Recently, those who frequented the basement bar had grown indifferent to Charlie’s lectures on respectability and civility. Now, with a chance to tease him, they became exceptionally excited and engaged in a shouting match.
Dressed in a white shirt and an unbuttoned black vest, Charlie hesitated between buying drinks for nearly 30 people or performing a striptease.
Swiftly, he set down his beer and leaped onto a small round table.
In the past, when he was drunk here, he had done all sorts of foolish things. Why should he be afraid of a striptease?
Lumian smiled and applauded, taking out a 20 verl d’or banknote and placing it on the bar counter. He said to Boss Pavard Neeson, “A drink for everyone. Let them have whatever they want.”
With that, he picked up his glass of Lanti Proof and watched as Charlie clumsily gyrated his hips and carefully unbuttoned his shirt amidst the cheers.
“More passion! More energy!” Lumian shouted, as if he were watching a show.
The other patrons chimed in.
Sweat beaded on Charlie’s forehead, fearing that excessive energy from removing his clothes might damage his shirt.
This wasn’t a cheap old linen shirt!
After some thought, he decided to take it off as one would a sweater since the top buttons on his shirt were already undone.
Lumian took another sip of the Lanti Proof and leaned back at the bar counter. He glanced at Gabriel, who was wearing black-framed glasses and dark suspenders, and asked with amusement, “You’re early today?”
Hadn’t this playwright, accustomed to staying up late, only come here for a drink after midnight?
Gabriel held the green absinthe and smiled calmly.
“I’m moving out tomorrow.”
“Lightseeker has begun airing?” Lumian immediately had a guess.
Gabriel ruffled his disheveled brown hair and smiled.
“Not yet, but after rehearsing for a while, both Monsieur Lopp and the directors and actors at Théâtre de la Renaissance think highly of me. They’re very confident. I won’t have to worry about my living expenses even after moving to a more expensive place and spending the 1,000 verl d’or advance. As you know, I don’t write trite stories for tabloids anymore.”
“Where are you planning to move to?” Lumian asked casually.
Gabriel said with a yearning expression, “Rue Saint-Michel in Quartier 2, where many authors and painters find their haven. Not far away is the National Museum, the Trier Art Center, various galleries, and sculptures of various forms.”
Quartier 2, also known as the arts district or financial district, was a blend of ancient charm and modern opulence, housing not only the artistic community but also the financial heart of the city. It was home to major banks like the Intis Central Bank and the Trier Bank, along with financial institutions, the Trier Stock Exchange, and the Intis Futures Market.
Rue Saint-Michel, on the outskirts of this vibrant district, offered affordable rent, making it an attractive choice for artists and writers.
Lumian couldn’t resist recalling Aurore’s teasing about Rue Saint-Michel, and he playfully paraphrased it, poking fun at the struggling poets. “What a fantastic place! You might toss a brick and hit three authors and two painters, and let’s not forget those poets who die without anyone noticing.”
Gabriel, slightly embarrassed, took a sip of his absinthe.
“However, that’s indeed the most suitable place for artistic exchange and creativity. It’s not like here, where it’s relatively quiet only at night, but it’s only relative. And the repulsive bedbugs…”
Gabriel suddenly remembered that the violent and elegant mob leader beside him was the current boss of Auberge du Coq Doré. He quickly shut his mouth.
At that moment, Charlie completed his striptease act and donned his shirt once more. He skillfully navigated his way out of the crowd of patrons, who had “maliciously” remarked on his physique, and settled beside Lumian. He casually remarked, “I’ve been swamped lately. Haven’t been around for a few days. As soon as I get home, I feel like collapsing into bed. You see, this is the drawback of being a decent bloke. Sigh, why in the world are they suddenly launching such a massive investigation into those wanted criminals from Cordu?”
Oh, you’ve become much smarter. Lumian, who was keen on improving his rhetoric, replied with a smile, “What concern is Cordu’s business to me, Ciel Dubois?”
Having contracted the Niese Face from the Human-Faced Mantis, he wasn’t particularly concerned about being recognized by the authorities.
Seeing Lumian’s self-assured demeanor, Charlie dropped the subject. He eagerly mentioned that a colleague had introduced him to a female teacher. Although she wasn’t interested in him romantically, it marked another stride towards his quest for true dignity.
They continued to enjoy their drinks until nearly midnight. Lumian and Gabriel, who was set to move the following day, bid Charlie farewell and ascended the stairs to the second floor.
Gabriel’s gaze fixated on the corridor wall, illuminated solely by a gas wall lamp and adorned with newspapers and faded pink paper. Suddenly, he let out a heartfelt sigh.
“It’s only when I’m on the verge of leaving that I realize there’s something worth reminiscing about here.
“When I first moved in, I thought it wouldn’t be long before I’d escape this dump—well, this wretched motel—with my talents. Who would’ve guessed I’d end up staying here for ten whole months? Even if I move to Rue Saint-Michel, I’ll often think of that cozy little bar downstairs. I’ll reminisce about the absinthe that could both sober me up and make me intoxicated, the pungent smell of sulfur, those pesky bedbugs, and the people who brought light to my darkness. Miss Séraphine, Charlie, and… you.”
As Gabriel spoke, he paused, extending his hand to touch the crack in the wall where a fallen newspaper had revealed it.
Lumian couldn’t resist a playful jab, “Do you authors enjoy launching into spontaneous soliloquies and lengthy speeches?”
Gabriel chuckled sheepishly and replied, “I don’t know about other authors, but I do find myself doing it occasionally.
“I’ve called this place home for nearly a year, and I’ve witnessed numerous tenants abruptly vanish, leave in haste, or succumb to the pain of life. Yet, the very next day, or maybe just an hour later, new tenants move into the very rooms left behind by those chasing prosperity and dreams in Trier. Most of them fail and fade away like dust, but waves of people keep coming. Perhaps one or two among them will actually succeed.
“This is the wellspring of inspiration for the ‘Lightseeker’ script.”
“You’re the one who succeeded.” Lumian couldn’t help but recall Madame Michel, who had tragically ended her life while singing “In the Capital of Joy, forever Trier,” a memory that left him with no capacity for mocking Gabriel.
“Hope.” Gabriel’s face lit up with anticipation.
He took another step toward the second floor, as if driven to continue ascending.
“Where are you going?” Lumian could guess the answer, yet he asked politely.
Gabriel motioned upstairs.
“To bid farewell to Miss Séraphine and express my gratitude for her unwavering support.”
Lumian couldn’t resist a sly smile, pursing his lips and letting out a playful whistle. “Have a romantic night!”
“I am not!” Gabriel instinctively protested.
Lumian turned and headed towards Room 207, waving his hand dismissively.
“Can’t a person have a romantic night all to themselves?”
Gabriel was speechless.
After witnessing Ciel’s entrance into the room, Gabriel cleared his throat and continued his ascent to the third floor.
As he climbed, memories flooded his mind—the initial encounter with the human model, Séraphine, their first conversation about his creation, and the first words of encouragement…
He understood that human modeling was a meagerly compensated profession. Even the most popular male models barely received 80 to 90 verl d’or a month. Ordinary models scraped by on 60 to 70, equivalent to the earnings of an apprentice motel attendant. Female models fared even worse, with a meager 40 verl d’or, forcing them to take on part-time work. No one chose to expose their bodies as artists’ models out of laziness or greed for pleasure.
Séraphine was no exception. She endured the criticism to earn more money and improve her circumstances.
Gabriel halted outside Room 309 and rapped gently on the door.
“Please come in.” Séraphine’s somewhat hollow voice responded.
Gabriel pushed the door open and found Séraphine standing by the wooden table near the window. Her lake-blue dress had slipped from her form and lay in a heap on the floor.
In the crimson moonlight, Séraphine’s brown eyes flickered, and her brown hair cascaded down her back. Her fair body bore the imprint of human faces.
Some were stunning, some sinister, some handsome, and some wicked. They all fixed their gaze on Gabriel simultaneously.
Gabriel nearly let out a startled cry.
“What’s the matter?” Séraphine’s voice, tinged with detachment, rang out once more.
Gabriel shook off his stupor and realized that the faces were nothing more than lifelike oil paintings. The canvas was Séraphine’s body.
Remembering that she was a human model, Gabriel refrained from probing further. He exhaled and expressed, “I’m moving out tomorrow. Thank you for your encouragement these past few months.”
As soon as he finished speaking, Séraphine extended her right hand, her eyes distant.
Gabriel couldn’t resist complying.
Half an hour later, Gabriel lay on the bed, holding Séraphine close, and spoke with sincerity, “Come with me to Rue Saint-Michel.”
Séraphine shook her head resolutely. “I’m moving as well. Somewhere else.”
Gabriel persisted, “Where to?”
“To a place called the Hostel. My friends are there.” Séraphine’s voice turned hollow once more.
Gabriel made several attempts to convince her, but the human model remained steadfast.
He had no choice but to leave disheartened. Séraphine rose from the bed, entirely unclothed, and watched him as he walked towards the door.
In that instant, the crimson moon was veiled, plunging the room into an unnatural darkness. The oil-painted faces on Séraphine’s body suddenly appeared to come alive, their mouths opening as Gabriel retreated.
Eventually, tranquility returned, and Gabriel respectfully closed the door.
The following morning, Lumian stuck to his routine—going for a run, practicing his boxing, and hunting for breakfast in his customary fashion.
Upon his return to the Auberge du Coq Doré, he noticed that Gabriel’s neighboring room was already open. There was no sign of Gabriel, nor any trace of luggage.
Intrigued, Lumian made his way to the third floor and discovered that Room 309 was in the same state.
He clicked his tongue and returned to Room 207 with a wry smile.
Before long, the “doll” messenger made an appearance, tossing a neatly folded letter and a silver mask onto the wooden table.
Madam Justice’s reward has arrived? Lumian’s delight was palpable.