Tag Archives: witches

Vintage, Part Fifteen

vintagetitle

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.

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Vintage, Part Fourteen

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

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

That’s the room where my father died.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But why?” asked Etienne.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just like him.  Just as he would have done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nightingale said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She never… I didn’t…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Au revoir à vous deux.

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

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

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

“Why is that?”

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

*  *  *

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

Vintage, Part Thirteen

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 Twelve

vintagetitle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No response.

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

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

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

“Bonjour, monsieur,” said Corporal Valnier.

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Including you.”

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

“You’re insane,” Etienne said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My beautiful Nightingale, he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is not my choice to make, Etienne.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Vintage, Part Eleven

vintagetitle

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

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

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

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

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

For you, my Nightingale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then tell me what I’m supposed to do.

What it is within you to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then why aren’t you here?

Because this is not my choice to make.

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

This is not my choice to make, Etienne.

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

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

“Your occupation?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Heard you were dismissed,” said Meservey.

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

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

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

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

Do you really want to go back, Etienne?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You don’t seem concerned.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What makes you say that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have something?” Meservey asked.

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Vintage, Part Ten

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No intro this time.  You’ve waited long enough.  Just on with the story.

The old joke was that Charmanoix was the only town in the entire country where you could get seasick in your own bed.  It had been constructed entirely on an uncountable array of wooden pillars to span the mouth of the lethargic Sept Frères River, as the miles of marshland on its banks had a tendency to swallow buildings whole.  It was, in fact, a rather remarkable feat of engineering, comprising an intricate mazework of canals and bridges connecting a thriving community of over three thousand across a quarter-mile span.  The locals had learned to tolerate the swaying of their homes and shops when the river awoke and tickled the aging pillars, but visitors would still find themselves scrambling for the nearest lavatory, or, failing that, a convenient railing over which they could discharge the contents of an upended stomach.

After two full days of hard riding, Etienne and the rump of his detachment trotted into Charmanoix by the only viable road through the marsh, just after sunset.  Determined to call as little attention to themselves as possible, Etienne led them to a small inn and bartered a pair of rooms in exchange for a livre and a sample of their dwindling supplies.  He was grateful for the meager comfort of a dry straw bed and hard pillow behind a locked door after too many consecutive nights left at the mercy of the elements, but he did not sleep.  Instead he relived his encounter with Nightingale over and over again, running the words in his head like an actor learning his lines.  In a way, the comparison was apt, in that he found himself cast for the first time into a role he did not instinctively know how to perform:  friend of the enemy.

As he stared at the ceiling and tried to ignore the rumbling from Valnier’s bed across the way – even the man’s snoring was limited to two harrumphs at a time – Etienne thought on the choice Nightingale had offered him.  Yes, he had done as she had asked and come to Charmanoix, but he had not yet fully committed to her and to her cause.  He had not done anything to compromise or sabotage his longtime employers.  He still had the option to walk away, and a small lingering part of him apparently immune to seduction was prodding at the rest to remain true to what he knew and what he valued.  The larger, more persuasive part was recalling his admittedly syrupy confession to her back there at the frozen lake and still finding it impossible to regret a single word.  He could not deny that what he felt for her was deeper and more intense than anything any other woman had managed to stir in him, including those with whom he had carried on extended physical relationships.  He had always been able to keep his heart closed, but Nightingale had batted those defenses aside with the flick of a magic-wreathed finger.  As nonsensical as that would have sounded to anyone on the outside of it, to him it was agonizing truth.  The fact that he had not carried out any deeds that might officially be deemed traitorous was irrelevant – the betrayal that mattered had already occurred.  The former Commissionaire remained, irrevocably, in love with a witch; with Nightingale.

How he longed to know her real name, and to hear her whisper his again.

Etienne rolled onto his side, his eyelids increasingly untouched by even inklings of slumber.  You owe those vile men nothing, she had said.  That had been hard to reconcile, even with the revelation of the Bureau’s use of magic in the construction of their weapons.  He understood the need to be able to battle one’s opponent on an equal or superior footing, but what did it say about the Bureau’s endless pronouncements on the mortal dangers of magic and the urgency to stamp it out?  Was it a case of do as we say, not as we do?  The rank stench of duplicity and hypocrisy churned the acid in Etienne’s gut.

His father had not been long in Etienne’s life, but Reynand de Navarre had been a staunch believer in remaining truthful to one’s ideals and morals no matter how challenging the circumstance.  He had also hated the Bureau with robust vitriol, so it was probably for the best that he had died of excessive drink long before he would see his son walk up those horrible steps for the first time.  In the void left by his father’s death, Etienne had craved clarity of purpose, and the Bureau had offered it to him.  For many years the arrangement had been mutually beneficial.  The problem, Etienne reasoned, was that he, like so many of his countrymen, had devoured and regurgitated on command the bromide that the Bureau was infallible, that it knew best, that its cause was just, no matter how many lives, innocent or guilty, that cause claimed.  But if the cause could not be followed to its end without betraying its founding principles, how could it be just?  How could one defend it?

You have much to atone for, Etienne…

Fingers of light pried apart the cracks in the walls, and Etienne realized that the night had gone and he had not once closed his eyes.  He had not had a proper rest ever since meeting Nightingale on the road outside Montagnes-les-grands.  Love, it seemed, made no allowances for sleep, nor did crises of conscience.  He sighed, stretched the stiffness from his arms, threw off his blankets and swung his feet to the floor, taking care not to generate any noises that might alert the fairly comatose yet annoyingly vigilant Corporal Valnier.  Etienne donned his clothes in silence, laced his boots and turned the latch in the door, always watching the corporal for any sign that he’d noticed him.  Seeing none, Etienne stepped out through the halls of the inn onto one of a thousand ponts in Charmanoix and waited for the sun to offer a proper greeting to the day.

Sticky heat spread its tentacles through the air as the merciless yellow menace hauled itself into the sky, and the salt-and-seaweed-flavored breezes rising from the river were no balm.  Sweat had become a most tedious companion as the drought lingered on, month after punishing month.  Etienne grimaced as he felt the first beads of the day pooling on his brow.  Head low, he ambled without direction, ducking around buildings and crossing bridges, listening to the rhythms of the locals.  Eventually, he found a quiet bridge and a railing on which he could lean and stare out into the world to watch it wake up.  Beneath him, a navy’s worth of longboats, barges and canoes bulging with wares and fellow wanderers navigated the canals, stopping at creaking jetties to heave out their passengers and cargo.  Children splashed in the shallows and old women with gnarled hands wringed out their laundry, and hollered at the children getting their clothes all wet.  Gulls circled overhead screaming out their hunger.  Men argued, ladies gossiped and everyone carried on with a perfectly ordinary little day, no different than the thousands that had preceded it and the thousands more that would follow after this one had been lost amidst more interesting memories.

The ordinariness of life was what Etienne had joined the Bureau Centrale to help protect.  The freedom to wash one’s clothes in the river or to sail a little boat along it on a sunny morning without fear of the dark powers of the witches tearing everything asunder.  As he cast his gaze along the canal at the scores of strangers crowding its edge, he paid particular attention to the women:  the elderly, the young, the comely, the plain, and he knew, instinctively, that at least a few, if not more of them down there, would have an unusual ability.  Perhaps that one lingering quietly behind the chatty fishmonger knew what others around her were thinking.  Perhaps the moods of the girl chasing her brother past the cloth vendors could disturb the weather.  Perhaps the woman sweeping off the doorstep of the tea house could see flashes of the future, or perhaps she was unusually lucky in gambling and in love.  Perhaps, to a certain degree, they were all witches.

It was an unspoken admission among the higher echelons of the Bureau that magic was far more widespread than they would care to admit to the general public, though it was not always as potent and theatrical as a radical exception like Nightingale made it seem.  Consequently, even with its unlimited financing from the Crown, the Bureau could not hope to capture every single woman out there who exhibited some minor sign of supernatural awareness.  Instead, efforts and attention had to focus on the “subjects” whose abilities presented the greatest and most immediate dangers, and it was left to fear to intimidate the remainder into denying their powers and remaining good, docile citizens, lest they be the next to be taken away.  What the Bureau Centrale dreaded the most, what would render it toothless, was the idea of magic becoming accepted, and ordinary.

A most un-ordinary ruckus clattered over the boards to his right as a passing girl stumbled on a twisted plank and spilled her enormous, overloaded basket of vegetables.  “Oh no!” she cried, struggling to race after the carrots and turnips rolling away from her.  Etienne turned and planted his foot in the path of a turnip as it tumbled toward the edge of the bridge.  Twisting and stomping about in what from a distance probably resembled a drunkard’s imitation of a provincial folk dance, he blocked vegetable after vegetable until the entire collection had come to a halt.  He bent to scoop up the escapees and return them to their warden, who was kneeling and loading them slowly back into her basket, trying to quell flustered cheeks.  “Thank you,” she whispered.

“Not at all,” said Etienne.  “Are you all right?”

She shrugged.  “I suppose.  Serves me right for trying to do it all in one trip.”  She was young and flaxen-haired, with not a line to be found in her pleasant, perfectly oval face.  Her hands were tiny, scarcely able to stretch the fingers around some of the larger turnips, and she was so slight of build Etienne was amazed she had been able to lift her burden.

“Might I be of some help?” he asked.  It was not as though he had any pressing plans.  Nightingale had told him that Commissionaire Meservey would be arriving tomorrow, so he had all today to wander wherever the winds saw fit to carry him.

“Oh no, it’s all right, I couldn’t, I–”

“It’s no inconvenience, I assure you,” Etienne said.  He did not wait for permission to place the last of the carrots back in the basket and hoist it under his arm.

The girl smiled as she stood and shook out the folds in her long skirts.  “Well, thank you very much,” she said, and offered him a brief, country curtsy.  “I’m Adelyra.”

He debated giving her a false name, but thought better of it.  “Etienne.”

“Very nice to meet you.  It’s not far, just beyond the Pont d’Eglise.”  A blank expression betrayed his unfamiliarity with the town’s byways.  “I didn’t think I recognized you,” Adelyra said with a smile.  “You’re visiting?”

“Just passing through.”

“How’s your stomach?”

“Better than your balance, I think.”

She laughed.  “Oh, you’re cheeky!”

“I’ve been called worse,” he admitted.  “Shall we?”

Carrying her basket of vegetables, Etienne fell in behind Adelyra and kept to her brisk pace across bridges and walkways and up and down stairs, a course he struggled to keep track of, knowing he’d eventually have to find his way back to the inn.  Their conversation was innocuous and irrelevant, characterized by the usual banter about the weather with a few tips from the cheerful girl on scenic spots throughout Charmanoix he should take the time to visit before moving on – apparently the sunsets on the Pont des Amants were the stuff of poetry.  He smirked at that, allowing himself to fantasize about experiencing such a setting with Nightingale at his side.  Though Adelyra’s verbosity grew a bit wearying, Etienne did appreciate the opportunity to converse with a stranger without preconceptions about the arrival of a Commissionaire tainting the exchange.  It felt human.

The Pont d’Eglise, which they reached after a good fifteen minutes’ walk, delivered them as its name suggested to a great church of carved stone walls and sculpted plaster finishes scraping at the sky.  Morning services were underway, and from behind closed and rather unwelcoming lacquered wooden doors drifted the choral monotone of a congregation united in prayers.  Etienne and Adelyra marched onward, the girl finally suspending her stream of chatter, out of deference, perhaps.  Past the church, buildings grew smaller and modest until they reached a decrepit row of stacked tenements – home, no doubt, to the poorest families of Charmanoix.

Stains and peeling paint marred sagging and crumbling walls.  Windows were boarded up or smashed, and the persistent salt scent of the river was overcome by a general whiff of decay.  An outside staircase pitted with rot connected the first level to the top, and Adelyra gestured to Etienne to follow her up.  For the majority of his life, Etienne’s experience of poverty had been confined to mere glimpses, from the lofty perch of one secure enough to know he would never be touched by it himself.  His visits to slum towns had always been blissfully temporary, with Calerre’s welcoming gilded edges never more than a few days’ ride back.  He knew, at least in theory, that places like what he was stepping into had to exist, though the idea of him ever setting foot in one had always been risible.  As Adelyra opened the door for him, he was struck in the face with a most distressing fusion of cold, of hopelessness, and of death.  It coiled itself around him like a serpent and squeezed.

What had once been a long attic shared by the narrow homes beneath had been converted to house two rows of single beds, each draped with a white blanket so that the lot resembled gapped teeth hanging apart in a final, desperate cry for breath.  The occupants of those teeth were men and women withered by more than their share of decades, confined here now as their ability to look after themselves had long since been stolen by their years.  Some of them slept, others moaned, a few kept up fervent dialogues with invisible friends.  The room smelled of sick and linen.  Sunlight flooding in from a large window on the rear wall did little to alleviate the dour and gray, providing only a suffocating warmth.  There was a sense of inevitability here, that the inhabitants of those beds entered them understanding they would never leave.

The only sign of anything resembling life was the much younger woman stamping towards Etienne and his new acquaintance, her eyebrows wrenched downward with dismay.  She was of a broader build than the wisp-slight Adelyra, and perhaps an inch or two shorter, but possessed of the same flaxen hair, tied back in a severe, strangled braid.  She parked herself before them and spat interrogation into Adelyra’s face.  “Where the hell have you been?”

“Gathering ingredients for the broth,” Adelyra said.  “I told you I would–”

“And who is this?”  The other woman tilted her head at Etienne but did not shift her eyes.  “What are you doing bringing him here?”

“This is Etienne.  He was helping me.”  Adelyra smiled.  “Etienne, this is Kathaline, my sis–”

Kathaline stomped on the last word.  “It’s Monsieur Hurland,” she said.  “It’s time.”

The cheer tumbled from Adelyra’s countenance like a painting falling from a loose nail.  “Wait here, please,” she mumbled to Etienne, and hurried to follow her sister to the last bed on the left side of the room.  Etienne set the basket of carrots and turnips on the floor.  Common decency demanded that he excuse himself without additional fuss and be on his way, but if there was a single adjective most unsuited to characterizing Etienne de Navarre, it was “common.”

Besides, the sisters were ignoring him, saving the balance of their attentions for the elderly man shivering in the tiny bed, his embers beginning to go out.  Etienne did not recall the last time he had seen a face so sad.  Even at first glance, he could tell that Monsieur Hurland was a pitiable old man ruing a misspent existence and innumerable wasted chances to change.  His skin was crumpled by regrets long unresolved, and his eyes needed to cry a thousand more tears.  Adelyra and Kathaline sat on either side of him, saying nothing, simply providing him the courtesy of not having to die alone.

Etienne remembered his father Reynand lying in a different bed, staining its blankets dark red with lumpy blood coughed from a stomach shredded by regular doses of whiskey and gin.  A greasy gurgling would rumble in his throat before uncontrollable spasms would send up another salvo, and though Reynand would try to cover his mouth there was just too much of it, his body quite literally devouring itself and expelling the digested pieces.  Etienne recalled few of his father’s last words to him, but he could not forget that terrible wet sound, a requiem for a small man undone by his failings.

Monsieur Hurland remained coherent enough to form words, though the effort was becoming too much for him.  “Where is my boy?  Where is Jacquot?” he pleaded.

“Jacquot is with you,” Adelyra said.

“Liar!” screamed Monsieur Hurland, flailing at a dwindling reserve of strength.  “Oh, mon petit fils.  Do you know where he’s gone?  He needs to wear his belt.  He always forgets to wear his belt.  The other boys, they pull down his trousers.  They want to shame him in front of the girls.”  He broke down into sobs.  “I couldn’t save you, mon fils.  I couldn’t stop the sickness.  I’m so sorry.  Jacquot, I’m so sorry.”  More words bubbled out, but they devolved into slurred, incomprehensible wails.  Those too began to lose volume and falter, and soon Monsieur Hurland could only move his jaw and try to force out confessions that now would go forever unheard.  Etienne’s mouth dried up.  Death had slipped inside the walls and would not depart without claiming what it craved most.

He had not been present when his father hacked out his last breath.  Etienne had been unable to bear the stench of a man’s flesh rotting away while his heart still beat.  He had run until his legs gave out, down to the harbor where he’d once held his father’s hand and watched the ships come in, secreted himself in an alley in a tight ball of young boy and cried.  As an adult, Etienne had seen the lives of hundreds of men be snuffed in an instant, at the point of a sword blade or the edge of an executioner’s axe.  So many had been on his order.  He had grown indifferent to watching death when it was quick.  When it was drawn out like this, when one could see life departing the body one spark at a time, the beautiful and tragic fragility of existence became a cold reminder of one’s own limits, and the utter helplessness of men in the face of fate.

Etienne wondered if Nightingale, with her magic, her incredible capacity to bend reality to whatever shape she desired, felt the same.

Adelyra and Kathaline shared a knowing look with each other.  They reached across the bed to clasp hands.  Eyes closed, and where their fingers intersected, a warm white glow began to shimmer.  It grew and spread over the form of Monsieur Hurland, the gentle lap of a calm tide brushing the shore, urging those straying in the shallows to journey with it now into its depths.  As the light traveled up his withered body, his shivering stopped, and as it touched the crown of his head the agony vanished from his face, those thousand unshed tears forgotten.  He stopped trying to speak, stopped scratching at the last seconds of his life, and turned his gaze upwards.  Etienne felt himself leaning in closer, searching dimming eyes for the absolution the old man must have longed for, and realizing that a part of him wanted this total stranger to find it.  Ignored was his training, the proper procedure of gathering his men and returning in force to haul these two sister witches off in chains for re-education.  Instead he stood with them, keeping silent, respectful vigil.

Monsieur Hurland seemed to focus on something beyond the ceiling, far beyond the perception of those bearing witness.  He looked as though he was embarrassed to have never noticed it before.  The white light embraced him completely now.  Serenity danced across his face, and he smiled.  Fear had become courage, regret anticipation.  “My word,” he breathed.  A joyful schoolboy’s giggle fell from quivering lips.  “It’s so…”

And he was gone.

The white light swept Monsieur Hurland’s body away with it, leaving behind an empty bed with the sisters still sitting on it.  They released their hands and Adelyra dabbed a tear from her eye.

Silence fell heavy on Etienne.

Such unspeakable evil, Nightingale had said, mocking his comfortable, indoctrinated prejudices.  Was there evil in helping a sad, dying man pass with peace and promise?  How would the Bureau Centrale have treated Monsieur Hurland?  To what fate would they have condemned him?

He did not notice Kathaline standing in front of him, fists balled on her hips.  “What are you still doing here?” she demanded.

Etienne understood now why Nightingale had sent him here.  It was for far more than just a chat with an old friend.  He had reached that moment he had fretted about all night, the point where he would have to commit to this terrifying course or turn back to the safe and the known.  The Etienne de Navarre of only a few short weeks ago would say nothing and merely walk out of this room, but he was compelled by whatever drove this new Etienne – love for Nightingale, a desire to atone, perhaps at some level a wish for his late father to be proud of him – to remain, and opt for the most honest path available.  Betrayal in the heart would now be matched by a betrayal in action.  He returned Kathaline’s aggressive stance with a composed and even stare.  “You are in danger,” he said.

Adelyra joined them.  “What are you talking about?”

“You need to go,” said Etienne.  “Both of you.  Get out of Charmanoix.  Get far away.  You haven’t much time.”

Kathaline rolled her eyes.  “This is ridiculous,” she said, and shot a glance at her sister.  “Who is this person?”  Adelyra did not respond.  She tugged nervously at her hair instead.

Bells chimed in the distance – low, sonorous, ominous bells.  Etienne pushed past the two young witches, cranked open the large window and looked out over the townscape.  Squinting both at the hot sun and the deafening peal pouring in, his eyes darted over the buildings and canals, hunting for the source of the alarm.  He located it on a bridge not far from here, a procession of men and horses advancing up the main waterside street, unmistakable high-flying black-and-gold banners portending the same story he’d reenacted himself countless times in communities just like this one.  Etienne cursed the signature efficiency under his breath.  “It’s too late,” he said.  “He’s here.”

*  *  *

Part Eleven – sheesh, never thought it would get this far – is in the works.

Vintage, Part Nine

vintagetitle

Happy New Year!  Well, ten days too late I suppose.  Here’s part nine, in which a long-expected meeting finally unfolds.  Take it away… um, me, I guess.

“You’ve caught me with my britches down,” said Etienne.  In any other circumstance, that would have sounded suave – witty even, delivered in the surroundings to which he was habituated – but here, it was like yanking broken words out of the cracking throat of a gangly boy, squirming to conceal his obvious and embarrassing arousal in the presence of an alluring woman.  And he could only squirm from the waist up.

“Britches are hardly your style,” said the witch, her amusement in his predicament as palpable as the ice in the air that preceded her.  “You think them too fey for the menace a Commissionaire is meant to project.”  Nightingale’s boots made no footfalls as she treaded upon the solid block that clenched him below his navel, and her breath remained invisible even in the cold.  She circled him, a predator evaluating its helpless catch, deciding which succulent portions to eat first.

Etienne tried to steel himself against shivers.  His was a strange and not altogether unappreciated state of desire laced with legitimate dread.  At the least, he was afforded more than a fleeting glimpse of her.  He could drink her in, sate himself with the sight of her, devour every fraction of an inch of that hypnotic face.  Hers was a shaming beauty, one that could remind any man how small and unimportant he was, how existence was wasted on the lumpen hodgepodge of body parts that was the male, when it was possible for nature to birth such a divine creature ostensibly from the same raw materials.  There was a slyness to her though, a discernible angle to her features hinting at mischief and mirth, and a raw confidence to her poise suggesting that above all else, she knew how immensely powerful she was, that the world and its men were very much playthings to be toyed with at her will.  Every so often, tiny flashes of purple light would dance about her hands and fingertips like waltzing fireflies, as though mortal flesh could scarcely contain the waves of pure magic coursing within her.

Etienne’s lower half chafed against its imprisonment.  Dizziness swarmed his head.  He had to remind himself of the necessity of breathing.

“Depends on the occasion, I suppose,” he offered, struggling to maintain at least a metaphorical footing against her.  “What have you done to my men?”  He looked to shore, over the bizarre tableau of Corporal Valnier and the other soldiers frozen in time by a fire that itself did not move.

Lacerating eyes remained fixed on him, analyzing him from hair to stomach.  He imagined she was perceptive enough to read all his weaknesses as easily as if he were to spontaneously confess to them.  “Nothing permanent,” she said.  “I’ve merely kept them from interrupting.”

“Considerate of you.”

“Hmm,” said she.  Madness, thought he.  Even mere consonants sounded exotic from her lips.

Etienne twisted his head to keep her within sight as she paced around him.  He could not abide not seeing her, even for a few seconds.  “Might I ask, though, what it is they are not permitted to interrupt?  Presumably the accused has the right to know.”

Nightingale grinned.  “You’re afraid I’m going to transform you into something… slimy?”

“I assume you could, if you so wished.”

She tilted her head, confirming his assumption.  “Crawling the earth for a time might instill in you some much-needed humility,” she said.  “But as entertaining as it might be for some, that is not why I am here.”  The witch came to a graceful halt directly in front of him.  Etienne’s head swam with her subtle perfume.  It was not a floral scent, but one still indelibly of the bounty of the earth, and if its purpose was to lessen her ability to tantalize him, it was failing.

“To what, then, do I owe the pleasure of your visit?” he asked.

“Curiosity.”

“About me?”

“About your type,” said Nightingale.  “About a man who clearly revels in the company of women but has no compunction about condemning hundreds of them in the same breath.”

“I do not condemn women,” Etienne said, as forcefully as he was able.

Nightingale laughed, and though the tone of it was obviously meant to be derisive, she could not bury completely the enchantment inherent in her voice.  “Of course.  A witch is no woman, is she.  Though she has blood, flesh and bone, hopes and cares and dreams and fears, though her heart can know love and weep at its loss, that which is most special about her is what finally denies her a soul.”  She held up a palm, and a flicker of violet light rose from its center like a thin line of smoke from a snuffed candle, coiling itself into curves and spirals that sparkled and reshaped themselves before their eyes.  As it brightened the light began to expand, coalescing into a defined form, a small, round body with wings.  Etienne could not help but smile – it was a nightingale.  The ethereal image sprang to life, chirping a few notes of its unmistakable song into a surprised darkness before flying straight up from the witch’s hand and bursting above their heads into a shower of purple sparks that tumbled gently around them like snow.  “Such unspeakable evil,” she said quietly.

Training, experience, the ethos chiseled into granite in Etienne’s mind were screaming one truth to him while instinct and yearning whispered another, entirely different, and far more enticing.  He knew he could, right now, surrender to whatever the witch wanted of him; abandon whomever Etienne de Navarre had built himself to become in a frenzy brought on by unrequited lust for the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen – and knowing that she would not likely return any affections he might offer to her did not really matter.  Some part of him though, even on an unconscious level, still remembered his assignment, and the carrot dangling within a fingertip’s grasp, the only hurdle the same beautiful woman standing in front of him, enrapturing him further with her display of magic.  Loyalty was stretched to a single taut string beginning to fray, thread by delicate thread.

“A Commissionaire’s duty is to enforce the law,” he said.  He could think of no other response.

“The law is an abomination,” said Nightingale with a spiked venom he could almost taste.  “Written by hypocrites and adhered to by blind cowards too enamored of their own meager power to comprehend the sheer inhumanity of their actions.”

Etienne swallowed broken glass.  “Am I one of those cowards?”

The witch folded her arms and narrowed her gaze.  “Are you?”

“I am in love with you,” Etienne said.

He wanted to catch the words as soon as he heard himself say them, but it seemed futile to belabor the point any longer.  It wasn’t as though he was telling her something she couldn’t already divine from the ample evidence his body was providing.  Indeed, Nightingale was not taken aback, though he thought he perceived a definite shift in her demeanor.  “I’ve thought of nothing and no one else since I first saw you,” Etienne went on.  “My life has fallen to tatters since you entered it.  As I’ve struggled to try and understand why you chose to reveal yourself to me, how you could imprint yourself upon me with nothing more than a blown kiss.  You have ruined me, and at the same time made me grateful to be ruined by you.  If this is only the result of one of your spells, so be it, but I cannot believe that passions this deep and consuming could be anything but genuine.  I will love you, then, whether with you or forever in your absence, and I will dream of an elusive day when you might return what I offer to you now.  I am yours, fair Nightingale… do with me what you will.”

She crouched before him, reached out a hand, and touched the tips of her fingernails gingerly to his cheek.  A charge leaped through him and goosebumps erupted across his skin.  He could not quell the shivers now, even as his heart pumped a gusher of hot blood into his head.  Etienne wanted so desperately to lean forward and taste the amaranthine lips, to lose his hands in the lush tresses spilling around her perfect face.  But she kept a discreet, noticeable distance, and those soft fingertips could just as swiftly erupt with destructive power should he attempt an unwelcome advance.

Yet she had only a smile for him.  “So… there is one part of you that is not cowardly.”

Baring himself had not granted him the relief from the inner torment he had hoped for.  She was correct; who knows how many hundreds of witches like her had gone to their deaths on his order alone?  And he had the gall to expect that this one would see him differently than what he was?  A murderer of women?  Even with her fingers against his cheek he felt more distant and disconnected from her now, sensing that this fiery moment would pass soon into memory and be lost.  He felt small, and meriting absolutely nothing.  “For whatever it may be worth,” he said.

And still, Nightingale retained among her many powers the ability to surprise him.  “Much, perhaps,” she said.  “If you are willing to help me.”

She stood, and Etienne felt the urge to weep as she pulled away.  Nightingale held out her palm again.  A flash of purple light bloomed upon it, this time becoming a shape that was very solid and very real.  “You know what these are,” she said, dangling them from her fingers.  Etienne nodded at the sudden appearance of the Bureau’s standard-issue manacles.  Nightingale rubbed at the untarnished silvered metal with her thumb.  “These trinkets have given your sort quite the advantage against those like me.  Have you ever paused to wonder where they came from?”

Etienne shook his head slowly.  Nightingale grinned.  “This metal was forged with magic.”

Of course.

She tossed the manacles onto the solid surface in front of him.  He reached down to touch the evidence of the Bureau’s complete betrayal of its principles.  The collars that held witches’ abilities in check.  The dagger he had used on Le Taureau, the swords that generated those peculiar blue sparks when they struck.  Every Commissionaire out there and every soldier under his command was waging a war against magic with magical weapons, by order of the very Directeurs who professed to consider magic a plague upon humanity that needed to be cut, violently when necessary, from its body.  Etienne’s stomach twisted on itself.  He thought of those three damnable men sharing decanters of wine and congratulating themselves on their supreme cleverness.  Hypocrites all around.

Who, and what exactly, had he been fighting for all this time?  All these long years?

For the first time tonight, he did not look up as he spoke to Nightingale.  “How?” he asked.

“It is an alloy of silver and iron, bonded by a spell that obstructs magic.  The manacles and the collar restrain a witch who wears them much as an anchor holds a ship.  The swords, no doubt, will pierce any magical defense she might try to create for herself.  Quite ingenious, really.  Your Directeurs should be commended.”

“Liars,” Etienne said.

Nightingale laughed again.  “Is it so difficult to conceive that Michel Ste-Selin might pursue something like this?  Do you not think old Theniard Preulx cannot see an amusing irony in employing the very power he so despises against those he has devoted his life to hunting down?”

Beautiful, and logical to the last.  Etienne had been content to use these same tools for years; there could be no doubt about their effectiveness against the enemy.  Besides, you did not question the Bureau Centrale.  You did your job with the armaments they supplied.  It was never his place to question any of it.  What good would it have done, anyway?  Questions only caused problems.  Do the job, collect the pay, lose it at the casino, go out again and commence the cycle anew.  Such a simple life it had been, and as utterly illusory as any trick a witch could weave.  He smirked at himself at his earlier notion of abandoning who Etienne de Navarre was.  Clearly there was no “Etienne” to abandon.  Everything had been taken from him now.

He looked up, into that impossibly beautiful face.  “What are you asking of me?”

Nightingale crouched in front of him again.  “The Bureau cannot make these weapons on their own.  This is the work of witches.  I need to know where they are being made, and by whom.”

“I don’t know,” said Etienne.  “I’ve never been involved in supply or procurement.”

“But you know someone who has.  Serge Meservey.”

“Serge?  He is another Commissionaire, like me.”  Correction required.  “Like I was.”

“Recruited, purposefully, into the Bureau from the Gendarme Royale, where he served with distinction as engineer of arms,” the witch informed him.  “He is currently on his way to the town of Charmanoix, where he intends to arrest a pair of sister witches who minister to the infirm there.  He will arrive in three days.  If you leave immediately on the morrow, you can be there in two.”

“How do you know this?”  Directeur Ste-Selin’s warning loomed in his mind.  We grow concerned that Nightingale may have compromised the Bureau itself, that she may have an informant or multiple informants within these walls…  Etienne doubted he was the only Bureau man to find Nightingale’s charms so persuasive, to push him now over the brink of treason.

“It doesn’t matter.  I will meet you again once you have spoken to Meservey.”

“Wait, I…” Etienne choked on the words.  “This is very difficult.”

“You are fond of presenting people with a clearly defined choice, so allow me to do the same for you now,” Nightingale told him.  “You can help a witch to tear down an utterly corrupt institution that has the blood of thousands of innocent women on its hands and has seen fit to throw you to the wolves for its own selfish gain, or, you can remain a coward, remain loyal to those who have betrayed you, and continue your fruitless pursuit of the mysterious Nightingale until old age turns your bones to dust.  The only guarantee is that if you choose the second path, you will never see me again.”  She leaned closer, her lips within reach of his.  Dieux, how he wanted them so.  “You have much to atone for, Etienne,” she whispered.  And you owe those vile men nothing.”

“Tell me your name,” Etienne pleaded.

Nightingale only smiled.

A flash of light whited out the scene.  Etienne fell.  Warm water splashed over his chest as he plunged back into the lake, liquid once again.  His arms steadied the rest of him, and his head bobbed on the surface as he looked around for her.  But she was gone, vanished as easily as her magic allowed her.  Beating down a simmering sadness at her absence, he looked to shore, to see the fire crackling as it should and his men milling about as if nothing had ever occurred.  Resigned, Etienne paddled inward, in no great hurry to join them.

“Good swim?” Corporal Valnier asked him after he had reached shore and collected and donned his clothes.  Etienne tossed him a disinterested nod.  He sat away from the men and stared into the fire, thinking of her, wondering if it had been real, if he had become lost in a waking dream.  If his exhausted, sun-stroked mind had conjured the perfect fantasy for him, the stunning, magical woman who was by turns both demure and provocative.  Such a creature could not truly be real.  The compulsion he felt towards her seemed to wane, and his head cleared enough for a modicum of sanity to trickle back inside.  Where did his loyalties ultimately lie?  Should he do as she asked, or should he turn tail back to Calerre?  Whose argument was more compelling – the three Directeurs, or the witch they’d ordered him to bring back in shackles for imprisonment and likely torture?

What did he value more – his career or his soul?

“What’s next?” asked Valnier, interrupting his train of thought.  The others all looked to him for the answer, to provide some purpose to this quest that had been, to date, too costly by far.

“Make sure you have your gear assembled before you turn in.  I don’t want to waste time packing in the morning,” Etienne told them.  “We’ll be heading out at first light.”

Corporal Valnier nodded to the men, who went off to gather up the remnants of the company’s supplies.  “Where to?” he asked.

Etienne waited a long moment before answering.  “Charmanoix,” he said finally.  “I need to go see a friend.”

* * *

And it keeps rolling on… 26K words now, making this the single-longest ongoing blog project I’ve undertaken, bypassing last April’s A to Z challenge.  Well, if it wasn’t fun, I wouldn’t keep doing it…

Vintage, Part Eight

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Hope you’ve had/are having a great holiday!  Here is a belated Christmas present for you.  Enjoy.

Hooves blurred into a thumping drone as they battered the ground beneath him, enough to pierce the ringing in his ears.  Etienne stabbed his fingers into his palms as he clutched onto the reins, certain that to loosen his grip by even a hair meant being dismembered, probably in incremental portions, by the pack of would-be wolfhounds trailing behind him.  Surprisingly uncouth of them to have reacted this adversely to watching their munificent leader be stabbed.  Impoliteness aside, they were damned dogged in their pursuit, and it was by only the most bizarre of happenings that Etienne had managed to extricate himself from their custody in the first place.

He had known, even as he had reached into his vest pocket back in St. Iliane, that he and his men had no chance of escaping that room, let alone the town.  They were surrounded, unarmed, and seated, hardly a prime tactical position.  The best Etienne could have hoped for was a negotiated surrender and exactly what Le Taureau had insisted upon – that they march away half-clothed and humiliated.  Igniting a confrontation under those circumstances was, in a word, idiotic.

But Etienne’s ego had demanded it.  He was already humiliated.  Mortified that men he had dismissed as simpletons had outsmarted him, that his mind was so befuddled by thoughts of Nightingale that he had lost his perception and his ruthlessness.  And, on hearing a crude ruffian like Le Taureau drool over her, inflamed by a sudden and uncontrollable flash of jealousy.  Base emotions that he had long ago learned to master and keep out of his business, driving him once again as if he were a pimply adolescent incensed by the appearance of a rival for a young lady’s affections.

Even now, clinging to this horse’s neck and racing away from St. Iliane and Le Taureau’s men, he had wits enough about him to understand how stupid and shortsighted he’d been, and that he was alive only thanks to chance – thanks to the unique, and frankly, inexplicable properties of the silvered metal from which his dagger had been forged.

Metal made no sound scraping against cotton as Etienne snatched the dagger from its concealed sheath.  But everyone heard the crunch and squish and ensuing scream as he plunged it straight through Le Taureau’s hand.  As the dagger severed the last of the flesh on its downward thrust and cleaved through to embed itself in the wood of the table beneath, a tremendous wave of blunt force had erupted from its tip, expanding instantly in all directions and blasting every nearby soul quite dramatically off his feet.  Le Taureau’s men, encircling the table, had borne the worst of it as they had the misfortune to have walls impeding their trajectory.  They were propelled through the splintering beams and panels of the exploding hall, and left Etienne, Corporal Valnier and the group who’d been sitting a much cleaner path through which to be hurled after them.

He heard nothing; the sound of the world was drowned by the whine in his ears cutting through his skull.  He pushed himself up, looked up at the chunks of debris still raining from the sky through the smoke that hovered just above the ground.  There was a lumpen mass beneath him.  Etienne had come to rest on top of one of Le Taureau’s men, or rather what was left of the man, as this one had gone straight through a particularly thick plank of wood that had, in turn, gone straight through him.  Swallowing retches, Etienne peeled himself off the body and rolled free, arms and legs as flimsy as fabric as he tried to rise.  He could not get a good sense of the scene, of how many of the bodies lying near him were threats, how many were friendly and how many, regardless of allegiance, would simply never move again.  Etienne began to see the other villagers emerge from beyond the smoke, saw stupefied and fearful expressions crest into rage as they spotted him.  To the east, a horse’s cry broke through the fog, and Etienne bolted for it, the angry shouts aimed at him blissfully unheard.  The fence surrounding the horse pen had been blown apart, and Etienne leaped onto the nearest mount, seized the reins and gave it a hard kick in the ribs.  They were clear of the smoke in only a few seconds, and the wreckage of St. Iliane began to fall away.

It had not been long before other survivors had availed themselves of the remaining horses and set out after him.  However, Etienne was not sure where he was leading them, if he could allow himself a spare thought to ponder it.  The pitiless sun was sinking lazily to his right, so he must have been heading south, though the jerking course through the wilderness he and the horse were following could scarcely be called true.  Wherever they turned, ahead seemed only miles and miles of frail, browned scrub and the dry earth from which it sprang.  Direction was not the priority, distance was, and right now he needed much more of it between himself and his pursuers.

Who were those men?  As though, when a man has a blade to your neck, it matters who tailors his clothes.  To Etienne they needed to be nothing more than a faceless monolith, thinking and moving as one giant melding of man and horse, possessed of a single, unchanging, unwavering intent:  him, captured, or dead.  Presented with garnish to Le Taureau and his bleeding, likely gangrenous hand.  Everything else was irrelevant and a distraction, and distractions cost speed.

Etienne risked a glance back over his shoulder, through the curving trail of dust clouds simmering up from where hoofprints had cracked the ground and back toward the receding contours of the hills that concealed St. Iliane on the other side.  He could not see anyone else.  His fingers relaxed their chokehold on the reins as the longed-for sensation of relief dared to trickle its way up from the constant churning in his gut.  He even felt the creeping inklings of a smile at the corners of his lips.  Not a satisfied smile, since that would require a level of delusion about one’s grandeur that even his usual arrogance would not permit, but more the realization that there would indeed be another day for him at the end of this one that had seen him so close to a most final defeat.  The smile was even edging the to threshold of a laugh when the ground quite literally felt out from under him.

Looking aft, Etienne had not noticed the approaching change in terrain, or more precisely the sudden interruption of their path by a downward slope.  The horse handled it well enough, regaining its footing after only one misstep, but Etienne, unprepared, required just that much longer to steady himself, and in that space where time is measured in fractions of breaths, said fractions can mean the difference between remaining seated upon one’s horse and shaking one’s head at the close call, or tumbling sideways out of the saddle and rolling end over end to a bruised stop at the very bottom of the dale.

Etienne wheezed and sat up to watch his deliverance gallop onwards without him.  Despite himself, he let loose with a flurry of oaths casting aspersions upon its parentage, and turned himself to the question of locating a decent place to hide, given that the option of escape had now, well, escaped.

Thirst filled his throat with sandpaper and squeezed blood from blistered lips.  Hunger had long since evolved from a nuisance easily dismissed to a persistent, scraping gnaw.  Exhaustion crept up on him and tied weights to his eyelids, but Etienne willed himself awake and vigilant, secreted behind a wall of rocks, waiting for the veil of night to slip over the landscape.  His ears probed the desolate terrain for the merest squeak of movement, finding only the whistle of hot desert wind.  It had been hours now, but he refused to move until he could be certain of his safety, certain that anyone from St. Iliane and Le Taureau had at the last given up the hunt.

Etienne propped himself up against a cracked boulder and winced as it needled at his back.  Pain was such an unfamiliar sensation to him, the absence of comfort a theft of his sense of himself.  His life was casino tables and gorgeous women and fine wine, not clinging to survival by threads in a forsaken wilderness.  But once he knew that he was safe, what then?  He was alone, without a mount or supplies – or allies for that matter – miles from anywhere resembling the civilization he deserved.  He was beginning to resign himself to the notion that this fate was of his own making.  That he had been foolish to accept this task from the Bureau, regardless of their inducements.  It would not impact them a single iota if he was to fail.  They could write him and his men off with a few flourishes of a quill and simply assign someone else to the pursuit of Nightingale.  Perhaps they had selected him deliberately for a mission of futility for fear of his ambition and status, his unparalleled record of success.  Perhaps the paranoid Directeur Ste-Selin had viewed the Nightingale situation as the perfect opportunity to rid himself of a skilled competitor.  Would it not amuse the man, then, to learn of Etienne’s plight now.  Abandoned, lost, likely dying, all for the obsessive love of a witch whose real name he did not even know.  And for Etienne, the worst part of it still was the notion that he might never see her again.

Her beauty sang across the divide of perception as sleep tried to claim him.  She would be there waiting in his dreams as she always was, every night, every sliver of a nap even.  He only needed to let go, to succumb to the weariness, to her siren call.  He knew, though, that this time he would not wake, and any chance of encountering the real Nightingale would be lost forever.  That kept his eyes open, his mind focused.  He needed to endure, for her.  He dared not depart a world in which she existed.  Pas encore.

The cry of crows shattered the silence.  Etienne shook himself from his haze and peered out from the outcropping of stone, across the valley floor.  Shadows grew long and the sun turned the rouge of an old harlot’s lips as it drifted beyond the hills to the west, but the angry heat continued to sap every last drop of moisture out of the ground and out of Etienne’s body.  Strength in his limbs had become but a memory now.

Dust stirred beneath the dwindling rose petal sky and shot a lingering jolt of alertness through his veins.  Etienne’s vision had grown glassy, but within the panorama of blur he could see shifting blobs of dark, their movements too orderly to be the randomness of nature.  There was a sound to it, too, a crescendo and fade of indistinguishable bursts, their duration shifting from short to long.  Etienne fell back behind the stones, shut his eyes and diverted his attention to his ears.  Perhaps it was nothing?  The world was not inclined to be kind to him this day, however, and the longer he listened, the more those blurred sounds sharpened themselves into the recognizable patois of voices.

Bite du diable.  They had found him.

It would not be much of a last stand.  Etienne could no longer move his legs.  He groped at the ground for something he could use to defend himself:  a rock, a stick, anything with a pointed end, but blistered fingers came away only with mounds of gravel that slipped between them.

The voices were getting closer, and they were shouting, calling out.  The words were still a muddle, buried beneath the din of hooves against earth.  Perhaps now, Etienne wondered, it might be time to let go, to answer Nightingale’s call, to give himself fully to the visions of her.  He saw the beautiful face beaming at him, the slender fingers draped in the violet light of her magic beckoning him to surrender to her, the perfect lips forming the shape of his name.  Etienne.  And it occurred to him that he had no idea what her voice sounded like, that perhaps it sabotaged her willowy, ethereal presence by being an oddly-accented, raspy, tone-deaf squeak.  That amused him, and he laughed as consciousness finally slipped away.

Etienne.  “Etienne.  Etienne!”

Someone was shaking his shoulders, hard.  Etienne clawed at the darkness, desperate to remain its prisoner.  Waking offered him nothing; in slumber he was carefree in the company of his fantasies.  But he was pulled up and away from the abyss, hauled by the legs like a rabbit to market, and flailing fingers could not keep him anchored.  Light pried apart his eyelids and wedged the real world back in, and he was greeted not by some anonymous thug but by the welcome visage of Corporal Valnier.  “Monsieur,” he said once Etienne was aware of him, reverting to their custom.  “You’re safe.”

“Valnier,” Etienne whispered.  Every halting syllable scraped over a razor.  “Still… no more… than two words for me?”

The corporal grinned as he pushed a skin full of blissful water to his master’s lips.  “Drink up.”

They replenished his fluids, gave him enough food to quell his irate stomach and tended to the worst of his wounds, and at Etienne’s insistence got him swiftly onto a horse and their company riding onwards to the south before the first stars began to twinkle in the night.  There were only six of them now.  Valnier was sure that at least four had been lost back in St. Iliane, and there had been no sign of the others.  As the corporal related it, in his economical manner, of course – Etienne had to piece together the missing parts of the tale with observation and deduction – despite the immediate casualties, the company had made a decent fight of it and managed to retrieve a good portion of their gear and weapons in the confusion, before setting out after the posse that had been pursuing Etienne and, eventually, running them all down.  Etienne allowed himself a smile at that, though he was not enamored to hear that Le Taureau was still alive, and that even crippled, the enormous man had taken down two of his men.  There was a score to be settled there, and Etienne imagined for a moment descending upon St. Iliane clad in his Commissionaire’s uniform with a legion of soldiers at his back.

Premières choses premières, however, and a decent night’s sleep would be a good start.

They located a suitable camp adjacent to a small freshwater lake once the last of the daylight had gone, though as usual the departing sun did not take its heat with it.  Valnier supervised the securing of the horses, the distribution of food rations and the construction of a fire, the latter for its visibility and certainly not for its warmth.  Etienne sat back and watched and listened to his men as they set up their sleeprolls and chatted amongst themselves.  They were by turns angry, remorseful, embittered and afraid, and he did not know what he could say to them by way of reassurance.  He had never been one to ingratiate himself with the men under his command; to him they remained anonymous drones useful only for the carrying out of orders, and with the exception of Valnier it was his habit never to keep the same complement for more than one assignment.  He let Valnier tend to the names and the foibles and the quirks while he remained detached and concentrated on the mission.

Ce soir, he found himself examining their faces and thinking about the four who had not made it out of St. Iliane.  Those four men could not have imagined when they saw the sunrise this morning that it would be for the last time.  They could not have imagined that the filthy water Le Taureau saw fit to serve them would be the last drink they would ever taste.  They had entered into this contract expecting that they would do the job, receive their pay, and go home, to wherever and whatever home was.  Somewhere there were people waiting for those four men to return.  Etienne could not even admit that they died for a worthy cause.  If anything, they had died because of his pride, his vanity, his arrogance.  Hardly reasons one could satisfactorily explain to a grieving widow.

After a time the men settled into base conversation and filthy humor, presided over by the silent Valnier, who sat by the fire with arms crossed.  Etienne rose to his feet and wandered off, mumbling an excuse to his corporal about locating some privacy to relieve himself.  The corporal nodded, implying with a look that Monsieur should remain where he could be seen at all times.

Etienne walked a good distance down, to the edge of the shoreline, stopping where the water lapped gently at the toes of his boots, and looked out over the long white V painted by the moonlight upon its still sheen.  Those men, Valnier included, would all be looking to him for what to do next.  For the first time, he had no answer.  He could not go back to Calerre and supplicate himself before the Directeurs now.  The unspoken order had been to return with his quarry or not at all, meaning the alternatives offered by failure were exile, prison, or, a convenient disappearance.  The mission had to continue, but, to where, and to what end?  The damned witch left no trace of herself, no trail for a hunter to follow.  The path before him was as dark and shapeless as the lake before him now.  One might as well have asked an ant to chase this bird.

Etienne unlaced his boots and kicked them off, and stepped into the water.  It curled about his toes and caressed his blisters.  He loosened his shirt collar, and found himself undoing buttons, then slipping his arms out of the sleeves and letting it fall aside.  His belt was next, and he stood naked on the shore and let the hot breeze slide between his legs for a moment before abandoning all further semblance of caution and plunging headfirst into the lake.

It was warm and soupy and clogged with algae, but Etienne did not care.  He swam until the water began to clear and feel cool.  He floated on his back and looked up at the moon, at the canopy of stars splashed across the sky.  They were uncommonly brilliant tonight, and he struggled to recall the last time he had looked at them.  His father had taught him the names of the most prominent ones, but those secrets had long been forgotten.  What good, he had asked in his more callous days, were those tiny dots of light up there?  Certainly nothing worth remembering what the misguided astronomers chose to call them.

Etienne waded further.  The campfire at the shore was an easily located beacon, so he was not concerned about becoming lost in the darkness.  He did not relish returning, though.  He would be content to remain out here as long as he could plausibly extend it.  Going back meant giving an answer to that question they all wanted to ask, and he still had none.  For now he was content to let them have their time, and exchange their jokes, and roast dried meat in the flickering flames in the hopes of lending it some palatable flavor.

Etienne squinted as he looked back.  The flames were not flickering.  They were steady, like those of a candle.  He had never seen a fire that size be that calm.  Odd.  Maybe he was just tired.  But no sound was coming from the campsite either.  The voices had stopped.

Etienne paddled closer.  It was more than just a steady flame.  It was frozen still.  Sparks that had snapped free of cracking logs hovered in mid-air, caught and held motionless by an unseen hand.  The five men, too, were suspended in the midst of their own respective movements, robbed of all will.  It was as if he was looking at a painting of the scene in the most realistic style imaginable, rendered by the sixth person abruptly standing with them.

Clad in a hooded cloak.

A chill shot through Etienne’s spine, and the water beading on skin exposed to the air evaporated into dry cold as his breath turned to mist.

Furious arms ploughed water into foam as he swam hard for shore.  The figure in the cloak crouched and extended a hand, reaching a slender, feminine finger out to tap gently against the surface of the water, as though testing its temperature.  A purple flash spread out from her fingertip through the body of the lake, expanding in ever-widening concentric rings of light.  As magic hurtled through each drop of water it solidified instantly.  The wave spread further and washed over Etienne.  It caught him at the waist.  He felt a hard wrench on his midsection as the spell seized him in its grip, and though he could feel himself ordering his legs to kick they did not move.  He was suspended in what had become an enormous transparent block, with him very much the insect in that amber.

Etienne looked up to see the figure in the cloak step out onto the now stony surface of the lake.  He opened his mouth to call to Valnier, but the corporal remained a frozen sculpture, staring blankly into a fire that was just as lifeless as he.

The cloaked figure began walking towards him, striding with purpose.  Etienne shivered, even as the cold air infused itself with a familiar, seductive scent.

It’s her.  Mes dieux, it’s her.

She stood over him, and as she drew back her hood and allowed her long hair to spill out, Etienne fought the impetus to gasp at the revelation once more of the beauty that had arrested his senses and his heart, upon their first encounter.  She was, impossibly, even more than the vivid picture that had haunted every moment of his existence since.  Such feelings she fired in him he could scarcely comprehend, let alone try to control.  Of all the emotions, all the wild thoughts surging within him in her presence, the only one that was clear was that he was hers.

Luscious amaranthine lips parted, and she spoke music to him.

“Hello, Etienne,” Nightingale said.  “You’ve been looking for me.”

*  *  *

And we will leave it there for 2014.  Have a happy New Year and look forward to the resumption of this rapidly sprawling tale far sooner than you’ll see hoverboards on retail shelves.  Thanks always for reading!

Vintage, Part Seven

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

“Where is Nightingale?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least, the nickname made immediate sense.

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

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

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

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

“Monsieur,” said Valnier, registering his objection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Safety,” Etienne said.

A smirk.  “Safety.  Ours?”

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

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

The instant he had spoken her name.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man was in love with Nightingale as well.

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Vintage, Part Six

vintagetitle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Depending, naturally, on what was said inside.

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

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

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

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

Dénégation plausible?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nightingale,” said Ste-Selin.

Etienne looked up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” Etienne said.

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

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

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

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

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

Pas de pitié, pour vous doit avoir aucun.

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

Part Seven available right here.