Tag Archives: wine

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…

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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 Sixteen

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

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

If only he had something more hopeful to tell them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Easy,” Le Taureau muttered with a scoff.

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

Nightingale nodded.  “I will see to that.”

“And the leadership?” Le Taureau asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You changed me, Nightingale,” Etienne said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He knew nothing.

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

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

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

Was it what he wanted for himself?

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

“Monsieur?”

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

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

One final gift from Nightingale.

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

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

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

“What’s that?” asked Valnier.

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

With or without her…

* * *

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

Vintage, Part Fifteen

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

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

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

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

“LE TAUREAU!!!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The great bull, a mouse to her lioness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Everyone else… out,” Le Taureau barked.

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

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

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

* * *

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

Vintage, Part Thirteen

vintagetitle

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

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

He was home.

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

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

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

“Good morning,” Nightingale said.

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

“What makes you believe it isn’t?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then take it from me,” he said.

The room turned black.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man remained unimpressed.  “Such as?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Etienne knew what was being asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into the bedchamber of his dying father.

* * *

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

Vintage, Part Five

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

“Encore une autre, monsieur?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Etienne had not argued the decision.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Augmenter complet,” he said.

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

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

Mermaid of moons.

“Flotte,” announced the croupier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valnier shook his head.  “The Bureau.”

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

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

“What kind of assignment?” asked Etienne.

Valnier took a step forward.  “Retribution.”

*  *  *

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

Vintage, Part Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Salut, mademoiselle minette,” Etienne said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I would never–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The corporal shrugged and spat.  “Doubt it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quelqu’un nous sauver…

*  *  *

To be continued… right here!

Vintage, Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C’est vrai.

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

“M-monsieur–”

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

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

“Monsieur le Commissionaire, I truly must protest–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir.”

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

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

*  *  *

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

Vintage, Part One

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

Allons-y encore.

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

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

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

Plus de joueurs?

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

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

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

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

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

Deux joueurs.

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

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

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

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

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

“I shall have the kitchens prepare immediately–”

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

“If it would please Monsieur le Commissionaire–”

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

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

Les jeux sont faits.

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

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

Two hours, to find and catch a witch.

*  *  *

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

The elephant test for wine

Photo from thelivingwine.com.

“I know it when I see it,” goes the famous quote from American Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart.  Stewart was talking about what does and does not constitute pornography, but the statement can go broader than that:  it can be applied to anything that comes down to a matter of individual preference.  I have always enjoyed a good glass of wine, but like many I’ve found the world of the oenophile somewhat daunting, with its stereotypical images of aesthetes with noses held high waxing pedantically about the subtleties of bouquets, the suitability of pairings, the ideal shape and weight of glass and why the ’59 is better than the ’61.  Wine culture seems by its very nature to be impenetrable, a secret club replete with its own terminology and secret handshakes.  As the steward pours out the sample and tells you to be mindful of the scents of currant and chocolate dancing across your palate with each sip, one can feel a spectacular sense of intimidation, or at least the longing to be trained as a sommelier (and possess a doctoral fluency in French) in order to appreciate wine the way it seems you are supposed to.  But good wine is like a good book, a great movie or a beautiful woman – you know it when you see it.

This past Easter weekend, my better half and I decamped to a brief tour of Niagara’s wineries.  It’s not something we do regularly, which seems a shame given that it isn’t a long drive away.  We have never pretended to be experts in vintages; in fact, the stuff we love to drink would probably be frowned upon by more seasoned wine patrons.  Our cellar, if you can call a wine rack in an unfinished basement that, is a mishmash of gifts from friends and relations and odd bottles picked up randomly throughout our worldly escapades, along with a few regular favourites.  We’d fumble for an adequate response if asked to speculate about tannins, oaking and aging, or the intricacies of merlots versus cabernet sauvignons and pinot noirs.  But we don’t care.  There are few things we love more than a good bottle of South African shiraz with dinner.  The smoothness of an adored wine heightens the elegance of a great meal, softens the mood and loosens the tongue from the awkward requirements of casual conversation about the weather and the plight of the Leafs, revealing a path into deeper, more meaningful interaction and connection.  That’s my attempt at a literary explanation.  More simply than that, it tastes frickin’ amazing – and it makes your food taste better too.

There is a growing resentment against what one would consider the finer things in life, and wine is often singled out, along with lattes, as a singular example of what separates societal castes – a distinction I’ve never bought into and have railed against in the past, as it seems largely invented by those aspiring to elected office.  Wine is not, nor should it ever be, the sole province of an elite few.  I can find no good reason why a guy who loves his Miller Lite and his double-double can’t appreciate a chardonnay as well.  Nothing prevents him from walking into a winery and trying a few different vintages (it’s usually free to do that).  Forget having to justify your taste with polysyllabic terminology and recitation of arcane lore – the question is just, as it is with anything, do you like it?  No?  Okay, try another one.  The possibility of discovery is tantalizing – you may uncover a true treasure, as we did over the weekend, a rare (for our region at least) 2008 ice wine shiraz that trickles over the tongue like rich nectar.  I don’t think that being able to appreciate that makes anyone a snob, nor should not knowing the history of the soil that grew the grapes or the entirety of Proust’s back catalogue prevent someone from trying it.  Wine, like culture, is there to be enjoyed by all, and the only barriers to that world are those we erect for ourselves.  You don’t need to know everything about wine to love it – to paraphrase Potter Stewart, you’ll know it when you taste it.

UPDATE:  One of my Twitter connections advises me that the glasses in the above photo are in fact champagne flutes.  Any port – pardon the pun – in a storm.