Chapter 9 - In Happiness and SadnessBelle Night, Brazil, 1783
Auguste could not believe that his stay at Belle Night ended up so pleasant. Alexander and Rose were everything he had ever dreamed of as hosts. Talking to them was interesting, they demonstrated everything he needed to know in his stay to be independent, and once it was clear that he was safe in being alone, they let him explore the city freely.
And yet, he could have stayed all year in that house. The Van Allen house had a dozen rooms. The idea, they explained, was that they could accommodate all their children and friends when they wanted to get everyone together for a party, or if it was necessary to keep them safe inside the city for indeterminate periods.
Above the second floor, they had a hexagonal room, which Alexander used as an astronomical observatory and workshop, and Rose used as an atelier. Seeing the passion with which she worked on her art, he, for the first time, felt like producing something for himself, instead of painting or sculpting anything that would make Jules happy.
The two had been generous enough to let him into that room when he wished and to use their leftovers supplies; he tried to thank them by cleaning and arranging everything they had. Lucius found that very funny.
“Our studio was never so neat,” Rose had told his son one of these days when they were talking under the stars. “I did not believe that after nearly two hundred years of chaos, it was even possible to put order in that mess, but Auguste did.”
“Who would have thought the boy who woke up as a vampire and decided that what was missing in the world was a book with all the knowledge about vampires coded and organized in an objectively written book would be a neat freak. I'm shocked,” he said with a hoarse laugh.
“I'm not a neat freak,” Auguste retorted, slightly annoyed. “I just think schematizing things helps to organize my thoughts.”
“To be fair”, Alexander interrupted, with an expression of excessive innocence “not being able to concentrate because the objects around him are not perfectly aligned and /or clean is a symptom of neat freakness. Annette is like that too, did you know?”
“Well, if you are all so fond of living in a pigsty, I'm not going to intrude anymore,” Auguste grumbled. He lost his patience a little, and exaggerated the reaction to enter the game.
“What I think is that Mr. Lavert is organized as a reflection of his highly scientific mind, and that you should learn from him”, a girl with glasses said, leaving home and sitting on the lawn.
“Says the other neat freak” Lucius scoffed.
“Shut up, Lu” she cut him out. “Just because you cannot put even your beard in order, it does not mean that everyone else is a ‘neat freak’.”
The two kept their friendly bantering. The young woman was Antonieta van Allen, whom the others called “Nieta”. At nineteen, she was the youngest of the family. She was on an excursion to collect medicinal plants when Auguste had arrived, and now she was one of the things he enjoyed the most during his stay.
Nieta had introduced him to everyone at the University of Belle Night, where she studied Medicine. As Louis had asserted, the University had a severe shortage of professors. Few of them were actual experts in their fields. Most of them had studied at universities in Europe and came back to share what they had learned. Some were sages of the human peoples that the city contained, and would teach about the history and language of their people, or about their medical techniques. And there was a minority of professors trained by the University itself.
What the faculty lacked in experience, they had in a willingness to understand everything, study everything and then systematize the knowledge acquired. For a relatively young university, in comparison to the European ones, they already had a respectable volume of studies, mainly in everything that involved magic. Auguste was very successful there, since many teachers and students were excited about his initiative and wanted to be part of it. One of the aspects he found most fascinating was that the University was frequented by all kinds of people. In Europe, he heard a lot about how women and “savages” had no capacity for logical thinking, but that did not seem to apply to that place. Nieta had one of the coolest, sharpest minds he had ever met, and she was one of the people he liked to talk to most.
Another thing he admired in the city was how the appreciation of art and the pursuit of beauty seemed to be universal. Even the citizens with the simplest tastes, the ones with the least academic accomplishments, lived in houses that they sought to beautify, usually with climbing flowers or paintings. In fact, something that surprised him there was that almost all the houses had frescoes inside, whether on a specific wall or all over. The Van Allen house itself had paintings and verses in every room, the work of all members of the family. Stopping and drawing or writing on walls, whether with a coal pencil or a brush, was a common habit that did not end with people being kicked out of the room.
Watching carefully, he concluded, to his surprise, that one of the main reasons for this prevalence of art was the fact that so many vampires lived in the city. As vampires did not eat (or at least not on plates), meetings of families and friends were more centred on art and games than meals. It was not uncommon for the people of the city to eat in their own at different times, but all families seemed to have an almost sacred schedule for a joint activity, whether it was playing music, a joint reading of a book, or even verse duels.
Belle Night had also taught him sensory appreciation: small, seemingly useless gestures that appealed to the vampires’ enhanced senses to the point of being extremely relaxing and satisfying. Alexander and Rose exchanged these gestures all the time. Sometimes he would spread petals of his wife's favourite flowers all over the house, leaving an atmosphere of perfume. She would reciprocate with a refreshing mix of pine and wet earth. The two of them constantly massaged each other and whispered songs softly in the partner's ears.
They also taught him the delight of a warm bath of immersion. As a vampire, he did not feel temperature variations, so, theoretically, a cold shower and a warm bath should not be different, but they were. The sensation of the water on his skin, the amount of steam in the air, the density of the soap scent... All this changed the experience. The only time he remembered being washed with water had been when his father found him, and he was so filthy that only a bathtub would clean him properly. After that, a good cleaning with cloths always seemed more than enough. The pleasure of putting himself underwater and just sitting there feeling good with its gentle touch on his skin, as if he were being held, had been one of the best things he'd learned there.
It was not all fun, of course. He had come to Belle Night with a mission, and he was a person of responsibility. With the cooperation of everyone he had met, Auguste had obtained a copy of several of the books produced by the University with technical knowledge that he thought would be useful in Europe (besides adding them to his book), which he had already considered more than enough.
To please the council, he still added all the strategic information they could want: size and population of the city, how many inhabitants were humans, how many were magical (at least half the population), what languages were spoken (many), and size of the army. From what Auguste understood, they did not have a fixed army. In times of peace, there was only the Secretary of Defense (Lucius worked there), that would guard the edges of the city and escort locals back and forth. The writer had also measured the traffic of people over time, discovering that Belle Night received far more visitors than expected, coming from all over the world. The people there also travelled a lot. The reason the Council considered them "isolated" was simply because the wars cut off every communication the city could make with them.
Auguste had also had the opportunity to study how strong Alexander and Rose really were, and the Patriarchs did not disappoint him. Rose could easily confront any member of the Council in a fight (only those who had seen her training with the military could appreciate the full extent of her dizzying speed and force) and Alexander... He really was everything they said about him, and more, (minus the part about the “brain washing”). The rumours about he not eating was unbelievably true, and Auguste had watched, gaping, as he managed to manipulate the energy of things around him in a way that even Charlie, with all his magic, could not. It was no wonder that Belle Night had stopped the Council army. And now, with the city growing much larger than it was at that time, the task of exterminating them would be even more difficult.
So that they could not complain about his dedication, he even asked for permission to attend the voluntary self-defence training the Secretary of Defense offered to the population, noting the details of all tactics they taught.
From his first month in the city, he sent these notes to the Council every time a new caravan set off to the coast, always taking care to keep a copy of the letter for himself, just in case.
As his time on Belle Night was approaching its end, he finally came to the conclusion that the fears about the city were unfounded. There was no mental domination there, only people who had brought that ideal for their lives. The city had a thousand and one problems. Discussions and sports events ending in turmoil, economic crises, rival groups that refused to accept a truce, external enemies wanting to frighten them and prevent them from freely moving outside their borders, cultural friction between the various peoples that made up the city, and the list went on. Still, it was worth fighting for. He saw there much greater prospects of having a meaningful life than simply trying not to be killed on a whim of the Council.
Sometime after consolidating this certainty, Alexander had approached him at the observatory.
“Auguste” he called, moving away from the telescope. “You are a sincere and honest person, and I do not want to take it from you. That is why I will not ask you to make a secret of what I am about to say now, relying entirely on your discernment.”
“I'm listening.” He was surprised at the other's serious tone.
“I have been frantically searching for new ways to protect Belle Night for a while, as you might imagine.” Alexander looked at the ceiling, taking a deep breath. “I'm researching an extremely complex and ambitious spell. I have a book that I believe contains a way to do it, but it is a medieval book, and you know what medieval mages are like. You never know if they are writing poetry, a spell, or something useless just to confuse rivals. I need the help of a specialist. And that is where you come in.”
“I do not know much of magic,” Auguste quickly explained. “I barely know how to make even the simplest spells.”
“That is not it,” Alexander assured him, his voice gentle. “When I read your book, I could see that you had help in entries dealing with magic. The style is slightly different from the other entries, and full of Anglicisms. Therefore, I wonder if there is any way you can contact your collaborator. We have been trying to contact Lord Greyville since he wrote Theory and Practice, but we have never been successful. The man seems to vanish like water between our fingers. And we do not want his help for free. I have books here that I am sure he would like to see, things from before the genocide. The book I want him to analyse is one of these.”
Alexander brought an extremely old volume to Auguste, which could only be in that decent state of preservation thanks to some spell. The young man leafed through it, barely making out what was written. The letters were a bunch of random scratches that only became traditional Latin letters if he sharpened his own view magically, and yet they did not seem to form words of any known language.
“Yeah, I would need some help too,” Auguste commented, trying to decide what to say next.
He had not spoken to Alexander about Charlie yet. At first, he was still suspicious, and afraid that he might never return to Europe, and he did not want to implicate his friend in that danger. Then he feared that he could not leave the city, and he did not want to imprison the other. Now that he was more comfortable and reasonably sure that the pacifists were not some bizarre cult that kept people there by force, he had to decide whether his trust in the Van Allens was total.
That request from Alexander seemed to be a good indication that they
certainly trusted him
. Of all the information he had gotten, this one – that they had been trying to create a great protection spell on in the city, was the most sensitive and the most alarming. Auguste could use it quietly to destroy any possibility of peace between the city and the Council. With the right strategy, he could destroy it all.
Yet, it was obvious he would never do such a thing. It was very clear that he was absolutely in love with the ideals that this place represented. Beauty, art, science, and the quest for knowledge were his intellectual bread and butter, what he breathed in academic circles while still in college, and what motivated him. And those things were apparently the most cherished values for the locals there. Auguste desperately wanted the Council to make peace with them so he could visit the city more often. Maybe live in it. Who needed mind control when they successfully made the Enlightenment paradise on Earth?
Deciding to give due credit to the Van Allens, Auguste confessed to Alexander:
“Actually, I already contacted Charlie.”
“Charlie?” he asked, laughing.
Auguste blushed, for some reason.
“Lord Greyville, I mean. We have been corresponding since a few years ago. He said he tried to come here once, but he got lost in the jungles of Brazil. He did not come here with me this time just because he was helping some friends with a lethal curse, and he could not leave them, but he asked me to get him a safe-conduct.”
Alexander was amazed as Auguste related this, and then he began to laugh.
“I do not believe that we lost each other like this!” He hugged Auguste unexpectedly: “Thank you so much for coming, thanks for helping us, you are a blessing, you know?”
If before Auguste had had red cheeks at the mention of Charlie, now he was letting steam blow from his ears. His only consolation was that Alexander's surprise hugs were always comfortable and respectful. If it were anyone else, the young man would hate every minute, but there was such a natural spontaneity in the affection of Belle Night's ambassador that it was impossible to get upset at him.
Who needed mind control when you had the most charismatic and caring person in the world at your disposal?Belo Horizonte, Brazil, 1982
Auguste wasted no time as his relationship with Cidinha became official. Just the following weekend, he invited her to dinner at his house, to meet his oldest friend. She arrived earlier to help him in the kitchen (which usually meant she would wash the dishes). Auguste was in such a good mood that he was blabbering more than usual. After speaking for a while about Jules, he added:
“He's also my surrogate father. When my father died, he cared for me until I understood this... bizarre vampire thing.” He mixed the egg whites as if they had offended him, and grunted in a low voice: “Worst two weeks of my life.”
“Which two weeks?” she asked curiously.
“My first two weeks after being transformed. Let me say that the bad thing about your body changing radically is that the human body is disgusting. It doesn’t do anything without throwing away all kinds of unpleasant fluids. Let's just say that most movies make it all look like a magic flash that happens in two seconds. In a moment you're down there dead and suddenly you're ready to terrorize the night, or whatever. But let me tell you something: bodies do not change in a snap. Your vampire adaptation is like a second puberty. Only much faster. And even worse. At least in my case, since I started from scratch.”
“Iiish. God guard me.”
“It’s just a matter of not getting close to my blood.” He rubbed the tip of her nose with the white cream and mixed them in the soufflé dough.
“Wait, wait, what did you mean by ‘started from scratch’?”
“I was human when my father's blood reached me by accident. When a person prepares to be a vampire, they usually become a half-vampire first, gradually, to learn to cope with the changes and make the final transformation less drastic.”
“Good to know,” she teased.
He just laughed and changed the subject:
“Anyway, Jules was the person who had to be on my side in those unpleasant moments to metaphorically hold my hand. The debt I have with him can’t be paid.”
After preparing the food for Cidinha and the drinks for Auguste and Jules, the couple went to have a bath; later, they babbled happily while waiting for the guest. Auguste stood up before the doorbell and the girl wondered why vampires even had bells, and why they bothered to ring them, if they always felt each other like that.
She quickly set it aside when Jules entered, in a wheelchair. He was nothing she expected, and she did not even know what to expect. He reminded her of some Syrian immigrants she knew, because of his facial features and his beard. His hair was long and grey, falling almost like a wall against the world, depending on how he shook his head. He wore the chair because his legs were cut just above the knee. Auguste had not told her that part of the story.
The artist hugged his friend hard enough to lift him from his chair and finally made the introductions.
“Cidinha, this is Jules, Jules this is Cidinha, my girlfriend.”
The man lost his stern expression for a moment, apparently reading the other's face for signs of a joke.
“My girlfriend,” Auguste repeated, slowly, intertwining his fingers to hers with a soft smile. “We've been dating for a while, but we made the things official last week.”
Jules looked directly at Cidinha, frowning, as if he were evaluating something dangerous.
“What witchcraft did you do with him?” he asked, without breaking eye contact.
“I'm as surprised as you,” she replied, with a comical look of confusion.
This disarmed him and he eventually smiled lightly. From there the dinner went well. Jules and Auguste were partners in some ventures, so much of the talk was about business. Even so, she did not feel bored. That world of finance was so alien to her that even those mundane conversations became interesting.
At first, she thought it was Jules who was focusing the conversation on work, since he seemed to be very serious and committed to it; paying attention, though, she realized that Auguste was the one who was encouraging that subject. She was intrigued, until he had to get out to answer the phone, and Jules took the chance to talk directly to Cidinha. What followed was a flood of those kind of embarrassing stories that only parents are able to tell about their children.
“... and then, he set fire to the pile of clothes and remained on his underwear until I bought a new change.”
Auguste arrived back in the dining room at that moment, with Cidinha laughing enough to make her belly tremble, and frowned at Jules.
“I did what I had to do, I don’t see what is so hysterical,” he said. “Two hundred years and you still have not gotten over it?”
“Time just makes this story funnier,” Jules said, with a wicked grin. “Cidinha agrees.”
“It's true,” she confirmed.
When he left, hours later, the girl was glad to have met him. It was good to know that Auguste had a family, and that he was fun to live with. Nothing was worse than an annoying father-in-law or mother-in-law.
The following week, Auguste had spent Christmas with her and her family. After enduring endless jokes from Madalena and Regina, he finally invited Cidinha to spend the New Year with him and his friends.
“You're going to love it,” he promised, before going away. “I'm going to take you to see Belle Night.”
The promise had filled her with expectations. Auguste clearly loved that place, and was friends with almost everyone there, including the city's legendary founders. Her only fear was that she was so normal that they would find her uninteresting.
Auguste appeared in the late afternoon of the 31st, his eyes swollen from sleep hidden by dark glasses. Cidinha was forced to stop and tug by the memory before concluding that yes, that was the first time since they had met that she found him outdoors during the day, without coats or a ton of sunscreen.
“Then you don't become ashes in the sun,” she teased. “Darn.”
“The sun can give you some horrible burns and drain all your energy, leaving you prostrate,” Auguste said, yawning. “I mean, it's usually like this. But guess what, testing that blood substitute Maria is trying to industrialize has had a convenient side effect over those two years.” He stood on a lighted piece of the sidewalk and opened his arms to illustrate his recent immunity to the sun's rays.
“All right, let's go,” Cidinha got in the car. “You have a lot of VIP people to introduce me to, remember?”
“Just four.” He laughed. “Let's go then.”
The girl was confused when Auguste drove to the bus station, and even more confused when he parked the car there and headed for the ticket booths.
“Will we go there by bus?” she asked, more lost than ever.
“Not at all.” Auguste laughed. “You'll see.”
They arrived at a small booth of a company that she had never heard of. Auguste held up a card, which appeared to be a health insurance card, and the attendant opened the gate to let him into the room.
Behind a wooden partition, another girl sat on a small table, using a typewriter. Oddly enough, the machine did not seem to have any types, so when she pushed the button, nothing was pressed against the paper. Strangely still, the words popped up on it anyway.
“Good afternoon, Auguste,” she greeted him with a smile. “You are going to the Police or to Belle Night?”
“Good afternoon, Suzi. I'm going to visit Alexander and Rosa for New Year,” he explained. “Cidinha is going with me, is everything alright?”
“No problem.” Suzi turned to her. “Could you lend me your ID, please?”
She spent some time typing in Cidinha's data, until a fax machine began to spit some papers. Suzi gave one of them to Auguste and two to Cidinha.
“Portal 3,” she warned. “Happy New Year.”
Auguste said good-bye to her and headed for the back of the room, where there was a rectangle drawn on the wall. Cidinha did not have time to ask anything or complain. He pulled her hand determinedly and they both crossed the rectangle as if the wall did not exist.
The two of them stepped out into a huge hexagonal room. Each wall had several rectangles like the one she had just crossed, each with a number on them. People came in and out of them constantly, and several stopped to greet Auguste, while they were standing under number 3.
“What is this?” she asked in a low voice.
“We're in the portal room of the Dimensional Police,” he explained. “Here, we can travel to any point of three different dimensions. It's a shame that it has a relatively small limit to the amount of matter you can move in a day without overloading the system because it would be an unspeakable revolution in freight transportation.”
“Different dimensions,” she whispered. “You've talked about this before, but being actually here is surreal.”
A voice on the loudspeaker, similar to the one that announced the departures of the buses at the bus station from which they left, began to recite:
“Portal 3 for Belle Night, capacity of two people, activated. Immediate use. Portal 3 for Belle Night...”
Auguste again took her by the hand and pulled her into the wall. This time they seemed to enter an airport, but it was a custom. What followed was about ten minutes of protocols and checks, until the clerk finally wished them a good time in the city.
“Do we really need all this?” Cidinha asked, with a sigh of frustration.
“There have been recent attempts to smuggle dangerous magical items into the city using innocent people,” Auguste said in a sober tone of voice. “The population is nervous. Sorry for the bother.”
She shrugged. It had not been uncomfortable, exactly; it just seemed like time wasted. As they passed the glass doors at the end of the room, she was surprised to have stopped on a dirt road surrounded by tall trees. Auguste did not say they were going to a city...?
Barely a few steps down the road, a huge stone arch became visible without warning. Cidinha looked enchanted at the huge metal lantern, with crystal tips sticking out the openings. She could have sworn the crystal was shining, even if she could not see any light at all.
Two or three minutes after crossing the arch, the road seemed to end abruptly in a cliff. When she reached the edge of the cliff, she finally saw.
A much larger city than she had expected was in that valley. It started just below the cliff where they were, down to the valley, across the river and up again on the hills on the other side. The streets were laid out in such a way that the houses formed drawings, which came together in beautiful patterns. Right in the centre of the valley, the design was the flag she had seen at the custom: a checkered background with a diamond in the centre. Around this drawing, it was almost impossible to describe the pattern, formed by the most diverse geometric forms. Some round plazas gave a mandala effect, while the streets intersected almost like a Mondrian's work in some places. The very colours of the roofs and walls made effects she could barely believe. The sun was already setting and the shadows and colours of the sunset gave a fantastic touch to the composition.
“Beautiful, is not it?” Auguste said, in a low voice. “The belle reclining over the valley.”
“I'm going to be jealous,” Cidinha chuckled, but her voice was also strangely muffled by emotion.
“That's why I wanted to come before nightfall.” His eyes were still far away, staring out over the landscape. “I've never seen the sunset from up here. Everyone always said it was beautiful. It is true.”
“Whoa, has it been so little time since you can walk in the sun?” she asked, quite sure that Auguste had been drinking this replacement for at least two and a half years by then.
"Two or three months at most," he said, with a soft smile. “I have tried various formulations, only the latter has this effect. The first ones made it take a lot longer for the sun to start burning, but it was still very unpleasant.” He took a deep breath. “I'm just beginning to understand why Alexander likes his sunbaths so much. When it’s not burning from the inside out, the effect on the skin is very good. It's not heat, it's... indescribable.”
They both fell solemnly silent as the sun descended on the horizon. Cidinha assumed that they would go on as soon as the last rays of light disappeared, but Auguste only sat on the side of the road.
“Just a little longer,” he explained. “You still have to see one last thing.”
He hugged her, and they were enjoying each other's presence for several minutes, until it really darkened. It was then that Cidinha understood what he wanted to show her. When they stood and looked back at the city, she agreed that the name “Belle Night” was one hundred percent appropriate for that place.
The patterns of the streets, once perceptible, now stood out dramatically. The streets shone, and even the houses seemed to contain a less kitschy version of the Christmas lights she was accustomed to. The city emitted a light subtle enough that the stars were still visible, but bright enough to stand out in the darkness.
They finally started to walk down the valley, and Cidinha could not help noticing that they passed no lampposts. The houses had no lamps outside. After searching fruitlessly for the light bulbs illuminating the trees, she finally realized that the trees were shining, as were the creeper plants on the roofs, walls and windows.
The streets soon became more and more agitated. At one point, they climbed on what appeared to be an electric tram, but it did not follow any wiring beyond the metal rails on the ground. All the way, people kept saying hello to Auguste. She was surprised, at a certain moment, to see that some people were addressing her. Before she could ask Auguste why, he pointed a large poster in a square. It was one of the promotional photos Cidinha had made for Bibi's clothing line. She could not believe it.
They switched trams twice and finally went down in front of a huge, beautiful house. Looking around, she could see that they were once again at the top of a hill, but opposite the entrance to the city.
When Auguste rang the doorbell, Cidinha held her breath. It was time. She was going to meet a bunch of important and intelligent vampires. She needed to make a good first impression.
The man who answered was a tall, blond man with a somewhat old-fashioned beard and thick glasses. He looked like a gringo professor in casual clothes. His smile when he saw Auguste could hardly fit in his face, and he hugged him tightly, amid exclamations of joy.
“Cidinha, this is Alexander” Auguste introduced him, as soon as he was released from the bear hug. “I know that it is a self-evident truth, but he doesn’t believe in handshakes.”
“Do not be silly, Auguste, not being adept at something is not denying its existence,” the other replied in a good humour. “Welcome, Cidinha.”
She was surprised at how gentle and comfortable his embrace was. It was not what she expected after seeing him lift Auguste off the ground. His body temperature was not high (probably room temperature), but he still felt warm.
The three entered the house proper, and Cidinha stopped existing for the world for a few seconds. Auguste had handed Alexander the lunchbox he had set for Cidinha, and the man passed it on to a woman at the end of the entrance hall. It so happened that this woman was nothing less than the Platonic ideal of beauty on Earth.
Cidinha could not explain why she thought her so beautiful. It was not that her individual parts were perfect; it was the whole that formed a breath-taking harmony. The artist's hands itched. She needed to make a portrait of that woman, even though she knew she would probably go crazy for never being able to live up to the original.
The perfect woman also greeted Auguste with a hug and two kisses on the cheeks.
“Cidinha, this is Rose.”
Oh. “Rose”. The other mistress of the house. The mayor of the city. Now Cidinha understood why everything there was so beautiful. It was all a simple reflection of her. She was the belle of the valley.
That kind of trance was broken when Rose stepped into the kitchen, out of sight. Auguste led Cidinha into a living room, where two people were already chatting excitedly, sitting on a couch. One had the appearance of a college-age start-up owner with rings in all of his fingers; the other was a blond woman who looked like a black and white movie star.
“These are Charlie and his girlfriend, Evah,” he finally introduced. They both shook her hand casually.
As soon as Rose came back from the kitchen, and she and Alexander settled into the available sofas, Auguste gave a half smile and announced,
“People, this is Cidinha. She's my latest apprentice, and also...” He side-hugged her and kissed her cheek. “She's also my girlfriend.”
Like Jules, the four of them stopped for a long moment, trying to find out if Auguste had meant it. When it was clear that it was not some kind of prank, Alexander reached his hand out to the others with a sly grin. One by one, they threw a coin at him.
“Last time I bet against you on something,” Charlie said to him acidly.
“I bet a pound it is not.”
Charlie would open his mouth to say something, but then he closed it again, even more grumpily.
“You are unbelievable!”
“Wait there,” Auguste interrupted the conversation, his hand on his forehead. “Did you bet if I was going to get a girlfriend or not? Since when are you betting on my love life? Don’t you have anything else to do?!”
“Brave words, coming from someone who spent fifty years learning to cook because of a bet with Rose,” Charlie provoked.
Auguste mumbled something that Cidinha could not hear, but made Charlie laugh.
“Oh, come on, boys, don’t fight.” Rose intervened, also in a tone of provocation. “I have here a pile of customized Picture & Action cards and I just want to know one thing: who is up for it?”
Alexander lifted the board of the game, smiling broadly.
“I'm going with Auguste,” Rose added, in a tone that ended discussion. The others grumbled all sorts of complaints.
“I’ll go with the newbie.” Charlie offered. “She is Auguste’s apprentice, she must know how to draw.” Then he turned to his girlfriend with an air of amusement: “You stay with Alexander, love, you will need it.”
Cidinha wondered why the couples did not play together, and had the biggest scare of her life when Alexander answered in her mind:
“Because if we do, one will end up reading the mind of the other and find out the word, and the game will not be funny. By the way, sorry to come in without warning.”
She recovered from the mini-heart attack and thanked him mentally for the information. Alexander's voice, now amused, sounded again:
“If it gets too weird, you can run away, we will not chase.”
“Are you kidding?” She replied as she watched a bunch of people with more than two hundred years of age fighting over a red pawn. “I’m home.”Belle Night, Brazil, 1784
Saying goodbye to Belle Night had been even more painful than Auguste had thought it would be. He would miss the people he had known and the life there. Not to mention that it would be very difficult to get back to selling junk for rich people when there was so much to be done in that city. When he had said he would return to Europe for sure, he could not imagine the gravity of what he was promising.
Everyone he said goodbye to was sad, and even Alexander and Rose seemed less cheerful than usual. Rose hugged Auguste tightly, and Alexander took advantage of his large arms to wrap them both up.
“I hope you have a good trip and be careful,” Rose wished. “If you need us, look out for Louis, and know that you will always be welcome here.”
“I wish I had questioned my sentence more when I had a chance,” Auguste replied bitterly. “One hundred years of servitude is a long time for someone who did nothing wrong.”
“If we can, we will do our best to sort this out,” Alexander said good-naturedly. “Focus on your survival. I do not want to deceive you, being associated with us will not win you great favours, to say the least.”
Those words echoed in his ears for a long time, and it was with the incredible melancholy caused by them that he saw the Lantern staying behind, on the way back. Lucius was his companion again, and did a commendable job of trying to keep Auguste's mind distracted during the trip.
He boarded without incident on the ship back, and began the hibernation process again. His only consolation in all this is that his dreams, on his return, took him back to Belle Night, a calm spot before the troubles that awaited him in the Old World.
In Portugal, some guards of the Council awaited him and escorted him to Don Diegues’ castle. Auguste found it strange that, after explaining where they were taking him, they not only stopped talking to him, but they refused to answer his questions. They looked uncomfortable in his presence, as if he had some kind of contagious disease. (To be fair, maybe he had. He had been in a jungle, and the guards were only half-vampires; maybe he should decontaminate when he had the chance.)
When they arrived, he was left in the room he used to occupy when he interviewed the counsellor. The guard announced that Auguste should expect to be called, and with that he was left alone. The young man took the time to put his notes in order. During his stay at Belle Night, one of the things he had done was to finish editing the entries he had written in Europe and to organize new entries based on what he had learned in the city. If nothing else bothered him, he could release the book at the end of the year. Only the title was missing. He obviously would not plagiarize the title of the Encyclopedie, but could not think of something as good as.
His line of reasoning was interrupted by a knock on the door. Assuming that it was some servant of the castle, he just asked the person to enter. The knock happened again. Angry, he stood up to open, only to come across a powerful aura. He had not felt it before because he was so focused in his work.
More composed, he opened the door with a more respectful stance.
“Good evening, Monsieur Déjean,” he bowed. “How can I help?”
Verner Déjean came in, looking so snobbish that Auguste took a deep breath not to be irritated. As soon as his temper was controlled enough, he offered the other the only armchair in the room and sat down on a footrest.
“So you are back, Lavert. I hope you had fun on your little excursion, and it was worth it.”
“It was an educational experience,” Auguste replied cautiously. “Do you want me to give you some information before presenting my report to the Council?”
“Actually, Lavert,” he said, wiping what looked like dry blood from one of his nails. “I do not want any report to the Council. What you saw in that tropical hell will be left there. I have worked hard to prevent the Council from being contaminated by the Van Allens' lies for years. I do not want a curious little kid who is easily fooled as long as people rock a book in front of him to ruin everything.”
That was a test. It had to be some obscure test of loyalty. Auguste took a deep breath and tried to show the other that he was not trying to be in his way:
“With all due respect, Monsieur Déjean, I believe that the Council deserves an objective description of what I saw in Belle Night. I was asked to bring in strategic information, and this is what I will report back at the meeting. Everyone can decide what to do with it, and I believe they will choose wisely. As for me, all I have to do is finishing editing the book to deliver what I promised.”
Déjean looked at him with an air of someone who lost the patience to explain math to a two-year-old and shook his head.
“I do not think you heard me well, Lavert. Let me open your ears.”
He snapped his fingers and a servant came in with a chest, leaving it at Auguste's feet. Déjean gestured with his hands so that the young man opened it. At that moment, the writer’s stomach dropped to his feet, for he felt a strong odour of blood coming out. Worse, it was blood he knew well. Already shaking, he forced himself to lift the lid.
Inside there were only a couple of legs. The blood was still fresh; they could not have been cut long ago. Worse, the smell was unmistakably Jules's.
Auguste looked at Verner in shock and the other pulled him by the tie.
“No matter what the Council says or does not say. You are mine, Lavert. If it had not been for that damn ring, I would have put you in your place a long time ago. I only let you live until today because you have been useful to me. So listen carefully to what I am saying: I do not care how you are going to do it, but you are not going to report it to the Council. Jump the window. Pretend that you are unwell. It does not matter. I do not want to ever see your face again. Get out of here at once and take your damn book with you, and maybe I will return your beloved slave to the Council. If you insist on not listening to me, the next thing I will deliver to you is his head. Do not even want to know what I am going to do with you.”
He released Auguste with an almost imperceptible movement of his wrist, causing him to fly to the other side of the room and break several bones. Then he left without looking back.
Auguste stood still for a while, sitting on the ground as he regenerated, just staring at the box with Jules's legs. He only came out of that first shock when they slowly began to turn into ashes, but he still did not feel up to the situation. All he could think of was that the person to whom he owed his life was somewhere being dismembered and he did not even know why. What was so dangerous or subversive about what he had brought to share with the Council? He was not willing to say anything about the ideology of pacifists, or even defend them (not yet, at least). In fact, Déjean had not even asked him what he meant to report.
From the depths of his shock, he knew he would not be able to deal with all that alone. The ring he had received from Charlie was still in his right hand, just waiting to be used for the first time in nearly a year. Auguste concentrated on it, and shortly after, Charlie's voice came joyfully to his mental ears:
“Auguste! Glad you are back! I am here at the Council meeting doing a freelance job so I can see your report! How were things there?”
Normally, Auguste would be much more polite and would have much more consideration. His condition was so deplorable, however, that he simply shot Charlie the events of the last half-hour almost without pause. When he finished, feeling a little relieved, his friend said, very seriously,
“Right. Just sit there and do not do anything stupid. I will send someone to talk to you.”
The young writer did not quite understand what he meant, but the calm, determined tone of the other made him even more relaxed. He finally drew enough strength from himself to get off the floor and return to the desk, though he obviously was not in a position to write. He did not know how much time had passed, until he heard a new knock on the bedroom door and jumped into place. It was with some surprise that when he felt who he was, he discovered that it was King.
He opened the door in astonishment, and the counsellor did not stall. He came in, closed the door behind him, and occupied the armchair where Verner had been.
“So you are back,” he said casually. “I thought you would take advantage of it to finally get away from your sentence. I am surprised you have never tried it before.”
“I made a deal with you,” he said in a monotone. “I would never disrespect the memory of my father running away from my responsibilities.”
“You must be the last honest person on Earth, Lavert. This naïveté is part of why I love you so much,” the other one laughed. “But let us get down to business. A little bird told me that you are having trouble composing your report to the Council, and I came here to understand exactly why. What do you have to tell me?”
Auguste looked at him with such a haunted look that King immediately became much more serious than before. Perhaps it was also the smell of blood and ashes that reached his nostrils as soon as he had finished speaking.
“I do not think I will be able to do my report, sir.” Auguste's voice came out strangely muffled, his hands shaking as he tried to pick up a pen.
King glanced quickly into the chest, which was still open in the middle of the room, and uttered a ‘tsk’.
“Lavert, who did this?” His voice was now almost stern. “Why do not they want you to report? Was it one of the pacifists?”
“No!” If anything was able to bring back some of Auguste's lucidity, it had been that ludicrous accusation. Only a little returned, though. Without thinking straight, he concluded, in an almost sullen tone: “Monsieur Déjean was very specific about where my loyalties really should be. He does not want me to report for now, so I will not. I am sure he will present reasons that will satisfy the Council when asked.”
“Déjean” King said, between teeth, with a hatred that caught the attention of Auguste immediately. “Clearly. But what does he get...?”
He frowned and scratched his jaw, lost in thought for a moment. Then, with a more determined look, he turned to Auguste, in a voice of command the young man had never heard before:
“Let me see if I get it.” He pointed to the box. “Was that a hostage?”
“He has Jules,” he murmured, hoping Verner was not listening. “Those were his legs.”
“I see.” He reached the young man and put his hands on his shoulder. “Now look at me and answer me honestly: you have been in Belle Night for almost a year. Do you trust pacifists with your life?”
“Yes.” Auguste did not know why he was so sure. “Whatever their faults may be, they are not malicious.”
King seemed satisfied, and asked the next question even more pointedly:
“And you think they trust you?”
“Certainly” Auguste had remembered Alexander asking for help, even if it could make his situation worse, so his voice did not fail.
“Great. Normally, I would not intrude on your problems. Déjean is too much of a headache; it is not worth it. On the other hand, I am the least powerful of all counsellors, and one of the youngest. I am not alive by being a fool. Whatever Déjean is up to, it will not be good for any of us. That is why I propose an exchange. You want your servant. I will make sure he is rescued. In exchange, I only want two things.”
Auguste swallowed. He hoped that whatever King wanted from him was something he could offer. The man must have felt his discomfort, for he tried to make a less intense voice:
“I just want two things from you. One is that, despite all the risks, you report everything to the Council. And the other is that, after the report is finished, you scram from here. Run away. Survive. I do not care where you go, as long as you never forget that I helped you escape. What do you think?”
It was not as if Auguste had much choice, and King's requests were not so different from what he would normally do, so the lad offered his hand to him.
“You have my word. But I will only report if I have proof that Jules is safe.”
King gave an indulgent smile as he shook his hand back.
“I would never make such a deal with anyone else. Good luck.”
He left the room, and Auguste was alone again. At least this time, he had a little hope he could see Jules again. As soon as he had returned to his report notes, a new anxious voice appeared in his mind:
“Monsieur Lavert?! Are you all right?! A million excuses! I was watching you friend all the time, and in the blink of an eye... He disappeared. Someone just got Livy out of mental isolation, and told her what happened.”
It took him a while to recognize that refined voice as Louis van Allen's. The other continued:
“Do not you worry anymore. I am infiltrated in the castle; I will take him out of here safely. Livínio will rescue you. Stay where you are.”
“Wait, no!” Auguste finally reacted. “I will report to the Council first. That is why I went to Belle Night. Someone has to contradict Déjean.”
“Your safety is more important than anything,” Louis stated decisively. “We cannot afford to take that risk. You are not even one of us.”
The young man narrowed his eyes, remembering that Déjean and King urged him to run and hide because he had no place there. Bitter, he thought, more to himself than to the other:
“Apparently, now I am.”
Louis did not answer immediately, but Auguste could feel that he was moved. It was in an exceptionally gentle voice that the other replied,
“You really do not have to do this, Auguste.”
“I'm not doing it because I need to.” All that resistance was making him more determined than ever to upset Verner. “Leave it to save Jules when it is almost my turn to speak, and Déjean cannot sabotage me. It will be the perfect time for you to escape. I will come later.”
“Do not be silly,” Louis replied calmly. “Lívia will stay to help you. That is why our mother chose her as a hostage. She specializes in escapes. Good luck to you. And welcome aboard.”
Auguste's mind was well attended that night. As soon as Louis's presence disappeared, it was Charlie's turn to ask him how things had resolved. Auguste explained the last moves to him, and the mage seemed satisfied.
“Good, very good. Are you leaving now, while it is still safe?”
“No!” Auguste's thought was decided, almost defensive. “I want to keep my promise. I owe to Belle Night and the Council this report.”
“That is fine with me.” Charlie was the first person who did not seem worried. “I mean, it is very dangerous, but these counsellors know how to be a bunch of arrogant pricks. It will be fun to watch their faces when you are talking, especially Déjean. I will protect you as much as I can. Go there and do what you do best: be handsome and talk smoothly. I just recommend you talk fast.”
Receiving that support was very important to Auguste. He smiled slightly, for the first time since returning to Europe. “Thank you, Charlie.”
When the council meeting began, Auguste waited until the last possible moment to leave his room. Some guards with King's coat of arms stood outside and escorted him to the main hall of the castle. One of them gave him a slight wink. It was Charlie. Seeing him made Auguste immediately livelier.
Déjean looked at him as if he would get up from his chair and strangle him right there when he came in, but he restrained himself and merely turned his head as a warning. Auguste pretended not to see him and went up to the platform. The ten counsellors were in front of him; Livia was at his side, a few yards away, with chains on her wrists and ankles (they must have been chains that nullified magic, but her confident look made the youth doubt that they were really keeping her locked).
Louis sent into his mind an image of himself holding Jules on his lap and running madly through the stone corridors. Auguste was finally more relieved and motivated than ever. He took a deep breath and prepared to speak.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” he began, in the most mature and determined voice he could muster. “About a year ago, you sent me on a diplomatic mission to Belle Night. The Van Allens even sent one of their children hostage to make sure I came back and kept my word. That is what I did. I am back safely. And I humbly expect you to consider if my cooperation is to your liking.”
At that time, his papers threatened to catch fire, but they stopped immediately. Charlie would have a lot of work that night. Auguste remembered the recommendation not to delay and summed up his speech as much as he could. He spoke of the dimensions of the city and its structure. (Some objects floated in the back of the room and began to go toward him, but were diverted discreetly.) He talked about how many people had volunteer military training and how it worked. (The chandelier above him shook grimly.) He spoke of the humans and non-humans who lived there, and how they lived in harmony. (Verner's guards began to creep in discreetly.) He spoke of the laws, the institutions, the town secretaries ... (Um, there were plenty of guards now, but the young man was not finished.)
“What I intend as a final message is that, as I suspected, we have much to learn from Belle Night. They have different ideals, yes, but they seem to be even more concerned than us in ensuring that no other Genocide occurs. The city is a mine of knowledge and information. It is not for me to decide what to do with my report, of course. I only hope that whatever you decide, you take my words into account.”
The hall window exploded in shards of glass, and that was when the chaos began. People came in through them, shooting up and scaring everyone. They seemed to be vampire hunters, but they seemed to be looking for somebody in particular. One of them pointed at Auguste and they all went towards him.
The Council members left easily, leaving the others to deal with the problem. The Déjean family guards were theoretically battling the invaders, but in practice they worked as obstacles so that whoever was inside would not be able to leave.
Auguste was paralyzed by the sound of the shots, with terrible memories of the night his father died. He did not even see when Livínio tossed his chains aside with an air of contempt and threw himself on him to prevent him from being hit. The two of them rolled across the ground, shifting away from the shots until they were able to take refuge behind a pilaster.
One of the guards came running to them and Auguste saw that it was Charlie. Lívia was already preparing to attack him, but the young man held her arm.
“He is my friend.”
Charlie stepped forward and took hold of Auguste's hand.
“Let us get out of here. Is Van Allen with you?”
“Great. Hold his hand. Her.”
The young man obeyed. Charlie lifted his hand and made a motion as if tearing the air with his fingernails. A bright crack came up in mid-air and the mage pulled his two companions into it.
A great flash obfuscated all three, and suddenly they were outside the main hall. Charlie's disguise disappeared, making him revert to an emaciated version of the curly-haired young man Auguste knew. The crystal of one of his rings had exploded and the remains were fuming.
Lívia recovered from the surprise first than Auguste, and held Charlie before he fell. The mage began to cough and his hand was stained with blood.
“Let us go,” she said, pulling the writer still half shocked. “We will take care of him on the way.”
As soon as they began to run outside, Auguste checked his friend:
“Charlie? How are you?”
“Weak,” the other replied, telepathically, because he apparently could not speak. “I already knew that carrying three people in a dimensional fold was going to cost an absurd amount of energy, but I was still taken aback. Do not make that face. I will be fine after a good meal. I am just thirsty.”
At the same time that Auguste was relieved, he did not believe the other was as well as he said. While talking to Charlie, they managed to leave the castle. Livínio pointed to a chariot and led them there, instructing Auguste to come in while taking the reins.
They started to gallop at an incredible speed (were those normal horses?), and just in time. The invaders had realized what had happened and were already starting to leave the castle.
Auguste sat on the floor of the carriage, trying to keep Charlie steady, now that he was almost unconscious. Worried about him, the young man bit his wrist and offered it.
“Is it not counterproductive?” The mage asked, his tone amused, despite growing weakness.
“I came out of hibernation today. I am absolutely full. Do not try to be funny, we do not know when we can stop.”
“All right, Mum.”
“By the way, I did not have time to tell you, but Alexander van Allen wants to meet with you to discuss a spell he's found in a book before the Genocide.”
“Well, well, well. To Belle Night, then?”
“I do not have much choice, but what about you?”
“Are you kidding? Now that I am free to go there, the trouble will be keeping me out.”
Auguste smiled, despite everything. They had a long journey ahead.