magic.

The world washed away in a flood of pure white.

* * *

Vintage, Part Twenty-Four

vintagetitle

So in what appears to be a recurring theme, this part got too long so I had to split it in two.  Herein the more digestible part twenty-four.

There were as many religions in the world as there were grains of sand on a beach, and each had its own version of the creation myth.  The universe had sprung, depending on one’s choice of faith, from accident, indifference, boredom, meticulous design, or in some cases, a war between the gods.

Etienne wondered, if early man had stumbled upon the spectacle unfolding above, if he too might have thought he was witnessing the birth of a new world.  Perhaps that was exactly what it was.  One could not understate the significance and the consequences of the contest about to commence between Nightingale and Elyssia de Navarre, the witch and the sorceress.  Between the two most formidable women he’d ever known.

His lover, and his mother.

However, this time Etienne would not be the gambler merely placing a stake and attending on the outcome in a velvet-draped chair.  With the piercing scrape of metal he wrenched a broadsword from its pine rack on one of the endless stacks of weapons and ventured deeper into the dimly illuminated maze.  His part in this creation myth was less clearly defined, though he was certain he was not its hero.  He was a side character hunting for another:  the leader of the Bureau Centrale, the man responsible for transforming his mother into the soulless, obedient avatar she had become.  For making Etienne into a soldier, some might argue equally as soulless.  Girard Noeme had stolen both lives, and now he had stolen away among his arsenal of horrors.  Intent, perhaps, on waiting out the battle, until the expected arrival of the Armée Royale which loomed less than ten minutes away.

Etienne could not predict what would happen then.  He doubted that even the full army would make much of a stand against either of the two women.

In any event, he did not mean for Noeme to live to see it.

He masked his footsteps by slow, patience-taxing progress along the edge of each row of shelves.  Deliberate caution was both maddening and necessary.  He was a stranger in this place, while to Noeme it was a familiar sanctuary.  Etienne could not fathom how many secret nooks and alcoves might suit to conceal his quarry throughout the extensive underground.  He had to rely on an inadequate minutes-old, faint working comprehension of the outlay of the cavern, and he could only guess in which direction he was moving.  Yet he continued on, knuckles aching as fingers bent around the hilt of his new sword, his ears straining for any careless hint of his enemy’s presence.

High overhead, Nightingale and Elyssia floated opposite one another.  Gathering magic blazed at their fingers.  They did not speak.  Elyssia’s stare was mechanical, betraying little thinking of her opponent, if indeed her broken mind was thinking much of anything.  There was nothing behind her eyes but instinct and power, enhanced now thanks to what she had drained from her adversary.  There was no debate, no delay, no consideration of the options, or the ethics.  She was only as they had made her.  A weapon, created for a single purpose.

She attacked.

Hands raised, she flew at Nightingale.

Waiting not to see what havoc the sorceress could wreak, Nightingale launched herself toward Elyssia.  Goddesses collided in a percussive eruption of gold and purple sparks as the protective barriers in which the two had encased themselves struck and repelled one another.

The two women spun apart.  Elyssia whirled and let loose a snarling stream of golden energy, the same spell she had used to bind Nightingale a few minutes earlier.  The ground beneath them wheezed, and the roof of the cavern shivered and dislodged spittles of rock.  So overpowered was Elyssia’s magic that it seemed to split not only the air but the very fabric of the world…

Etienne squinted at the darkness, trying to pick out traces of movement.

Nothing but murmurs of wind.

He pressed himself against the shelves.  As a sorceress’ son he was supposed to have adept perception and intuition, and he tried to trigger those senses now, to conjure an image of where Noeme might have gone.  It was difficult to ignore the sizzling of the air as the women tossed volleys of lightning back and forth like so many balls of string.

It was even more difficult to avoid being undone by the hate simmering in his heart, the burgeoning, festering need for his foe to suffer gross, maniacal torment.  That impetus to run screaming like a raving fool with sword held high.  If Etienne managed to find Noeme, would he slash at the man’s body until nothing remained but ribbons of meat clinging to shattered bones?  Would that give him back his lost life, would it return his mother to him as she had once been?  Would it restore that precious balance to the world that so transfixed Noeme’s mind?  The unlikelihood of any of those results didn’t make him want to snap the man’s neck with his bare hands any less.

Etienne continued ahead.  The lingering light abandoned him.  Darkness became whole.

And then he heard a voice.

“What do you want, Etienne?”

Nightingale’s palms flew up.  Her teeth clenched hard.  She heard herself grunt.

Elyssia’s spell bent around her and dispersed, winking out as though it had never been.  Nightingale answered with a quick return burst of violet light from her hands.  A casual wave of Elyssia’s hand reduced the counter to a harmless bloom of embers.

The sorceress peered down, at the nearest stack of shelves, and stretched her fingers toward it.

The unit rumbled.  Bolts and screws flew from the corners.  Inches-thick steel plate covering peeled itself back as easily as skin from a fruit, and from the opening a flurry of a thousand swords and knives and spears hoisted themselves into the air.

They enclosed Elyssia within a spinning aura of metal, saturating the air with the frigid and bloody taste of iron.  As one, they tilted up and aimed themselves toward a single target.

Elyssia’s fingers twisted, and the lethal blades hurtled toward Nightingale in a single massive barrage that the fastest soul alive could not hope to dodge.

Nightingale froze, her nerves ignited and–

“What happens… after you kill me?  What will you do then?”

Noeme’s voice was a beacon of whispered taunts from somewhere in the black.  Etienne refused to answer.  Instead he took another step forward.  Sword stood at the ready.

“If the Bureau is gone… do you think the witches’ rule will be better than ours?  Power is addictive and transformative, Etienne, even to the noblest intentions.  Do you think the common people will not still suffer?  Do you not see the privileged castes, the stronger witches dominating the weak, segregation, discrimination, endless bloody wars fought with the most ungodly magic, and men… men diminished in status and freedoms until we are nothing but breeding stock?”

The voice grew louder as Etienne edged to the end of the row.

“There will be no going back.  The balance of the world, our very way of life will be made extinct.  Can you not see the moral responsibility of the Bureau to stand against this vision of tyranny?  Can you not see the wisdom in what I have done?  Or your own duty to stand with me, as you always have?”

–and she vanished in a hard flash of white beneath the storm of flying swords.  The thousand blades impaled themselves into the cavern wall, their target simply gone from their path.  Nightingale had often used her ability to disappear from one location and reappear in another only for dramatic effect.  Here, it had saved her life.

She emerged behind Elyssia.  A quick bolt of energy thrown from her hand speared the sorceress through the back.  It spread out like glowing purple spiders prancing across Elyssia’s body and chewing at her with their millions of tiny pointed incisors.  Nightingale allowed herself the precious respite of a breath as Elyssia writhed–

“Standing with you was the greatest mistake of my life,” Etienne declared.  “Made when I was a stupid and naive child.  I mean to correct it.  Right now.”

“A true pity, mon gars.  Before you do, first look up, and witness the dark future to which you would condemn our entire people.”

Thinking of Nightingale, Etienne lifted his eyes from the shadows.

From those shadows, a sword flashed.

–but it was not to be a long respite, as Elyssia clenched fingers into fists and blasted herself free of the pestering tendrils.  She spun around, flattened her palms and pitched lance after lance of golden fire at Nightingale, the salvos flying one on top of the other.

It was a different, much harsher spell.  Meant not to drain, but to burn.

Burn it did, searing easily through Nightingale’s protective magic, her clothes, and finally her skin.  Nightingale’s torso jerked back with each hit as though she was being pummeled with fists of flame.  Her arms cavorted in a fruitless effort to block them.  Eventually she could not keep herself aloft.

The witch plummeted between the columns.  Acid gnawed in her limbs as she panted and tried to rally her ebbing strength.  Nightingale had feared she was overmatched from the start of this contest, and her confidence had not been given reason to grow.

The ground growled in the distance, its anger spiked with metal squeals rending, tearing, tumbling across the floor, storming closer without impediment.  Suddenly the entire array of racks in front of Nightingale was wrenched up and tossed to the side, contents spilling across the cavern in a lingering rattle like hundreds of spoons being dropped in a drawer.

The fog of steel debris settled to reveal Elyssia strolling towards her, removing thousand-ton obstacles from her path one column at a time with casual flicks of a single silver-nailed finger, as commanding of the trifles of the world as a conductor over an obliging orchestra.

The sorceress smiled, and pointed at Nightingale.

Etienne noticed the falling longsword with scarcely time enough to shove his own weapon in its way and prevent it from carving off the starboard half of his body.  Bolts of blue erupted at the clash of the spell-forged metal.

Girard Noeme was not a barroom brute like Serge Meservey.  His training was gentleman’s combat in the classical style, and he compensated for any deficiencies of age with masterful swings and flourishes that seemed to hit twice as hard as they actually did.

Etienne could rely only on instinct and the few tricks he’d picked up from watching Corporal Valnier over the years.  He understood enough of the basic principles to know that giving ground was losing, and so he leaned forward and parried Noeme’s slices as best he could.  Etienne could not find an opening to try a more aggressive stance.

Noeme kept swinging.  He alternated his attacks without any predictable pattern.  Etienne kept up his clumsy counters.  Magic blade clanged against magic blade, cascading both men with flecks of icy blue.  Etienne’s arm screamed at him.  He could sense that he was being deliberately worn down.  He tried battering the blade away with more force, trying to jostle it from the grip of unsteady older fingers.

One of his parries finally pushed the tip of Noeme’s blade against the floor, where it caught on a rough tile seam for a fraction of a second.  Just a fraction.

A fraction enough.

The rhythm was broken.

Etienne pressed his opportunity by drawing back his free fist and planting it in Noeme’s face.  It connected with a dull slap-thud.  The older man dropped his weapon and staggered back.  Etienne lunged for him and swung again.

Another slap-thud.

Noeme fell against the racks.  A thick stream of blood from his nose stained his pressed ecru jacket, but he was smiling.

Simmering temper bubbled over to a boil.  Etienne grabbed Noeme by the collar and hauled him to his feet.  “You think this is funny?” he spat at him.

“Your little bird,” Noeme said.  “See how she flies.”

Held in Elyssia’s power, Nightingale was no bird.  She was a rag in a dog’s mouth.

Elyssia wagged her finger to and fro, and the witch was thrown from one side of the room to the other.  The sorceress slammed her against the jagged roof of the cavern.  Nightingale wailed at the crush of her back against the unforgiving stippled rock.  Elyssia dropped her even faster to the floor, picked her up again and propelled her end over end through the shelves of weapons.

It was not the tactic of someone trying to win a fight, but rather that of a superior combatant relishing the humiliation of an inadequate challenger.

Nightingale whimpered.  Lacerations and bruises tattooed her entire body.  Stabbing breaths told her of broken ribs.  She clutched at her chest and tried to heal them before Elyssia seized her again and lobbed her into the wall.  Excess magic ruptured the ground beneath wherever she was thrown, splitting and coughing up fragments of rock, leaving long, twisting scars trailing her.

Nightingale rolled to a stop.

Fear seeped into her bones.  Every witch, even those as strong as she, had grown accustomed to living with a certain degree of permanent fear, like a chronic ache that could be ignored on days when the hunters seemed far from the door.  What claimed her now was far more acute.  It was a throttling fear that if she failed here, she might very well be the last free witch to walk this world.

She looked back along the nearest fissure, at the slow approach of the pale, white-eyed, white-haired Elyssia alongside it.  Nightingale did not think she could endure another round.  And attacking the sorceress directly was futile.

Perhaps there was another way.

Nightingale drew back her arms and plunged her hands inside the fissure.  Fingers melted through stone.  Purple light shot along the length of it, connected with the other ruptures in the floor that Elyssia’s spells had created, and spread until each one of them glowed with Nightingale’s power.

White eyes blinked.

A tremor rocked the entire cavern.  A moment of stillness followed.  Popping sounds pierced the silence, piling on one another and cresting to a wave.  At the edge of each fissure, bedrock saturated with violet sparks began to split and crumble away into pebbles.  Cracks widened into chasms that grew wider still, emptying into a light-devouring, swelling maw.

As the hole opened beneath the nearest racks of weapons, strong steel bracings strained, bent, buckled and crashed into the growing abyss, sending their deadly cache falling forever out of reach.  The hole pushed its ravenous edge outwards, toward the surrounding walls of the cavern.  The next column of steel – waiting idly, expecting to wait on – broke, tilted and fell in, followed by the next.

Noeme’s magnificent arsenal was being swallowed by the earth.

Elyssia frowned, and as ground shattered under her boots, she lifted herself into the air.

Etienne pressed his face closer to Noeme’s, close enough to taste the Cygne Reine on his breath.  He grinned.  “There go your precious weapons, Girard,” he said, tightening his grip on the man’s collar.

Noeme grinned back.  “I’ll just have your mother make more.”

Etienne answered the blunt rebuttal with an equally blunt fist.

Nightingale and Elyssia traded stares as the floor of the cavern collapsed and took the weapons with it.  The witch feigned the simper of the bully who had broken her sister’s toys.

The sorceress wore the confident indifference of the adult who had long outgrown them.

Locking the void of her eyes on Nightingale, Elyssia lifted her arms above her head.  Ripples tore through the dimpled ceiling of the cavern.  It heaved, gave way and sent stone daggers plunging to the floor across its entire span.  Some of them vaporized in flashes of purple as Nightingale deflected the closest projectiles.  Elyssia pulled at more of the earth, drawing down a choking storm from a seemingly limitless reserve.  Hail swelled in size and escalated to a deafening deluge.

The spell ate upwards, like a giant worm devouring itself a path to the surface.  It burst through the Bureau sub-levels above and added manmade debris like twisted steel bars and splintering concrete slabs to the punishing torrent.  Five floors’ worth of furniture, flooring, pipes, vents, all of it joined the flood of rock and dirt crashing through the gaping belly of the world.

Nightingale’s attempts to spirit herself free were frustrated by the more immediate need for breath.  She felt her hands grab at nothing, tasted precious air clogged by peat and dust and cement, tried to kick legs frozen in a tomb of earth rising fast to enclose the rest of her.  Consciousness and awareness slipped from clawing fingertips, stealing any lingering traces of hope with it.  Time itself hesitated, enough for a final, clear and saddening truth to take root in her mind.  She knew.

It was over.

She was beaten.

She could not even gather enough air for a scream.

Etienne watched the witch disappear beneath a tumbling sheet of black earth.

“Nightingale!”

* * *

It’s not over yet!  Stay tuned for Part 25 coming next week!

2015: A Year Off the Beaten Path

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

Here’s an excerpt:

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

Click here to see the complete report.

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

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

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

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

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

All the best.

Graham

Vintage, Part Twenty-Three

vintagetitle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The stake was Nightingale’s life.

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

That, he could kill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nightingale.

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Vintage, Part Twenty-Two

vintagetitle

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

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

He looked to the witch.

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

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

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

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

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

Invisible weight pressed down on their shoulders.

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

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

“Where are they, then?”

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

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

Hell had its own wine cellar.

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

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

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

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

Girard Noeme.

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

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

Traits Etienne knew he had once regarded with gushing admiration.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nightingale interrupted.  “Murder it, you mean.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noeme opened his watch.  “So it has.”

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

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

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

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

Nothing happened.

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

“I… I can’t move,” she whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Vintage, Part Twenty-One

vintagetitle

Ramping up towards what is hoped to be an exciting conclusion.  Rated PG-13 for a wee little bad word that is situationally appropriate.

Etienne had seen Valnier’s fists deployed, more often than he could remember across a copious collection of years, against a variety of hapless targets.  When Valnier cared to take advantage of the infrequent leisure hours afforded him, the corporal’s spare time was spent exclusively in the building of his strength; in particular, that of his hands, most often by slamming them against heavy leather satchels stuffed with rice, over and over again until the skin cracked and bled.  Etienne had no idea how long Valnier had been practicing this punishing regimen – he’d never thought to ask him – but their missions had benefited tremendously from the result.  Valnier could drop the toughest combatants with a single punch, or choke the truth from the most stubborn, defiant tongues.  And Etienne had usually watched these events with a lasting gratitude that it wasn’t him on the other end.

A sea of blood flooded his mouth as those granite knuckles connected with his jaw.  Etienne doubled over and sprayed red flecks onto white marble tile.  Shaking fingers clutching at a grip on the floor, he gulped at breath with the desperation of a beached fish.  Valnier circled to the side and planted his boot deep in Etienne’s stomach.  Etienne sprawled over onto his back.  The moans reverberating from the walls didn’t even register as his own, such was the disbelief ripping his brain at the betrayal of the man who had been arguably the closest thing Etienne had to a friend.

Chained and held at her arms by guards just a few feet away, Nightingale could do nothing but watch.  “Stop!” she cried unheeded.  Heavy silver manacles rattled as she shifted against the grip of the soldiers.  Valnier wrested Etienne up by a handful of hair and drew back for another blow.  His fists were painted in Etienne’s blood.

“That is perhaps enough for the moment, Valnier,” said Directeur Ste-Selin.  “We would prefer you not make too much of a mess.”  Valnier snorted and threw his former superior aside into a collapsed heap of bruised and broken flesh.

Etienne stared through a throbbing haze at the blurry ceiling, infinite aches even leaching into his thoughts.  Through the wall of pain he heard only faint sounds of Nightingale’s plaintive whimpers.

Valnier.  Of all the people.

“It surprises me,” Ste-Selin berated him with an air of tut-tutting derision, “that someone of your intelligence and experience would presume that we would send a compromised man unsupervised on a mission of such crucial importance without certain guarantees.  Your corporal has been invaluable in providing us regular updates.  His loyalty to the Bureau has never been in question.”

Etienne imagined flashes of Valnier being hurled into the woods by Nightingale’s power outside Montagnes-les-grands, saw him recovering quickly and racing back to watch the witch envelop his master in a veil of sparkling purple mist, bringing him under her spell.  Saw the corporal watching Etienne descend into an obsessive abyss of gambling and fighting, realizing that he was no longer the ruthless Commissionaire he had once been, reporting these concerns privately to the Directeurs.  And the Directeurs, rather than simply disappearing Etienne, seizing instead a gilded opportunity to use him to eliminate their most formidable foe.  When Valnier had freed him from the cell beneath the Splendide and teased him with the prospect of retribution for their shared disgrace, Etienne could not have known and never would have imagined the true nature of the mission.  He had congratulated himself for outsmarting and out-strategizing the ever-so-cunning Directeurs, when in fact the entire premise had been based on a lie.  Their promises of promotion had been empty inducements.  They had never intended him even to return.

And now he had delivered them Nightingale.

It was, to understate the matter, a monstrously inconvenient development.

“We have been fully briefed on your scheme against us,” said Kadier Duforteste.  “Your hooligan associates from St. Iliane are being rounded up as we speak.”  Etienne thought of the curses spewing from Le Taureau’s infuriated gullet.  Hopefully the big man gave them a decent fight first.

“It must be humiliating, to truly comprehend the depth of your failure,” warbled Theniard Preulx.  “This institution is eternal.  It shall not fall before the pathetic likes of you.”  

Etienne pulled himself to his hands and knees.  Attempts at words became angry coughs that shredded his throat.  “This institution is rotten to its core,” he spat out.  He pivoted to Valnier, though he could not bring himself to look in the corporal’s eyes yet.  “Ask them how they made that pretty sword hanging off your hip.”  To the Directeurs now.  “And you ask him who killed Serge Meservey’s men.”

The Directeurs responded with a collective trio of shrugs.  “Wars are won with sacrifice,” Ste-Selin said.  “Nightingale is the most powerful subject we have yet encountered.  With her in our custody, the course of the war will forever be turned in our favor.  The Bureau would gladly trade a thousand Serge Meserveys in exchange for a prize of her worth.”

Probably, Valnier would have been instructed to obey Etienne’s orders, no matter how bizarre and unpalatable he found them, until otherwise advised.  Keep up the illusion of the loyal soldier until it was no longer necessary.  He had likely convinced the others who had accompanied them and who had gone with Le Taureau’s group to maintain a similar ruse.

“So when do they cut you loose for someone they value more?” Etienne said to no one and everyone at the same time.  A turbulent silence invaded the room.

Valnier ended the brief lacuna by delivering another blast to the side of Etienne’s head.  “Shut your mouth!” he bellowed as Etienne crumpled again.  Rage boiled in Valnier’s voice, a geyser’s worth of suppressed emotions erupting at the surface, far too many to be contained in mere two-word bursts.  “You betrayed everything we fought so hard for,” Valnier said.  “For what?  Huh?  Answer me, you lying bastard!”  He closed Etienne’s neck between clawing fingers.  “I would have followed you anywhere.  Anywhere.  And you gave it up, just so you could fuck that unholy bitch.”  Spittle landed on Etienne’s purpling face, a souvenir of Valnier’s hatred.

How must it have been for Valnier, sitting silently and watching Etienne, the man whom he had given so much, and for whom he had labored without question, plan to rip their world apart, seemingly on nothing more than fanciful whims inspired by a woman?  Ruminating on his secret orders the entire while, waiting on the day and hour and minute when those orders would be carried out, nurturing a dying hope that Etienne might surprise him in the end and return to the side of friendship and light.

“Language, please, Corporal,” interrupted Ste-Selin.  “Even though we may be dealing with the undignified, we shall not lower ourselves to his level.  The Bureau keeps a higher standard.”  He waved Valnier off again.  Etienne coughed and sucked in precious breath.  “Directeur Duforteste, if you will, kindly read out the charges for the benefit of the transcription.”

Duforteste consulted a tan-colored piece of paper in front of him.  It was embossed with two parallel gold lines running the length of the left margin.  Cold recognition struck Etienne, and he hardly needed to hear what was written on it.  “Monsieur Etienne De Navarre, of the rank of Honorable Commissionaire of the Bureau Centrale, suspended, having committed a wanton act of treason against the persons and the property of the Bureau, including collaboration with the enemy and multiple counts of sabotage, incitement to sedition and murder, most notably the murder of Commissionaire Serge Meservey, is hereby sentenced, without possibility of reprieve or appeal, to death by execution.  Said punishment to be carried out immediately, in this place, effective this date.  Signed, Theniard Preulx, Michel Ste-Selin and Kadier Duforteste, Directeurs, Bureau Centrale.”

“No!” screamed Nightingale.

“Fear not,” said Ste-Selin.  “Once our re-educators have finished with you, you will beg us to let you join him.”  The Directeurs stood.  “The sentence has been pronounced.  Please do the honors, Captain Valnier.”

The newly-promoted Valnier – his inducement for turning on his friend – tore his sword from its scabbard, marched to the center of the room and forced Etienne to his knees.  He pulled Etienne’s head back by the scalp and lay the edge of the blade against the artery in Etienne’s neck.  Etienne swallowed, and cast his gaze across the room at Nightingale.  If she was to be the last thing he saw, then it was not such a bad way to end his misbegotten life.

“One thing I must ask, before we do this,” said Preulx.  “You were always such a keen observer.  How did you not observe the obvious goings-on under your own nose?”

“It must have been the failings of those who trained me,” Etienne said with a wry, casual flair, even as he strained his neck against Valnier’s sword.  “They missed the obvious as well.”

“And what is that?” demanded Ste-Selin.

Etienne nodded at Nightingale and smiled.  “Her chains are fake.”

Every eye in the room widened.  Each jaw began to drop.

Nightingale was swift to dispense with the flash of incredulity that had paralyzed the menfolk.  She summoned her magic and glanced down to see the telltale violet sparks erupting at the tips of her fingers.  Before the remainder of those widened eyes dared blink, she vaporized her metal bonds into white-hot shards in a tremendous explosion of light and blunt force that sent the two guards holding onto her arms careening over the clerks’ carrels.  At the sight of the freed witch, Valnier sneered and moved to slice into Etienne’s throat.  Nightingale threw forth her hand, sending an angry bolt of lightning screaming across the room to strike Valnier square in the face and hurl him into an unyielding wall.  The sword clattered on the floor tile.  Valnier’s body twitched, with lingering forks of spent purple energy crackling over it as it came to rest.  Etienne rubbed at his neck and let out a relieved breath.

And then the mayhem began.

Doors burst open on all sides.  Soldiers surged through them like waterfalls forced through a sieve, while bureaucrats and secretaries flailed to scramble their way out like insects fleeing the flood.   But Nightingale was magnificent, a master witch at the apex of her powers, sweeping away every single assailant, scarcely looking perturbed as she went.  Even armed with the dreaded magic-forged weapons, the pride of the Bureau Centrale suffered a rout.  It was exactly like the first time Etienne had seen her, but now he could admire rather than cower.  Watching her fight wreathed in the bands of violet light that flew from her fingers was to bear witness to a ballet, executed immaculately in the eye of a hurricane of bodies and debris.  Still more men came at her, and either a gentle wave of her hand cut them down, or a delicate twisting of her fingers smashed them in a collision of shattered limbs.  None could offer so much as a challenge to her, and their efforts regardless inspired only cringes of embarrassment.  Man could try to lie to himself to bolster his ego, but pitted against a liberated goddess, he would forever be found wanting.

The tide of soldiers trickled to a halt.  Nightingale and Etienne stood alone in the epicenter of the destruction, surrounded by the unconscious fallen, as a forest’s worth of dislodged papers tumbled from the air like falling leaves.  “Nicely done,” said Etienne.

Nightingale slapped him.

“Ow!” gasped Etienne.  He clutched at the swelling bruise left by Valnier’s fists.

“Oh!  Sorry,” said Nightingale with a sheepish grimace.  She held up her palm.  A soothing glow radiated over Etienne’s wounds, erasing them from his face.  He stretched out his jaw approvingly.  “Seriously, though?” she added.  “You couldn’t have told me that the chains weren’t real?”

Etienne shrugged.  “I needed a convincing performance.  Everyone needed to believe you were harmless, especially you.  Lest they notice and put the genuine article on you once we arrived.”

Nightingale rested her hands on her hips.  “Well then, what in the world were you waiting for?  Your blood to start spurting in the air before you thought to say something?  You know, there are some wounds magic can’t heal.”

Etienne wandered over to where Valnier’s body lay, under shattered wood panels and crumbled ceiling tile.  The corporal had taken the brunt of Nightingale’s attack, and even his painstakingly honed physique had not been able to endure the infusion of that much raw power.  Etienne bent down, swept away the fragments and looked at his old friend’s silent face one last time, letting himself think fleetingly of better days, of the many times Valnier had saved his life.  He could not return the hatred that Valnier had shown him in his final moments.  He felt only pity.  “All too true,” Etienne said.

“You never really trusted him,” said the witch.

Etienne stood.  “The world you and I want isn’t one he could live in.  Maybe it’s just as well.”  He unbuckled the scabbard from Valnier’s belt and slung it around his own waist.

Nightingale nodded to the far end of the room.  “And what about them?”

The three Directeurs were still conscious, and huddling among the broken remnants of their presiding table, pressing back against a rear wall which afforded them no further space to retreat.  They were like a trio of weepy schoolboys who’d been caught wetting their collective pants, and, judging by the rank odor wafting Etienne’s way, he surmised that at least one of them, old Preulx perhaps, already had.  Nightingale ignited swirls of purple energy in her palms and strutted towards them, and petrified gasps went out at her approach.  Etienne smirked as he wiped Valnier’s sword with the tail of his jacket.  “Don’t worry about them.  They’re not what we’re here for.  They’re actors.”

Nightingale raised an eyebrow.  “What?  You said the Directeurs were–”

“–the leadership, yes, I did,” Etienne finished.  “That’s what the Bureau wants everyone to believe.  I also told you that the Bureau uses subterfuge and misdirection to prevent the three of them being targeted at once.  But why make that public knowledge?  Why force the world’s attention on three specific individuals unless it is a calculated bluff to draw attention away from the true power behind the Bureau?  These men are just mouthpieces for the real leader, and not very good ones at that.  I mean, really, I’ve seen enough opera to recognize bad acting from a mile away.  And the scenery-chewing clichés bubbling out of these three are textbook Hackneyed Stage Villain Academy.”

“Then where is the real leader?” Nightingale asked.

“He is here,” Etienne said, “and at least one of them probably knows where.”  Etienne joined her and let his gaze simmer slowly over the frightened faces, commanding the moment, stretching out their torment.  He could not deny the certain degree of enjoyment in it.  “You,” he announced finally.  He grabbed Michel Ste-Selin by the lapels and dragged him away from the other two.  Preulx and Duforteste squirmed, grateful they hadn’t been chosen.  Nightingale stared them deeper into their corner.

Etienne had frequently stood in awe of Ste-Selin and been intimidated by the weight of his position and presence.  He had envied the man’s perceived achievements and craved them for himself.  Yet he had never been able to shake the nagging sense that Ste-Selin was speaking another man’s words.  Perhaps it was that heightened awareness that Nightingale had once told him belonged to men who were born to witches.  The coward revealed, trembling on the ground beneath him was no more than a tone-deaf singer without an orchestra, a second-rate performer without a script.

“All right, Monsieur le Directeur,” said Etienne, nudging the tip of Valnier’s sword at Ste-Selin’s throat, “one question.  Sub-level six.  How do I access it?”

“P-please,” whimpered the ersatz Directeur, “I d-don’t know anything about it!”

“You take your instruction from someone who takes great pains to keep himself out of the light.  I’m guessing it’s in the same place the Bureau is making its forbidden weapons.”  Etienne tilted his head toward Nightingale.  “You can either tell me, or let her rip the information out of your skull.”  Nightingale punctuated her glare at Ste-Selin by lining her irises with swirling purple light.  Etienne grinned.  “That’s good, I like that.  Scary.”  The witch smirked.

Ste-Selin slumped.  “The lift in the pillar of heaven,” he said.

“What’s the sequence?  Which levers do I pull?” demanded Etienne.  He pushed the sword tip a little further, creating a tiny cavity in the skin, just shy of breaking it.

“I can show you.  Just k-keep her away from me.”

“Having to breathe the same air as you is nauseating enough,” Nightingale said.

Etienne patted Ste-Selin’s cheek.  “Good boy.  Let’s go then.”

Sirens and bells began screeching at them from every angle, loud enough to feel like the noise was coming from inside their very heads.  Etienne and Nightingale spun as one to see Theniard Preulx slumped against the wall, his gnarled hand pressed against a hidden panel.  Etienne’s rejuvenated spirit sank as he recognized what was happening, and as the withered cretin giggled like a naughty child one-tenth his age.  “Catastrophic Emergency Protocol Rouge,” Preulx barked, finding a degree of menace to add even when faced with exposure and defeat.  “You can’t stop it.  You’re all going to die.”

Nightingale winced at the hammering peal of the alarm.  “Can we stop it?” she asked.

Etienne shook his head.  “Too late.  Once the signal is sent, the emergency beacons atop the building are lit.  There are sentries whose entire job is to watch for them every minute of every day, and wait to see if they go up.  The whole city will go under martial law immediately.  We have twenty minutes.  Maybe twenty-five at the most before the army gets here.”

“Oh good, I thought this was going to be hard.”

Unnoticed, Ste-Selin scrambled to his feet and ran for the door.  Etienne sighed and nodded to Nightingale.  The witch raised her arm and hurled another stream of lightning from her fingers.  It struck Ste-Selin in the shoulder and pitched him over onto his side.  He groaned at the sting of it as he writhed on the floor, but she hadn’t hit him hard enough to do any permanent damage.

Etienne hoisted him up and prodded him in the back with the sword.  “Come on.”

Behind them, Theniard Preulx had collapsed into breath-spare, mad laughter, pushed at last over the perilous edge of senility upon which he’d been teetering.  Maybe in this new madness he truly thought he was a Directeur now, not a puppet reciting dialogue.  The comparatively unassuming Kadier Duforteste was clutching his knees to his chest, rocking back and forth and weeping.  Perhaps, Etienne thought, he should have killed them both, even if their crimes had merely been the unthinking relaying of orders from the unseen master.  But executing a pair of snuffling, sobbing failed actors seemed tasteless, even if a wag might dub it a favor to the cause of theater.  Instead, Nightingale waved her hand and both men fell unconscious.  Their fate would be decided by someone else.

Etienne shoved Ste-Selin out into the hallway as the alarms continued to blare.  A peculiar scent wandered on the air at the edge of his perception, something foreign to the usual odors of varnished wood and writing ink, something sharp and chemical.  Adjacent the entrance to the stairwell at the opposite end, shouts and the scuffling of boots rose and faded away again.  More reinforcements, perhaps.  Etienne held out his arm to caution Nightingale to remain back.

She frowned at him and pointed at her chest.  “Um, witch, remember?”

Etienne smiled.  Nightingale stepped out ahead of him, her arms raised and her open hands filling with gathering charges of light, ready to strike.  Etienne kept his sword at Ste-Selin’s back, his arm on the Directeur’s shoulder.

The shouting erupted again, this time much closer.  Etienne and Nightingale both tensed.

A single soldier burst from the stairwell, weapon in hand.  He waited there.

The magic in Nightingale’s hands flared, but she did not release it.

The soldier raised his eyes to them.  His look was not one of threat or of steeled engagement, but bewilderment.  A staggering inability to understand the obvious truth of his situation.

His lower lip sank open.  A thick line of blood emptied out of it.

The soldier slumped facedown to the floor, and from the shadows emerged the very last person Etienne had expected he would ever see again, bellowing at the fresh corpse in his inimitable fashion, “Out of my way, tête de cul.”

“Le Taureau!” Etienne called out.  “What the hell are you doing–”

“Alive?” Le Taureau interrupted.  He kicked the dead soldier from his path and stomped over to join them.  “No thanks to those mercenary connards you stuck in my unit.”  His false army uniform was torn and stained with sweat and ash and blood, but none of the latter appeared to be his own.  And he still had the medal he’d liberated from the leader of the squad they’d ambushed back in the Bois Jongleurs.  Nightingale gave him a friendly embrace.  “We followed your plan to the letter,” he told them, gathering a shaken composure.  “Made it through all the security with the fake credentials, replaced the night shift and found the archives.  We got inside, we were preparing to torch it, and then suddenly your men were attacking mine.  You certainly have interesting taste in friends.”

“It was Valnier,” Etienne said, a note of regret touching the name.  Le Taureau was intelligent enough to detect the finality in Etienne’s voice.  “How many did you lose?”

“Seven,” said Le Taureau, “but they fell as men.  And they accomplished their mission.”

Etienne plucked the strange smell from the air again.  “The building is on fire?”  The reams upon reams of paper in the archives would be a potent fuel for the flames to spread unchecked from those three central floors.

“As instructed.  What about you?”

Etienne shared a glance with Nightingale.  “The Emergency Protocol was activated.”

“The Armée Royale,” Le Taureau mused.

Etienne nodded.  “All of it.  In less than twenty minutes.”

The big man eyed the humbled Michel Ste-Selin slouching next to them and exhaled a gale’s worth of resigned breath from cavernous lungs.  Le Taureau had known there would likely be no coming back from this battle, but that would never stop a man from hoping the opposite.  “Then you two had better hurry up and finish this before they get here.”

“You’ll hold them off for us?”

“As long as I can.”  Readying his bloodied sword, Le Taureau moved off toward the stairwell, then paused to look back.  “I’m not going to say goodbye again.  Just… don’t get killed.”

“Nor you,” said Etienne.

The corner of Le Taureau’s mouth curled into a grin.  “En aucune.  Putain.  Façon,” he boasted.  And off he went, eager to ram his blade through as many Bureau stomachs as dared obstruct his way.

“Nous ne verrons pas son pareil,” Etienne whispered to himself.  Then he turned and shoved Ste-Selin against the section of the hallway that concealed the secret lift.  “Open it.”

The Directeur reached up and pushed his thumb against a screw protruding from a candle sconce.  The panel next to it creaked and rolled open, revealing the empty, waiting lift chamber.  Etienne marched Ste-Selin inside and positioned him in front of the arrangement of levers.  Nightingale followed.

“Enter the sequence for sub-level six,” Etienne instructed.  “She’ll know if you’re lying.”

Ste-Selin complied, pulling at a permutation of levers as Nightingale watched.  A small bell chimed as the sequence completed.  “Thank you,” Etienne said.  Ste-Selin swallowed, obviously terrified of what was to become of him now that he was of no further use.  But again, Nightingale showed herself to be every bit as enlightened and merciful as her enemies were backward and brutal.  Without more than a moment’s consideration, she simply pressed a gentle finger to Ste-Selin’s forehead.  His eyes rolled back into his head and he collapsed into a slumbering heap.

Etienne shoved him back into the hallway as the doors began to close, shutting out the sound of the alarm bells as they sealed.  The chamber shook as it had before, and Etienne felt his stomach knot as it began to descend.  The candles illuminating the chamber flickered madly.  It was moving much faster this time.  “I’ve never seen any device like this before,” he said.  “I wonder where they found it.”

Nightingale drew her fingertips across the wall panels.  “This is not mechanics,” she said.  “There is magic here.  It’s…”  Her gaze lost focus and trailed off into a void.

“What is it?”

She frowned.  “It feels… familiar.”  The witch looked unsettled.  Worried, even.  Most unlike the Nightingale he’d come to know.

Etienne lay his palm against her cheek.  He stroked at loose strands of her hair.  “Whatever it is, I’m sure we can handle it.”  He leaned in and kissed her.  A gentle sip at first, deepening to a lasting savor as her mouth embraced his in return.  Nightingale pressed herself against him and slid her arms up his back.  It would be so easy to go now.  To ask her to whisk them away, to their island.  And yet, duty and honor demanded otherwise.  For while the Directeurs had been dealt with, and the burning archives were losing decades of vital, irreplaceable records, the most important element yet remained.  So long as those weapons existed, none of the world’s witches could walk without fear.  While the Bureau had certainly been dealt a blow, it was not yet fatal, and they could rebuild on their arsenal and continue to push witches toward extinction.  Etienne was content enough for a momentary reprieve, and another sumptuous taste of Nightingale’s amaranthine lips.  His love for her insisted that he keep going.

The lift must have passed the first five sub-levels already, yet it continued, and the rattling of the walls suggested it was speeding up.  Etienne and Nightingale held each other and waited, waited for the chamber to deliver them into the very mouth of the abyss.

The rattling stopped.  The floor settled.  The tiny bell sounded again, indicating at long last, arrival.

The doors opened onto a cold ocean of black.

* * *

Vintage, Part Twenty

vintagetitle

Here we go.  Part 20, published on the 20th.  Longish, but be sure you read to the end.

The great city of Calerre, draping its hilled contours in a caress about the horseshoe Baie des Lanciers, had been revered since its founding as a giver of good luck.  Seeking shelter from a continental plague of ice storms, the first settlers, discovering Calerre’s calm, pristine shores, ended their wandering with gushing thanks to their gods.  In those days the warm waters had teemed with a bounty of poisson and phoque and baleine, and the surface stirred constantly with the merry splashing of fins.  The settlers gorged themselves.  There were times when the entire bay bloomed a horrific, pungent red as the spears and nets flew.  Makeshift tents of dried whaleskin gave way to straw huts and eventually a smattering of permanent wooden houses, and if constructing them meant stripping the ancient forests to the dirt, well, the good spirits watching over Calerre were ever able to provide more, with new saplings bursting to life the succeeding spring.  As the land thawed and opened itself to travel, fables spread of an oasis by the sea where no one went hungry.  More people came to this hallowed place.

The waters of the depleted bay grew still, so the people moved outwards, venturing inland to seek timber and ores, and to the ocean to pursue the fleeing fish.  Out on the open they came across an expedition of strange vessels carrying men whose tongue they did not speak, yet who were eager to share a portion of their cargo in exchange for temporary anchorage and resupply for their long voyage.  These were the first foreign traders, and it became plain to the little village in the bay that they were situated – again, seemingly by good fortune alone – at the nexus of an emerging and fascinating world of commerce.  They pulled down more of the ancient forests to build quays and docks, and bigger ships inspired by those that now made regular voyages into their bay, so that they might share in the riches beckoning to them beyond a horizon that they had never dared cross.  And as those riches flowed back home, and the village grew into a thriving town with new and taller buildings of brick and mortar, it was not long before some of those other seafaring peoples decided they wanted more than merely their fair share of the fortune Calerre was willing to offer.  A hundred ships loaded with war-starved soldiers bore down upon the Baie des Lanciers, the tantalizing fruit on its shore seemingly ripe to be plucked.  But once again luck turned in Calerre’s favor.  The ancient ice storms roared back after two hundred years of slumber to smash the fleet to shards of wood and shredded sail only a few miles from landfall, and to freeze the men who fell from those ships into a merciless churning sea.

It could not be denied that something unusual was at work in this place, ensuring its prosperity and protecting it from harm.  Once the threats subsided and regular trade resumed it continued to grow, sprouting new and expanding enterprises in the novel field of business, and gradually becoming the first city, extending its influence west across the scattering of lesser villages and towns.  The promise of wealth was a powerful rallying cry as everyone desired a taste of Calerre’s luck, and it became a simple matter for this strongest and largest of the nascent alliance of scattered communities to bend the others to its dictates.  Economic success also brought with it the availability of leisure, with those no longer needing to toil from sunup past sundown in farm fields hungry for diversion in their increasingly spare hours, and an ensuing explosion in arts and culture, and naturally, gambling.  Theaters, opera houses, coffee houses and brothels and casinos – despite ineffective protests from those who fancied themselves guardians of morality – now loomed over the streets where centuries ago the first fishermen had hauled their boats from the water and set their catches out on racks made of branches wound with crude twine.  Calerre was the world’s jewel, the rich, sparkling capital of its nation and the seat of a mighty kingdom with influence reaching beyond every horizon one could cast one’s gaze towards.

In the thousand or so years separating the arrival of those nomads to the day just beginning to push rose fingertips into the waning black, the people who walked Calerre’s reaches never gave significant thought to where its good luck originated.  They accepted it unquestioned as divine favor, or perhaps, in rare moments of further speculation, chalked it up ultimately to happenstance.  An impartial, well-researched historian would draw obvious connections between improbable events like the continuing fertility of the land and the collapsed invasion to the enduring presence of magic, ranging from the early wise women and healers to the latter day witches who made Calerre their home, carefully concealed from the trenchant and omnipresent eyes of the Bureau Centrale.  But man is ever notorious for refusing to allow facts to impact what he chooses to believe.  Let them believe then that Calerre was simply lucky.  And let the single squadron of twenty soldiers who set out before the break of this dawn on a five-mile march to the headquarters of the Bureau Centrale to relieve their share of the night shift keep faith in Calerre’s luck, even as they found themselves ambushed in the darkness by another group of men, clad inexplicably in the uniforms of the very same division of the Armée Royale.  Let the hapless gapes of those soldiers suffer dizzying blows, and let dumbfounded brains collapse into unconsciousness thinking that everything befalling them was only, like so many things in Calerre, a matter of chance.

Chance or not, Etienne was impressed with how efficiently Le Taureau’s men, even with limited training over the last few days, had managed to surprise and dispose of the relief squad without permitting the escape of so much as a stray shout.  Etienne had selected the ideal location based on his knowledge of the troop movements:  a bottleneck passage through the Bois Jongleurs, an overgrown old parkland in the south quarter avoided for its reputation as a gathering place for vagabonds and cutthroats.  None of those undesirables would dare interfere with the army, and the army would not worry itself overmuch about the laughable possibility of an assault among the trees.  They would traipse through in bored ranks, sluggish minds scant minutes out of barracks beds paying little heed to shifting shadows at the corners of collective eyes.  Le Taureau’s men had brought down ten of them before the remaining half sensed anything amiss.  The confusion wrought by the incongruity of being attacked seemingly by their own assisted in conquering the balance of the squad, who were now being dragged off into the woods to be bound and stripped of their gear.  Etienne reminded himself to offer compliments to the weavers of St. Iliane for creating such effective imitations of Armée Royale uniforms from all the cloth Le Taureau had stolen.  Perhaps, when this escapade had concluded, he might request of them a few new suits.

“Vite, vite, you bâtards sales,” Le Taureau barked at his men as they swarmed like ravenous locusts over the prone bodies of the soldiers.  “Take weapons, not souvenirs.”  He made an exception for himself, tearing a small bronze medallion on a red and white striped ribbon from the lapel of the squad’s unconscious commander and pinning it to his craggy tor of a chest.

Seated atop one of only three horses they had brought this far, Etienne supervised the pillaging of the defeated squadron.  Corporal Valnier was mounted to his left, and a hooded, sullen Nightingale, chained at the hands and neck by the bonds she had sworn never to don, sat the horse to his right.  She was very much the picture of a humbled prisoner, exactly as the Bureau Centrale and the Directeurs would expect.  Despite his profuse apologies, she had still choked on tears as he had manacled her.

She had not spoken since they left St. Iliane.

Etienne rubbed a nervous thumb against the edge of the engraved gold timepiece that had managed to survive the bizarre course of events since that mission to Montagnes-les-grands a century or so ago.  Girard Noeme had given it to him the day he graduated Bureau training and received his rank, and it had kept perfect time ever since.  He flicked open the faceplate and confirmed the hour.  Amazingly, they were ahead of schedule.  Calerre’s priceless luck remained theirs, at least for the moment.  Etienne caught Le Taureau’s attention and waved him over.  “Two more minutes,” he said, “then you need to muster up and move out.”

They would separate here.  Le Taureau’s men, including the last survivors of Etienne’s original detachment, would infiltrate the Bureau building in the guise of replacement guard personnel and proceed to the archives, while Etienne, with Valnier at his side as always, would formally escort Nightingale before the three waiting Directeurs.  Etienne yawned, but nerves let him shrug off the claws of sleep trying to claim his spent mind.  He believed his plan sound, if terribly precarious:  a crucial chain of actions and events linked to one another by the flimsiest of hairs.  So much could go wrong, and even success might not mean successful escape, but they were all committed now, and the scrupulous schedule could brook not a minute’s unnecessary delay.

“I know the plan,” Le Taureau said.  He nodded over his shoulder.  “You should have let me kill a few of these squealing cochons.  If they should wake and warn the others–”

“Never dull your blade on unworthy necks,” Etienne said.  “Save the edge for the skin that matters.  And congratulations, by the way.”  He pointed at the medallion Le Taureau was sporting.

Le Taureau grinned.  “You like it?”

“It brings out the color in your cheeks.  Do you know what it is?  It’s the Prix royal de bravoure, honoring those who have distinguished themselves in service to the realm and the people.  Funny.”

“What’s that?”

Etienne extended his hand.  “I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more.”

For the first time, Le Taureau had no suitable curse to belittle him with.  He raised his arm and clasped Etienne’s forearm with the iron vises he called fingers.  Etienne tried not to wince.

Le Taureau’s eyes slid to Nightingale.  The big man was ruing, perhaps, the affections for her that would remain unrequited, a lingering love for his late wife drawn to another who reminded him so much of how she had once been.  Etienne thought he saw the welling of tears, and if Le Taureau had any last thing to say to the witch, he kept it to himself.  “If she comes to any harm…” he muttered, biting down on an uncharacteristic swell of vulnerability.

Etienne nodded.  “We’ll see you at the rendezvous,” he offered, in hope and promise.

Le Taureau looked up at Nightingale with a youth and vitality lifting his battle-hardened face.  “Au revoir, ma belle déesse,” he whispered.  Then he tore himself away and wheeled on the men who were gathering in ragged lines on the road.  It was obvious even to a layperson that they lacked the polish of military discipline – a glaring giveaway to anyone who might scrutinize them.  “All right, you miserable fouteurs de moutons, you are soldiers of the Armée Royale, and if you don’t act like it then so help me I’ll tear off every veuve et deux orphelines in this rotten unit, crush them into paste and make you eat it off moldy baguettes.  This is the single most important thing you’ll ever do in your pathetic, wasted existence.  Thousands of other, more valuable lives, are waiting on us.  But more than that, if you screw this up in any way, I’m going to get very, very mad.”  Le Taureau let the threat sink in before issuing his first formal command in his guise as sergeant.  “Compagnie, atten… tion!”

The men snapped alert with astonishing precision.

They held still as Le Taureau reviewed their ranks, clasping his hands behind his back and strutting in polished black leather boots like one of the appointed bureaucratic jackanapes he held in such blinding contempt.  Grinning satisfaction with their performance, he looked to Etienne.

Etienne smiled and raised his hand to his brow in salute.

“Compagnie,” Le Taureau bellowed, “by the left, march!”  And in orderly unison, off they went, the rhythmic, clamping sound of heels pounding packed earth fading from earshot as the climbing sun littered the first hints into the air of what would undoubtedly be another day of merciless heat.  Taking the reins of Nightingale’s horse, Etienne turned both their mounts in the opposite direction and spurred them to a steady trot.  Valnier fell in behind them.  From here, it was only about twenty minutes to the Chemin des Fougères and the Bureau headquarters.

Enough time to change my mind and run, Etienne thought, and dismissed the notion as quickly as it had come to him.  There would never be another or better time, and so deep cut his fury at the Bureau for stealing his life and twisting him into an enemy of his own blood, that the very idea of flight induced the acid in his stomach to leap up and gnaw at his throat.  Impossible task had become inescapable obligation.  And though he had told Nightingale, on the beach, that he wanted to do this for her alone, he could not deny the part of him that craved vengeance for himself, craved the vision of the Bureau building razed to cinders.  Hatred simmered where there had once been unquestioned devotion, and relentless determination borrowed the grit of old ramrod ideological adherence.  He would turn the inimitable zeal that had marked his time as Commissionaire toward the goal of ensuring that there would never be another like him.  Not in this country, anyway.

The trio exited the Bois Jongleurs onto the bordering Rue Loup Noir, which arced north for three miles and eventually crossed Chemin des Fougères.  Simmering heat was already beginning to burn off the thin layer of early morning fog.  Etienne was surprised at the quiet of the great city as it clambered up from the night’s slumber and the people of Calerre rose to be about their daily affairs.  The boulangerie owners would have been awake since midnight baking their inventory, the fishermen would have converged on the docks before the dawn tides, and the constabulary and the sweeps never left the streets completely unattended, so there was no lack of activity along their cobbled route, but the lively hum of conversation that made these neighborhoods vibrate with color and character was missing.  Some great cosmic trowel had scraped it away, leaving behind silence and a city that felt more alien than home.  Etienne could draw no dialogue from his two companions to fill the wanting space.  Valnier simply never talked, and Nightingale was in no mood for light badinage.  For that, he could not fault her, even if it meant that each second of the journey ticked by in a lugubrious dirge, counted off by the ticking hands of his precious pocket watch.

They turned east onto Chemin des Fougères as the sun broke above the trees and flooded the empty street with a wash of warm gold.  Etienne tightened his rein to stop his horse.  He closed his eyes, listened to his breath and let the light melt into his skin, as though he was trying to absorb as much of it as he could before venturing inside a place where there was no light.  It loomed directly ahead, that hideous, corpse-gray monolith stretching up into the sky, intimidating the sun into hiding behind it.  The ruthless sentinel crushing the people beneath hundreds of tons of concrete in the guise of guarding them, devouring life in exchange for a madman’s mockery of liberty.  This was where it had begun for him twelve years ago, and today it was where it would end.  All of it.

Pas de pitié, pour vous doit avoir aucun.

Nightingale noticed he had lagged behind, and she offered him an expectant stare that had a not insignificant trace of worry laced within it.  Etienne shook the reins and caught up to them.  He tried to camouflage his own anxiety by smiling at her, but they both understood what was at stake, and they were both too intelligent to be reassured by empty platitudes.  Instead they let their shared history speak what could not be forced into words, and as the distance between them and the Bureau headquarters building shrank, so too did the space between their horses.  Etienne glanced at her hands, the wrists chained in gleaming silver, her long fingers curled inward to stop them trembling.  He longed to reach for them with his own, but he dared not, for the Bureau’s range of vision certainly did not begin and end at its official walls.  From here onward, the performers had to become their roles, and his was that of a triumphant hero in proud return, no matter how far he might feel from that.

The welcome awaiting this supposed conqueror in the courtyard of the Bureau Centrale consisted of more soldiers than Etienne had ever seen.  Like a parade of black-uniformed termites they infested the edges of the eighteen daunting plain gray steps and the enormous front doors.  Clearly the Directeurs considered this a momentous day – the capture and delivery, at last, of their most notorious enemy.  Seeing the arrival of Etienne’s little group, a handful of the guards broke formation to descend to street level to greet them, though it was not to be with back slaps and hearty handshakes.  All moisture vanished from Etienne’s mouth.  He dismounted quickly and nodded to Valnier to help Nightingale from her saddle.  The soldiers darted in behind them to take charge of the horses.  Etienne drew a deep breath and affected a confident stride.  This was supposed to be his victory, after all.  Clutching their prisoner firmly by the arm, Valnier followed.  The line of sentries watched them with faces as lacking in expression as statues sculpted by an amateur.

Etienne found himself thinking of the notorious aria in La Sirena Ridere.  It was a haunting, terribly beautiful piece of music, and when it was performed successfully, only the hard-hearted did not burst with pent-up emotion as its final, lingering note spun into the rafters.  The inaccessibility of its language was no barrier to the impact of its poetry.  A curious Etienne had once sourced a crude translation, and though it could not replicate the idioms or embedded cultural references from the original, the verses were still poignant.  He and Valnier brought Nightingale up the steps and through the main doors, and as he watched her and thought about what was to come, the words drifted across his mind, scored by bittersweet minor chords.

“From beneath the edge of the world I cried to you,

From under the waters I sang my song.

I looked for you before I knew you were there.

My heart dreamed you into being to fill its hollow.

Let my blood rush now with passions unchained,

Let me take you into my soul.

Let us laugh and let us weep, let us devour the day,

Let our nights be filled with limitless fire.

If you are only a dream, I wish that I might never wake.

If you are real, and you cannot hear my song,

Then I will wish that I will never know you.

I will dream that my heart might remain empty,

Because filling it with you will make it break.”

“Honorable Commissionaire De Navarre,” announced an oily, obsequious functionary with cheer as false as his hairpiece once they had stepped into the sterile air of the lobby.  It still smelled of paper and ink, though now there was a perplexing, palpable sweetness hiding in the staleness, the faintest scent of autumn fruit.  “It is a pleasure to welcome you home.  You had a safe journey, I trust?”  Etienne had never seen this oafish character before; surely he was one of those interminable ranks of officials with impressive-sounding but meaningless titles like Superviseur exécutif adjoint de l’administration.  The Bureau was full of them, and this particular martinet had been designated the official reception.

“Safe enough,” Etienne said, borrowing the two-word routine from his corporal.

“You are expected in salle 1401,” the superviseur – if that was his actual job, though one supposed it did not really matter – went on.  “In the meantime we would be happy to accept formal custody of your subject.”  He gestured to the pair of guards flanking him, who converged on Nightingale.  Her entire body tightened at their brusque approach.

Etienne frowned and raised a cautionary hand.  “She stays with me.  I want to present her myself.”  Valnier firmed his grip on Nightingale’s arm and shot the guards a glare promising a severe maiming should they draw one inch closer.

The superviseur eyed the bonds on Nightingale’s wrists and neck.  Thus shackled, she was harmless.  “As you wish.  May I escort you, then?  The Directeurs are anxious to greet you.”

“In 1401?” asked Etienne.  “We have had a long journey.  I don’t particularly feel like traipsing up fourteen flights.”

The man cleared his throat, more as a gesture of condescension than any particular discomfort he needed to dislodge.  “Not quite, monsieur.  This way, s’il vous plait.”

Syncopated heels clapped on granite as the superviseur led them through the austere, cavernous lobby, which was framed at each corner by a gigantic fluted stone column stretching up and through the high vaulted ceiling.  The “pillars of heaven,” some Bureau folk were inclined to joke, out of earshot of their superiors of course.  The walls in between were empty, as artwork was considered anathema to the purpose of the organization.  They appeared to indeed be headed for the grand staircase at the far end, but as they neared the bottom step, the superviseur wheeled left and guided them to the backside of the pillar at the southeast corner.  There was a small rectangular section at shoulder height, about the size of a hand, that was slightly discolored from the rest of the stone and would have been unnoticeable otherwise.  The superviseur pushed on it.  A vertical line appeared in the pillar from the floor to just over their heads, and a concealed panel cracked open and slid back, revealing a round, hidden chamber within – large enough to hold at least a dozen men.  “Monsieur,” the superviseur said, bidding Etienne and company enter.

Etienne craned his neck forward to peer inside.  The chamber, which appeared to have no other exit, was paneled in lacquered mahogany and lined with polished brass.  The floor was beige and black marble and was etched in its center with the Bureau insignia.  “What is this?” he asked.

“As you are no doubt aware, monsieur, one of the Directeurs is quite elderly.  This was constructed to assist in his travel between floors.”

“Interesting,” Etienne said.  Troubling was what he really meant.  His so-called encyclopedic knowledge of the facility did not include this feature, but then, he hadn’t known the Bureau was making magical weapons on a hidden sixth sub-level either.  He felt for his watch in his breast pocket again.  Le Taureau and the others should have arrived and relieved the nighttime guard shift by now, but should have was not definitive enough for his liking.  He didn’t enjoy having to trust that part of the plan to someone else.  Unfortunately there was no way to confirm it.

Etienne motioned to Valnier to bring Nightingale into the chamber.  The official escort followed, along with a pair of guards, since this was the Bureau Centrale and there was no trust without verification.  To the right of the door were a series of five levers, and the superviseur pulled on them in a specific sequence that Etienne made sure to commit to memory.  The door slid closed, the chamber shook, and a heavy feeling in his neck and shoulders confirmed that they were beginning to rise at some speed, up through the pillar of heaven, though the destination was quite the opposite.

Feigning nonchalance, Etienne edged closer to Nightingale as the chamber continued to shake, helping to hide the trembling in their respective limbs.  He wished there was a way to let her know that he was as frightened as she.  He had always believed that his ability to connect with his own emotions and those of others made him a better Commissionaire, yet he had always envied Valnier’s complete inability to be affected by any emotion whatsoever.  Even now, the corporal looked bored and indifferent.  Etienne supposed it was a fair trade.  Suppressing one’s feelings made it easier to cope with life, but without them, what was the point to life?  He could have refused to be swayed by Nightingale’s magic, and even by what he had realized was his genuine love for her, but would that have been worth sacrificing the experience and the memory of what they had shared, and what he still felt for her?  The undiscovered taste of a thousand wines he would never get to try, for the taste of her kisses instead.  The unsampled delights of a thousand anonymous beautiful women, for the fleeting affections of a goddess.  Like the city, he was lucky.  Lucky to have been able to make the choice, and know that it remained the right one, whatever came of it once the doors to this elevating chamber opened again.

An uncomfortably familiar sight, 1401 waited behind a sealed portal of carved mahogany, this time without the sharp scent of roasted café wafting out from within.  The superviseur and his pair of drones handed them off to the sentries standing on either side and remained behind in the hallway.  Old wood wheezed as the latch was withdrawn and the entrance flung open.  Etienne gestured to Valnier to let go of Nightingale’s arm so he could take it himself.  He heard Nightingale draw a sharp breath.  His own breath was long and deep.  And inside they walked, together.

Allons-y, encore.

“Well, well,” announced the sanctimonious accent of Directeur Michel Ste-Selin.  “Some of us doubted you possessed the resolve and the resource to accomplish this challenging mission, Monsieur De Navarre.  Yet here you are.”

Here they were indeed.  As Etienne had hoped, somewhat against hope if he was being honest, the three Directeurs sat together at their presiding table of varnished oak, finally unable to let their zeal at witnessing the capture of the infamous witch be tempered by something as inconsequential as the Bureau’s constitution.  Ste-Selin was in the middle, with Kadier Duforteste on the right shaking his head in surprise, and on the left ancient Theniard Preulx, looking a few days short of a thousand, his fading flesh energized by the gleaming sight of the elusive prize.  The podium in the center of the sunken floor before them had been removed, but the carrels around the sides of the room were fully staffed by the requisite clerks and secretaries.  Clearly this was a triumph to be recorded.  But four plainly armed guards flanked the Directeurs’ table, so at the same time it was not a triumph to be savored lightly.

“I am happy to disappoint you, Monsieur le Directeur,” Etienne said.

“Welcome to the Bureau Central Royale pour l’Enregistrement et la Réglementation des Questions Surnaturelles, Mademoiselle Nightingale,” said Ste-Selin.  “Bureau Centrale, if you will.  We have been looking forward to meeting you for some time.”

Nightingale said nothing.

“If my colleagues will grant me leave, I would like to examine the subject,” said Theniard Preulx.  At the nods of the others, he rose weakly from his chair, clutched at a pearl-handled white ash cane from where it had been leaning concealed behind the table, and lurched down a small flight of steps to the sunken floor.  There was no sound but for the tapping of the pointed ash stick on the tile and the incessant rapid scribbling of the clerks, apparently needing to describe each trivial action in exacting detail.  His withered spine unable to straighten, Preulx hobbled before Nightingale and eyed her from boots to brow, his sagging, wrinkled face twisted by a lascivious leer.  A gnarled, yellowed finger stabbed at her cheek, and Nightingale recoiled.  “Yes, yes,” the old man wheezed, “she is quite a ravishing beauty, isn’t she.”  His voice descended an octave, deep into the grave, and he spat his undying scorn at her with each syllable.  “You belong to the Bureau now, my dear sorceress.  All your mighty powers are for nothing.  I am looking forward to seeing you re-educated, personally.”  The tooth-spare mouth split into a horrifying grin, and he cackled to himself as he turned to resume his seat.  Nightingale looked as though she was choking back vomit.  Etienne knew that the feeble carnal musings of a filthy old man were the very least of the Bureau’s threats.

He stepped forward.  “I’ve done what you asked,” he said.  “I’ve delivered her to you.  Now, about what I was promised…”

The Directeurs leaned in to confer quietly with one another.  The clerks kept writing.  Etienne swallowed hard.  He could not pinpoint precisely what, but suddenly, something felt very, very wrong.

“Yes, of course,” said Ste-Selin.  “We do have an appropriate recompense arranged.”  He nodded to someone behind Etienne.

But there was no one behind Etienne.

Except–

No.

Corporal Valnier smashed him in the back of the head with the butt of his sword hilt.

Etienne heard Nightingale shriek as he crumpled to the ground.  The world spun, and he gasped at breath and rubbed where the blow had landed, his fingers coming away wet and sticky with blood.  He felt something cold and sharp under his chin.  Valnier’s blade.  Etienne sat back, slowly, and through a dizzy blur looked up into the face of the man who had accompanied him on every mission, followed every order, and remained unquestioningly loyal for five long years.  “Why…” was all he could force out.

For the first time since he’d known him, Valnier had more than two words for the moment, delivered with as much raw bile as anything from the mouth of a Directeur.  “You’re a traitor, monsieur.”

Funny thing about luck… even in Calerre, it always eventually ran out.

***