There was something of a romantic sadness in the air that evening, though she knew it had nothing to do with the bittersweet endings of a love affair. It was the warmth of the crowded, yet unusually quiet restaurant, the cold rain outside, the taste of cigarette smoke and red wine.
She was happy Max had wanted them to meet in Venice. She hadn’t seen the city since the end of the Second World War. For fifty years she wandered across Europe, finally settling in England. The old continent was her latest passion, the British Archipelago and its inhabitants in particular.
She looked across the restaurant: a motley crowd of tourists and a few locals. Most of them were couples. The sound of their voices blended almost every language into undecipherable background noise accompanying the piano music. There were Norsemen, Britons, Spaniards, Franks and Slavs, the entire Europe gathered in a restaurant while outside the windows, rain was pouring over the Grand Canal.
Then she saw Max entering. As he walked past them, people would interrupt their conversations for a few moments, staring at him. He had that effect on most.
It was something about his attitude. Physically, he was anything but imposing: a thin and rather short man with gray military style haircut, wearing an expensive black suit. It was something in his walk or his manners, as if he owned everyone and everything. As he reached her table, he took off his gloves and kissed her hand as usual.
“Horrible weather”, he said as he sat on the chair in front of her. He removed his black spectacles: the eyes were completely white. He closed them for a second, and when he opened them blue pupils appeared instantly.
“Tired of playing the blind man, Max?” she smiled, offering him the half empty pack of Dunhill.
He took a cigarette holder from his pocket.
“I have to admit, it is fun, every now and then. And it helps me with the annoyance of finding a seat on a public bus. But no matter, tell me, how’ve you been lately?”
He spoke in English, but there was no particular accent in his pronunciation It was the King’s English gone bland.
“Oh, it’s pretty much the same like seventy years ago when we last met”
“Is that supposed to be a reproach? You need not feel offended, my old friend. You know I prefer to avoid the companionship of our kind. My last two students were too much of a disappointment, wasting their lives on trivial matters. Ever since, I’ve spent most of my time among humans. A pretty interesting bunch, far more…predictable than us”
He looked at her through the thin wreaths of smoke. She hadn’t changed a bit, not that he’d expected her to. With her milk-and-coffee skin tone and charcoal eyes she still had the looks and gestures of an oriental princess. There was envy, admiration and lust in the eyes of those around them, masked under speech and gesture. For them she was an elegant, exoticwoman in her early twenties, for him she was the oldest of their kind, a being that had seen the freshly lain foundations of ziggurats.
“So why the sudden change of heart, Max?” she asked. “I doubt it is nostalgia! Business as usual, I suppose?”
He moved the tip of his finger along the ivory cane propped up against the chair. The silver handle had the shape of an eagle with the letters SPQR inscribed on its unfolded wings.
“Let’s order something” he sighed, grabbing one of the menus on the table. “I haven’t been to this city in quite some time. Let’s stay here for a couple of hours. I miss the air, and the cuisine. And I want you to tell me about the place where you live now. Deva Victrix, if I’m not mistaken…what did you say they call it nowadays?”
“Chester” she smiled.
“Yes, Chester…I still find these barbarian names too awkward. But it is better this way, I guess. The Empire belongs to history now”
“And I’m in no mood for history, Max, not on an empty stomach, anyway”
“I wouldn’t say empty” he replied, pointing to the bottle of wine.
She burst into laughter.
“I could never tell why I allow you to babysit me”
“You were never much for conventions, and I don’t think they would apply to us anyway”
“I guess not”
They remained silent as the waiter brought the order.
“Ah, can you feel that?” he said, savoring the smell. “If there’s one thing that never stopped evolving in all human history, it is gastronomy. Are you sure you don’t want anything?”
“I already ordered” she answered, pointing to the second bottle of wine. “How do you like my manners?”
She poured herself a glass.
“I will never understand why you’re supposed to let the waiter do that. When it comes to wine, every gesture has its meaning. I remember I wanted to buy my own vineyard at a time, I think it was after the First World War. I’m really not sure how I lost my savings back then”
“The risks of modern world”
“Or the risks of old age” she replied. “It wasn’t my first bankruptcy and I’m pretty sure it won’t be my last, but I’m still committed to not printing my own money. It’s a lack of respect for the sterling pound”
Max gazed at her.
“Do you realize it, Cara? I sit here with you, a couple of yards away from the Rialto Bridge, in a restaurant that can be considered old by human standards, and I cannot understand how it all changed”
“What do you mean?”
“This entire century has left me behind. Instant communication, weapons of mass destruction, social revolutions, the Cold War and now Europe unified, like in the imperial days, computers, music and trends I will never understand and everything happens faster and faster”
She smiled softly.
“Take a deep breath, Max. If I didn’t know any better I’d say you’re on the verge of stroking out or something”
“It’s just that I feel like the world moved past me, like I slept all this time”
“But you haven’t, you kept finding the new arrivals and teaching them, showing them what they’ve become ”
“Yes, an old teacher, that is what I am. But teachers have retirement, Cara. And I feel like I need one as well”
“The world is moving on, Max. We have to change with it. I know that some of us grow tired and withdraw, sleeping years at a time, sometimes even centuries. I, for one, chose never too miss a moment. So did you. I remember the first time we met. You were sitting near a tree, at the edge of a swamp, blinded, crazed by pain, not knowing what had happened to you. You were in disagreement with the world, as you are now”
He reached for her hand tenderly.
“How could I forget? Can you forget your own death? For years I tracked down the Hun who blinded me, the one who poured the molten silver in my empty eye sockets. Vengeance helps, sometimes. I enjoyed making him choke on his own blood. Enough had he spilled that of others”
“You had a purpose. You can find one once more. Actually, I’m guessing you already have, and that is why you wanted us to meet here”
She watched him pouring a glass of water. He touched the glass surface and the liquid instantly turned golden, crowned by a thin layer of white foam.
“Bürgerbräukeller” he whispered to her. “That was the place. I used to have a pint of this every time that clown began his speeches, cursing the fate that made our kind impervious to alcohol”
“What’s with you, Max?” she asked. “You don’t usually do these things in public”
“I’m in a drinking mood after all, I guess”
Outside the windows, the rain had stopped. Looking across the Canal, Cara pictured the missing gondolas.
“I wanted to talk to you because I needed to confirm something, something that has been a bother for quite some time now. Please don’t laugh. It’s not about my previous rambling. It’s something recent, a bad feeling I can’t seem to shake off. I’d say that that my entire previous…speech, could be compared to a midlife crisis, if I weren’t dead already. But in the last couple of days I somehow sense a change. I am not the only one either. Before I arranged this meeting with you, I saw Mendez. After that I spoke with Wolfe, in Frankfurt. They both confirmed that something feels wrong but dismissed it as nothing more than coincidence. I don’t agree. Damn, I was even going to speak to that Irish witch of a woman, but you know Flynn, she would deny anything just to spite me. There is something wrong with us, Cara. And I don’t think that Our Common Acquaintance has anything to do with it”
Cara emptied her glass.
“I have to admit, I didn’t feel anything, Max. But I trust your instincts, especially with these things. What did the others say, exactly?”
“Mendez said I should talk to you, as usual. I don’t think he ever got over you, anyway. Wolfe’s only interest is his business, he had an upcoming merger or something like that, and we only spoke on the phone. After that I called you directly”
“Well, maybe Mendez and Wolfe are too young to actually notice the implications of this change. And maybe I am too old. If we were to look into this, the only one who could confirm your theory is Flynn”
“I was afraid you were going to say that”
“I guess age and experience really don’t matter when it comes to relationships. You and Flynn have been going on and off for five hundred years and you both act like you just hit puberty. It’s annoying, Max. If this is as serious as you think, I say we go straight to her”
“You are coming along, right?”
“Yes, but I’m in no mood to act as a mediator between the two of you”
“I was hoping you’d agree. It’s not about mediating, but you know you’re the only one she actually respects, out of all of us. She’ll tell the truth if you’re there with me. As for my…relationship with her, I hope I don’t have to remind you that last time we met she tried to kill me”
“You died once already”
“And I prefer not to repeat that experience”
“Understandable. Tell me, what is this bad feeling exactly? Or what’s it about?”
He stared at the half empty glass in front of him, trying to find the right words. After a couple of seconds he began speaking in his native Imperial Latin:
“Our kind feels the balance of universe, the fabric of reality, the stream of time, basically the things that make existence function. You know there is a disorder, a minor imbalance every time another of our kind appears. They’re easy to track, I find them, I explain the rules, teach them about what they’ve become. But now there’s only the disorder, with no newcomer to provoke it. Nobody dies to live a second time. Our Common Acquaintance is nowhere to be found”
“Searching for her would be useless”
“Yes, she doesn’t appear to us but once, when we are granted the second chance of living. She’s the only one who can create more of us. How, or why, is beyond me”
“I don’t know either. But I guess it is human nature to want to have a greater purpose. After we see her, we forget about it and simply live. Or we choose our personal greater purposes. The fact remains that I am the oldest of all deadkin, Max, yet I know as much as you about who and what we are, or how are we being chosen to have this second chance.”
“So what do you propose we do?”
“I agree that these turbulences in the stream are too weird to be ignored. We’ll visit Flynn, she might have some idea. I know she keeps in touch with some others, mostly those that serve her purposes”
“What for, Max?”
“I always do”
Their glasses clinked discretely over the sunset bursting through the windows.