Tag Archives: writing

Vintage, Part Twenty-One

vintagetitle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valnier.  Of all the people.

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

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

And now he had delivered them Nightingale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No!” screamed Nightingale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then the mayhem began.

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

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

Nightingale slapped him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As instructed.  What about you?”

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

“The Armée Royale,” Le Taureau mused.

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

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

“You’ll hold them off for us?”

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

“Nor you,” said Etienne.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?”

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

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

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

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

The doors opened onto a cold ocean of black.

* * *

Advertisements

Vintage, Part Twenty

vintagetitle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She had not spoken since they left St. Iliane.

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

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

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

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

Le Taureau grinned.  “You like it?”

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

“What’s that?”

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

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

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

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

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

The men snapped alert with astonishing precision.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pas de pitié, pour vous doit avoir aucun.

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

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

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

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

From under the waters I sang my song.

I looked for you before I knew you were there.

My heart dreamed you into being to fill its hollow.

Let my blood rush now with passions unchained,

Let me take you into my soul.

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

Let our nights be filled with limitless fire.

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

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

Then I will wish that I will never know you.

I will dream that my heart might remain empty,

Because filling it with you will make it break.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allons-y, encore.

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

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

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

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

Nightingale said nothing.

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

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

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

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

But there was no one behind Etienne.

Except–

No.

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

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

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

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

***

Vintage, Part Nineteen… yes, nineteen

vintagetitle

It’s been a while!  For those who are wondering where Part Eighteen is, you didn’t miss it, it’s just not here.  If you’ve been following the story up to this point, you’ve been following the evolution of the relationship between the two leads, and it came to a point where there was a certain inevitable destination.  That involved a bit of raciness that I think I handled rather maturely and tastefully, but at the same time I understand there are those who follow my site but don’t do it to be confronted with that sort of thing.  So Part Eighteen is only over at the Wattpad site.  (You can still leave comments on this post for it, if you like.)  In the meantime, here is the next chapter.

Warm night breezes and the lulling crash of surf nudged him awake.  The sky was without a moon, but it was more stars than dark, spilling a rich sheen of cobalt over the world, to whatever private corner of it she had whisked them away.  A cool satin sheet beneath them reflected the starlight and shielded bare bodies from the grit of the sand.  Etienne lifted his head and saw her pressed against him, one leg interlocked with his, propping her head on a bent elbow and tracing a gentle line down the center of his chest with her fingertips.  She was smiling, but her eyes were narrow, intense, full of purpose.

“You’re mine now,” Nightingale breathed, in a hue that was peculiarly sinister, belittling and foreboding.  “Completely… and utterly.”

A snap of cold split Etienne’s spine.  He shivered.  “W-what?”

She stopped and inched closer.  A flash of purple energy lined her irises.

Suddenly she corpsed and burst into a giddy, girlish laugh.  “Oh, goodness me, of course not.  You should see your face.”

“I don’t–”

Nightingale’s long hair danced in the delicate wind as she shook her head.  “Are you worried the evil temptress enslaved your immortal soul with her mystical sex powers?”

“Well, I–”

“Oh, please.  Aren’t Commissionaires supposed to be experts on witches?  Do you know who came up with ridiculous notions like that?  Very lonely men on very cold nights.”  She crawled in next to him and invited him to wrap his arm around her.  “Silly, silly boy.”

An embarrassed blush tinged his cheeks.  “It’s not cold here,” he said, absently.

“This is my favorite place,” Nightingale replied.  “Serene.  Worlds away from the world.”

“Thank you for sharing it with me.”

“You’re welcome.”  She closed her eyes.

Etienne held her and let thoughts wander with her gentle breathing and the waves lapping at the shore.  It was so strange.  He could remember little of what intimacy with Nightingale had felt like.  The precise recollections of kissing her and tasting her and having her, the sheer rapture that had been so fiery was blurred by the gray fog of old dreams from a thousand years ago, beyond his capacity for clear description as though he was a journeyman challenged to reproduce a masterpiece seen in a fleeting glimpse.  He felt smaller.  For an instant he had brushed against a fragment of greatness – something that perhaps was never truly meant for him – and now he was watching it drift up and away from his reach.  Even as he lay on her beach with her soft body warming his, even as he lost his eyes in the canopy of a million stars, he could sense this biting truth cementing itself in his mind.

The boy fleeing from his dying father’s bedside wanted to rant and rave and scream that it wasn’t fair.  The man on a distant island shore reflecting on what had transpired and what was to come understood it could not be anything else, that illusions of fairness were just that.

“Will you ever tell me your name?” he asked her quietly, afraid of disturbing her if she had fallen asleep.

The witch stirred.  “I’ve grown rather fond of ‘Nightingale,’” she said.  “There’s an old saying about making an enemy’s label into a statement of agency for yourself.”  Nightingale climbed on top of him and paraded her fingers along his skin.  “The nightingale is mysterious, soulful, romantic, a muse to the poets.  Why wouldn’t I embrace something so beautiful?”

“It does suit you.  To be honest, I can’t imagine calling you anything else.”  He slid his hands over the small of her back.  “Is it who you really are?”

“Who am I to you, Etienne?  Does anything else matter?”

He nodded.  “It does.”

“You want to hear that story.  The story of the little girl with the special gifts who was beaten by her mother and touched by her father, before she ran away to escape a nightmare of a life that seemed determined to crush her.  Who discovered that she could shatter the limits the small-minded had shackled her with and create a new person out of the bones of the broken child.  Who learned to take ownership of herself and of the magic that had scared everyone so, and in so doing became more powerful than she ever could have dreamed.  Who dedicated herself to preventing any other little girls from enduring what she did.”  She spoke of these things without any hesitation in her voice.  “You should know that who we really are is not something that can be captured in a name, a title, or in a word, particularly one applied by somebody else.  We define who we are in the choices we make.”  Nightingale scooped a handful of sand and let it sift grain by grain through her fingers onto his chest.  She infused it with wisps of magic so that each fragment glowed violet as it tumbled and collected in a tiny pile.  “We build ourselves from moment to moment, collecting our own truths, and for a time we exist as the sum of our experiences, growing a little more each day.”

“I have this idea of a future with you,” Etienne said.  “We are standing arm in arm, watching the Bureau Centrale collapsing in massive flames that singe the clouds.  Then a huge celebration erupts throughout Calerre.  Statues fall, voices sing and wine flows, and thousands of women emerge from the shadows they’ve hidden in their entire lives, because for the first time, they have the promise of tomorrow.  They are looking to someone to thank, and they look for us, but we’re gone.  No one sees us ever again.  We find a place like this one, lush and full of bounty, and we build a house, or rather, I watch as you spin it into existence with your spells, because I never learned how to use a hammer.  We breakfast with the sunrise and dine as the sky turns red, and in between we walk on the beach and climb trees and laugh and dance and make love.  It’s not all bliss, of course; sometimes we fight, sometimes I storm out and slam the door, sometimes you vanish in a flash of light, but we always forgive each other.  One day you tell me that you are expecting, and eventually we have three daughters.  Robin, Raven and Whooping Crane.”

She groaned and gave his cheek a mock slap.

He smiled and went on.  “They are beautiful, like their mother, and like their mother they have the most wondrous powers.  I watch you teach them how to use them with confidence and wisdom.  We scold them when the eldest turns the youngest into a toad, and we smile with pride when one heals the other’s scraped knee.  We watch them grow into formidable young women.  We say goodbye as they head out into the world, and we hold each other and weep after they’ve gone.  After a long while we realize that I’ve grown terribly old, and you are still as young as you are now, and one night I go to sleep in your arms, listening to the song of my nightingale for the last time.  That’s what I dream about.  And here with you now, closer than I’ll ever be, I still dream that it might be possible.  Because it isn’t.”

Nightingale’s smile waned, but she did not correct him.  “The sum of my experiences,” Etienne continued, “are memories and events I wish I could sweep away.  But there are too many.  Too many faces.”  He looked away from her and to the stars.  “Too many tiny lights snuffed out, because of me, because of the choices I made, of my own free will.  There are some sins that cleave too deeply into the heart.  Old wounds that will always ache and bleed.  Someone like me does not deserve the romantic ending that I would want to have.  Someone like me needs to be forgotten, his particular page in history torn clean from the book and crumpled like a draft full of amateur errors.”  Etienne turned his eyes to hers again.  “The cruel joke of it is that after all this time, I think I finally understand the truth of what it is to love someone.  To love in its purest, most incorruptible form, and to know you will carry that love to the last of your brief fragments of mortal time.  Even if she doesn’t and shouldn’t love you in return.”

Etienne reached up to caress her cheek, knowing that although she might care for him in some way, it was not and would never be the equal of what he felt for her.  “I do love you, Nightingale.  Not because you cast that spell on me.  I realized after you left that day that yes, you took away the magic, but it doesn’t matter what happens to the match after the fire begins to burn.  You saved me from a dark noose I couldn’t see closing in on my own throat.  You haunt me, infuriate me, captivate me.  You are the most fascinating, complicated, and genuine woman I have ever known, and there are things I have to do now, and I want them to be for you, only for you.  Once they are done…”  He pressed his lips together and blew, and her little pile of luminous purple sand scattered into the wind.

Nightingale leaned in and kissed him.  “Not forgotten,” she whispered, and invited him to sit up and look out with her.  The individual grains of sand she had enchanted had spread across the beach and lent their light to the others.  Now a blanket of warm and lush amethyst rose to meet the star-pierced sky.  Etienne smiled, recognizing what she was trying to show him.  It only affirmed what he had said to her, and what he felt for her.  However, laced into it was a note of melancholy, of accepting that despite his carefully crafted dream of their future, this would be their only night together.

“Come swim with me,” Nightingale said.

He grinned.  “Are you going to freeze the water on me like you did the first time?”

She bit her lip.  “Ice is the furthest thing from my mind.”

The witch rose and pulled Etienne to his feet.  Laughing, she led him to the water’s edge and flung herself in, vanishing beneath the bubbling crests of the waves turning one at a time onto the flat, cool sand of the shore.  Etienne followed and leaped into the soothing embrace of deep, cool water, and of the woman who waited for him there, watched over only by the stars.

His goddess.  His Nightingale.

The first and last woman he would ever love.

Harsh dawn came in an eon or two with an unheralded and unnoticed return to the very worldly confines of St. Iliane and an insistent banging against a flaking door.  Etienne scratched at the irritation from the straw bed, dragged on a basic decency’s worth of clothing and tucked the old wool blanket tighter against the witch sleeping next to him.  He brushed a long strand of hair away from her face and sat there in quiet contemplation until the door rattled again.

“Tête de cul!  Ouvrir cette putain de porte!”  No question as to who that was.  Etienne left Nightingale in the back room and meandered his way to the front of the hut.  Le Taureau nearly smashed the door in as Etienne began to turn the handle.  Corporal Valnier was behind him, and stepped inside with considerably more respect and patience in his stride.  “Pardonnez-moi, monsieur, am I disturbing your maudit beauty rest?” barked the behemoth.

Etienne noted the peculiar configuration his hair had assumed courtesy of the misshapen pillow on which it had been lying.  “That wouldn’t be the worst thing for you to try sometime,” he replied.

“I’ve earned every scar on this face.  And the men who gave them to me look a lot less pretty than I do now.”

“What is it you want?”

“This arrived for you.  Just now.”  Le Taureau slammed a folded piece of paper against Etienne’s chest, and since the man did not do anything by half-measure, Etienne winced and tried not to gasp.  

He turned the paper over in his hand.  It bore the red seal of the Bureau Centrale, which in itself was not that remarkable, as such things could easily be faked with a candle and some patience.  But the series of digits scrawled across the back confirmed to him that the message was genuine, and that it originated with the Directeurs.  He fought an abrupt trembling in his fingers as he moved to open it.  The seal split and wax shards tumbled to the floor.  Etienne scanned the note quickly; it was brief, as expected.  He folded it again and nodded.  “Well?” Le Taureau demanded.

“How soon can you be ready to go?” Etienne asked.

“How soon?” barked the giant.  “This instant!  J’en ai ral le cul with all this lolling around!”

Etienne looked to his faithful corporal.  “Valnier?”  He received the sparsest of nods.  Sometimes even two words was too much for Valnier.

“One problem,” Le Taureau said.  “Have you forgotten the missing element of this scheme?”

“No, he hasn’t,” announced Nightingale’s voice.  The men spun about as one to see her emerge from the back hallway of the hut.  She was clad in the same sleeveless black gown in which she had greeted Etienne upon her sudden return, and her long hair fell neatly to one side.  Yet the flurry of cold that usually preceded her arrivals was absent.  Perhaps she no longer saw the need for the dramatic flourish.  It did not, in any way, Etienne thought, diminish the impact of her appearance in a room, though he could admit he was fairly biased.  Love tended to do that.

“Déesse!” cried Le Taureau.  That was not hyperbole; he really did look on the edge of tears, and happy enough to see her that he ignored the potentially troubling fact of her emergence from the same bedroom as that from which Etienne had presented himself just a few moments ago.  Valnier, for his part, eyed her with an unreadable cast to his face, a man as unperturbed by the presence of a beautiful woman as he would be by a particularly beautiful piece of furniture.  He and Etienne had undertaken so many missions to apprehend women just like her, and yet they were about to go into battle with this remarkable witch at their side.  If Valnier had doubts, he was not sharing them.  He was obeying orders as he always did.  Without question and without hesitation.  That was his code, and the only law that mattered to him.

Nightingale smiled at Le Taureau, and her acknowledgement of Corporal Valnier was emotionless.  “It’s time?” she asked Etienne.

“At moonrise tonight,” he replied.  “You’re ready?”

“For longer than you can have imagined,” she said.

“If I might say something,” interrupted Le Taureau, “before we embark on this misbegotten campaign of mass suicide?  I don’t know what peculiar turning of fate has brought together a bureaucrat, his mute servant and a true déesse together with the magnificence that is myself, but I would like to hope that it is not simply to break against the rocks.  And while I would not go so far as to call the lot of you honorable, I will allow that you have more courage than your pampered exteriors would suggest.  So if I have to die in service of a cause, then I am not completely horrified at the notion that it will be the same cause to which you have also pledged yourself.”

The other three were somewhat taken aback by Le Taureau’s sudden display of eloquence.  “That was almost poetic,” Etienne said for them.  “And you didn’t swear.”

“Casse-toi, branleur dégéneré,” Le Taureau snapped.  “Avale mes couilles.”

“That’s more like it.”

Nightingale smiled.

Le Taureau chuckled and departed, followed in short order by Valnier, who had remained silent throughout the entire conversation.  He had an almost theatrical sensibility in understanding entrance and exit cues, knowing instinctively when his master wanted moments alone.  Etienne promptly forgot about them both.  “I’ll have to give you the details of the plan,” he told Nightingale.

She shook her head.  “I know them.”  He did not need to ask how.  “May I see the note?”

He handed it over, carefully, as one might lend another flaming branch.  Nightingale drew a fingernail over the words as she read them, as if trying to scrape them away.  Etienne saw her swallow.  Despite the scope of her powers, she was still vulnerable to a very real fear.  “Moonrise?” she said.

“Yes.”

“We should make the most of our time until then, don’t you think?”

Etienne grinned.

The note fell from her hands, and they left it behind, wedged between the dusty timbers of the floor.  Had anyone else stopped by and picked it up, they would have been perplexed by the message, unfamiliar as they would have been with the code established by the Bureau with Etienne before he had departed on his assignment.  But the mere four words were enough, to the informed reader, to set in motion the last act of this particular drama, though none of the performers could be certain as to where, in the end, the playwright was directing them.

NEST FEATHERED.  HAWKS HUNGRY.

* * *

Vintage, Part Seventeen

vintagetitle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pernel froze.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WINGS CLIPPED.  ADVISE ON TIMING FOR RETURN TO NEST.

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

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

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

It did not seem that Nightingale was ever coming back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was his moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What next?  Was it enough?

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

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

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

It turned to mist in front of him.

* * *

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

Vintage, Part Sixteen

vintagetitle

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

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

If only he had something more hopeful to tell them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Easy,” Le Taureau muttered with a scoff.

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

Nightingale nodded.  “I will see to that.”

“And the leadership?” Le Taureau asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You changed me, Nightingale,” Etienne said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He knew nothing.

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

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

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

Was it what he wanted for himself?

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

“Monsieur?”

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

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

One final gift from Nightingale.

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

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

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

“What’s that?” asked Valnier.

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

With or without her…

* * *

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

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.

Vintage, Part Fourteen

vintagetitle

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…

In Conversation with… Emmie Mears!

SIAT COVER2

It’s my privilege today to welcome back for a chat the fan-dab-tabulous author Emmie Mears, whom you may recall (that is, if you don’t follow her and her works already, double-finger-wag shame on you) from our conversation last year about her then-impending debut superhero novel The Masked Songbird.  Her journey since then has been one fraught with as many sharp curves and unexpected drops as a theme park roller coaster.  Now that things are trending up, big time – think rollicking new novel, new agent and new epic fantasy on the horizon – she’s graciously agreed to return to talk about it, in inimitable Emmie style, and share a few hard-earned words of wisdom.  Hope y’all dig.

The last time we caught up with you, The Masked Songbird was about to make its debut.  Since then I guess it’s fair to say a heck of a lot has happened.  Can you fill us in?

Do you have three days and a significant number of Big Macs handy?

2014 was one of those years that made me wish I had an ejector seat. Or could be cryogenically frozen. Or could become a glittery vampire and frolic away into the tundra. Basically, within about three weeks, all four of the books I had under contract became orphans. Publishing has been undergoing many seismic shifts in the past decade, and with the acquisition of Harlequin by Harper Collins, my imprint got smushed in the plate tectonics. It’s not a hugely uncommon thing to happen, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t spend the day my book disappeared from Amazon under a pile of pizza and Buffy episodes. Also, my former agent (who was and remains wonderful) left the business, so I had to do the query trench thing again. Which was…interesting. I girded myself with my beast of an epic fantasy and waded back in, to a surprisingly cacophonous response. I’m still sort of bewildered by February.

Ultimately, I decided the best way forward with three urban fantasy novels in a market where most editors have severe urban fantasy fatigue (actual diagnosis) was to put them out myself. My wonderful former agent and friend is making the covers, and they rock. It’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience so far.

Through a combination of circumstances, Gwen was orphaned.  Now she’s making a comeback.  What’s changed from the first kick at the can with this book – what have you learned, and what, in retrospect, if anything, might you have done differently?

Hoo, doggies.

I think the biggest thing I’ve learned about this business is that there is no “the one.” There’s no One Book. There’s no One Deal. There’s no One Agent. Essentially, there is no sovereign specific. I could go with a metaphor about eggs in baskets, etc, but I’d rather just say this: publishing is a rapidly-changing landscape. You have to be adaptable. You have to roll with rejections, and you have to get back up when the business doesn’t pull its punches. I have a pet (very mathematical) theory that…

Success in publishing = hard work + time(x factors)

Time can be two months or two years or two decades. (Hell, it can be two centuries — there are enough posthumous success stories out there. GO TEAM ZOMBIE AUTHORS!) The x factor is going to be that weird concoction of the market, industry biases, reader readiness, word of mouth, cultural coincidence, and whatever the fuck (can I say fuck?) else makes a book sell. The x factors can speed up or slow down a single book’s chances of success. But that little time variable is what mitigates their influence. If you work hard for long enough, you might not be grossing Janet Evanovich royalties, but you’ll probably find some sort of success whether you’re shooting for trade publishing (brick and mortar distribution, advances, etc.) or going it on your own.

Time and hard work also heavily influence a writer’s craft, which also plays a part. My seventh book was infinitely stronger than my first book.

Book math. It’s gonna be a thing. My equation right now looks like: >6 years working 60-130 hour weeks between full time day job and full time writing shtuff (crowded UF market + uncontrollable publisher movement + 7 years of an established online presence + readers still liking UF) = my first thousand sales. To me that feels like success.

Please don’t do the math on my hourly wage for the last half decade. (Anyone who ever accuses me of getting into this business for teh moniez is welcome to replicate my equation in their own controlled experiment.)

How has the progression of real-world events (i.e. the results of the Scottish referendum last year) impacted Gwen’s story, and do you think it has affected the timeliness of the book?

I was very deliberate when I first wrote Shrike: The Masked Songbird to make the referendum present and important without hinging the book on its outcome. I didn’t want that. A: I am heretofore unsuccessful at predicting the independently concluded thought processes of groups of 4 million people. (Or four people, for that matter.) B: The question behind the book was more “what makes a hero?” than “what will Scotland do?” And on that latter bit, I wanted to explore what Gwen would do. In the USA, there’s Captain America and plenty of homegrown heroes who love their country. Ultimately Gwen is a hero who loves her country.

There is a sequel coming in September, and it’s followed with the sort of uncertainty that came in the wake of the referendum. Scotland is a very different place today than it was a year ago, and I wanted to show that, as well as the helplessness that comes when someone is swept away on something they can’t control. Shrike: Songbird Risen is very much a book about learning how to wield your power, and I think that remains topical in post-referendum Scotland. It’s a darker book (and I wrote it on deadline pre-referendum, so I was careful to consider how uncertainty shapes people regardless of what happened with the vote), but I think there is a lot of hope in it. Ultimately it’s not superpowers that save anyone — it’s humanity.

I’m very interested to see what will happen in the coming general election. The referendum galvanized a massively engaged, powerful populace.

There seems to be a perception, fairly widespread among amateurs, that all one has to do is land representation or get that first book published and it’s money-printing and red carpet time.  The media doesn’t help by hyping overnight success stories.  What’s the reality of a working writer’s life from your perspective?  What does everyone who calls him or herself “an aspiring author” absolutely need to know about making this business of wordsmithery a realistic calling?

There’s this common joke in publishing circles of the ten year overnight success. Like I said above, there isn’t a The One. No one thing will make you a success. I’d also challenge that those “overnight” success stories are probably not really overnight at all. Nobody waves a hand at a keyboard and poofs a book into existence, and there is no, “Like a good neighbor, IMPRINT is there!” to make an editor magically appear next to you with a contract in hand.

My reality is something I touched on above. I get up at 5:30 and shower and drag my sleepy butt to the metro. I either write or read on my hour train ride. I work 8-10 hours in the office. I slog back on the train (again writing or reading). I play with my cats, give them their beloved fudz, and write some more. On weekends, I get up and do write-y stuff. Plot, outline, draft, edit, revise, rinse, repeat. I wasn’t joking about the high end of my hours — sometimes I really do work 100+ hours in a week. That’s not everyone, but for me, that’s what it’s taken to get where I am.

Okay. I hate the word aspire. It sounds like a cloud’s fart.  I’m gonna go all Yoda on you. Do or do not. There is no try. To quote Chuck Wendig and probably a lot of others, writers write. If you write, you’re a writer. If you’ve written a story, you’re the author of that story and therefore an author. You didn’t fart it into existence (unless you have some extraordinary talent, and if so, you are squandering your potential and should have your own reality show), you wrote it. You’re not in competition with anyone.

If you want to do words as a career, it takes time. It takes that and a lot of effort. There aren’t shortcuts for reading widely in your genre (or in general). You don’t have to reinvent the wheel — I love craft books for learning foundational things like structure — but even learning things on an intellectual level necessitates practice to make them work for you. That said, I’m ten years in and only this year has it begun to look like I could do this full time and pay my bills this way. It’s a long con, and there are setbacks and obstacles at every stage. Getting an agent doesn’t make everything into the dance-y, pre-gasoline fight incident scene in Zoolander. (There might still be freak gasoline fight incidents.) Getting published doesn’t even guarantee your books will be on shelves a year later. *waves little flag meekly*

The great thing is that today in authordom, there are many paths to readers, and you can pick any or many of them.

It’s been said about just about every art form, but if you can be fulfilled and happy doing anything else, for Hades’ sake, do that instead.

What’s your writing routine?  What’s your writing playlist?  Is there one particular song or album that breaks you out of block?

I carve out writing time wherever I can. My dream schedule would be to wake up, go for a swim or a run, shower, write for a few hours, read, eat, write a bit more, and then play video games till 3 AM and do it again. (I’m allowed to dream, right? That sounds nicer than scribbling on a metro train whilst smelling someone’s BO after getting three and a half hours of sleep…)

I usually don’t write to music, which may be a surprise. When I do, it’s usually music without lyrics, though it depends on what I’m writing. Writing Storm, I listen to classic rock. For that I blame Supernatural, because even though I wrote the first Storm book before ever seeing an episode of the show, demon hunting and classic rock now just…live together. When writing Shrike, I listened to a lot of Frightened Rabbit. When writing Stonebreaker (my most recent novel), I listened to music only rarely, and it was usually the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, even though the book’s not so LoTR-y except for sharing a genre.

I want to ask a little about the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign.  Where did this start and what is it all about?  What voices would you like to see get more exposure on the bookshelves?

This amazing campaign started because of a sort of perfect storm (har har) of things. BEA released their author lineup for 2014 and stats came out for representation in literature, AND there was comparison to census data…it all added up to a rather stark depiction of the lack of diversity in publishing compared to the diversity of the American (and global) people. (They say it better than I.)

Basically, representation matters. Seeing yourself in media matters. Seeing yourself excluded from media has an impact. Seeing yourself relegated to a set of stereotypes has an impact. In any given adventure movie, you’ll have (usually white, able-bodied, and straight) men playing a number of roles. The brains, the brawn, everything in between. One gets to be a geek, one can be the muscle, one can be something else entirely. They are allowed a diversity of experience. Look at the Avengers for a sort of case-in-point example. Tony Stark is the wealthy genius playboy. Bruce Banner is a gentle — if explosive — also genius. Steve Rodgers is the underdog-turned-hero. Clint Barton is the pensive (at least in the movies), deliberate, competent dude. And Natasha Romanova is a femme fatale. She’s not without nuance, but where guys have four people to find themselves in, women have one. You learn at an early age to relate to people who aren’t you when you are part of a marginalized people group, regardless of whether that means gender identity, race, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic status, etc.

A desire for diversity is a desire to see many facets of experience. Being a straight, white, able-bodied man is not a homogeneous experience, and in all corners of media, they are allowed that diversity. Being a queer woman, or a woman of color with a disability, or a queer man of color? If you see yourself at all, you are conditioned to scramble to pick up the scraps. Diana Pho (editor at Tor) wrote a phenomenal piece on Jim Hine’s blog recently. Go read it. I’ll wait.

Ultimately books and media without diversity are erasure — if you’re writing a futuristic sci-fi where humans are exploring other worlds and your flight crew is all white dudes? On a lot of levels, that says that the rest of us aren’t welcome in that new world, or that we weren’t even thought of to include. This discussion is about having empathy for experiences outside our own and being willing to learn to see ourselves in people who go through the world in different skin.

I grew up with two moms, and I’m a bisexual woman. Growing up in the 90s where the only representation of my family that I saw in media was a banned book (Heather Has Two Mommies), I was used to receiving signals that my family was bad or wrong or somehow dirty. A book about a family like mine was banned. People argued about it. That communicates things to children. I remember when Ellen DeGeneres came out. There was this sense of “FINALLY” for me, to see someone I loved like Ellen suddenly having something in common with my family. Representation is powerful. It tells you that you’re not alone. It tells you that you deserve to be here. It tells you that your story matters, and that you can be a hero too.

Without dropping spoilers, there was a powerful moment in Storm in a Teacup involving consent.  The scene was realized beautifully.  Why don’t others get it – why do you think that there is still so much depiction of non-consensual sex in popular fiction, and what does it take to change that trend?

Possible trigger warning for my answer here, as I intend to be frank about issues of consent and rape.

I think that can be boiled down to that concept of rape culture. That phrase alone tends to flip the off switch in some people’s heads, so bear with me. Culturally, we’re taught that men make the first move, that men are the ones who are assertive sexually (or aggressive), and that women are the passive recipients. Phrases like “she was asking for it” (when the she in question was, in a literal way, doing nothing of the sort) and “he couldn’t help himself” reinforce this idea. I think a lot of the issues of consent in fiction are unintentional. I have done it too, without even meaning to. I’d meant something to BE consensual, but after multiple editing passes by multiple people, this scene had slipped by until my editor said, “Huh, just realized this could be interpreted as non-consensual.” And she was right. I was mortified, because that wasn’t what I meant. That’s why getting new eyes on things is important; your experience might filter out some of those interpretations. Someone else might be hyper sensitive to it and save you the heartache of having your words hurt someone else (and obviously, that other someone as well).

(Also, there’s a difference — sometimes a fine line, sometimes a big boldy thick one — between hurting someone and offending someone. Someone telling me they think my hair is ugly might offend me or dent my delicate fee-fees a little, but someone breaking my trust or plunging me into a triggery situation without warning can do damage. I want to err as much as possible on the side of not hurting people.)

Non-consensual sex is rape. It’s not sex. Rape is violence, even if terrible politicians try to say that only certain kinds of rape are “forcible.” (They might as well say my rape didn’t count because I didn’t have contusions afterward.) I think the conflation of rape and sex is part of what makes this mess. Participating partners in sex should both want to do it. To me that seems very simple, but somehow that’s an alien thought to too many people.

What does it take to change it? So many levels of change will be necessary. Demystifying sexuality for children and adolescents, teaching them to engage with the subject thoughtfully and with empathy, giving them the tools (including facts and real information) they need to make informed decisions, teaching them about bodily autonomy and consent (these things are relevant at all ages — I was taught bodily autonomy and consent as a toddler by my wonderful mothers, and their instruction helped me escape a situation where someone tried to molest me). Putting examples of this in art and media — people internalize the stories they see. Many, many levels of change.

I appreciate your words about Storm. I was intentional about it. I’m glad it came through.

What are you reading right now?  What does it take to hook Emmie’s interest, and by contrast, what kinds of books would you avoid?

I’m currently reading The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I just finished Max Gladstone’s Two Serpents Rise and a bit ago, Delilah Dawson’s Servants of the Storm. Great writing hooks me regardless of genre, but I deeply appreciate finding stories that escape the trappings of cliches and tropes. I’ve read some fantastic stories lately. Some authors to watch: Jacqueline Koyanagi, Alis Franklin, Stephen Blackmoore, and obviously the others I’ve already mentioned. They weave gorgeous, rich worlds and tell stories that make me want to live in them. Also, most of the books I mentioned star people of color, and that’s refreshing to me, like that feeling of “FINALLY” I felt when Ellen came out. Yes, more of this please. More stories. More heroes. More people to love.

Fridged women are the fastest way to get me to tune out. I’m just so tired of seeing that trope over and over. It’s exhausting when your first introduction to a character like you in a world is to someone who’s gone already. Or to always have the damsel distressing as the bait for the beleaguered protagonist. Give me something I haven’t seen ten thousand times.

You’re doing your own series on the query trenches so I don’t want to step on that, but can you talk a little about how you secured representation with Sara Megibow, and any advice you’d offer to those champing at the bit to be able to publish their much-dreamed about “I FINALLY HAVE AN AGENT!” blog post – even if it’s a hard reality check?

I found Sara IN THE SLUSHPILE!!! I will crow that loudly to anyone who listens, because I am a firm believer in slush. I wrote a query. I sent it. She requested. She offered. It was the process in its most process-y form.

My biggest advice is to look over that equation I mentioned above. Hard work + time(x factor). Some things will be harder to sell. Pay attention to the market and what’s happening in publishing. Educate yourself about the business, because even though we venture into it with a dream, it is a business with a bottom line. It (as a business-y bottom line behemoth) does not care about dreams so much. BUT. This business is run by people who are humans and want to find things they love and share those things with readers. Write a fantastic book. Be a professional. Follow directions. If trade publishing is what you want, buckle yourself in for the long haul and start putting in the work. It’s not a fair business. It has systematic and structural issues with diversity, so if you are a diverse author and/or have a diverse story, it could very well be harder even with so many agents and editors asking for just that right now. Just keep swimming. And remember that there are many paths to readers these days.

Lastly, can you drop any tantalizing hints about Stonebreaker, and when we might feast our eyes on it?

Ah, this question! Stonebreaker news will happen when it happens (yay, vagaries!), but I can tell you that it is a book, and it is a large book. And there are giant sentient camouflage-able bats in it.

Curse your sudden but inevitable vagueness!  Oh well folks, I tried.  In the meantime, you can check out Storm in a Teacup, presently ranked #15 in Amazon’s top Dark Fantasy novels.  Thanks so much to Emmie for taking the time to indulge my inner Larry King.  To the rest of you, thanks for reading.  Now get back to work.

 

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.