Nymphs In November

Chapter 1: The Glow of Doubt

In his bed, Jack turned over, opened one eye and glanced up. There was a light shining off the top of his dresser. "Oh, no," he groaned.

It was his Library Card, and he capitalized it in his head because it referred to no Library on this Earth. It belonged to a woman he knew only as The Librarian. Ten years ago when he had been only nine, he and his sister had become Librarians for her, travelling through time and space to retrieve books for The Library's collection. After his last mission, he wasn't sure he wanted to go on another one.

The last two had frightened Jack. Their meeting with Petronius had been bad enough, but the Marquis de Sade had been so unnervingly powerful and influential that... Jack tried not to think too hard about what had happened at de Sade's. He remembered that he had run-- and Annie with him, he noted-- back to the Treefort with the completed 120 Days of Sodom under his arm at full speed without looking back.

Did he really want to go on another mission? Once, when he was younger, he might have said yes. On many of those missions he had almost been killed, but that had never stopped him from going on another one. He had always been willing to risk his life for more knowledge. That willingness defined his life. But the current series of missions seemed to risk something other than his life. They threatened his dignity and his honor, and those of his sister. He was suddenly angry at The Librarian. She should have warned him!

He wasn't sure that would have stopped him.

Snarling, he picked up the card. He dressed, pulling on boots, and walked to the door. When he opened it, Annie was standing there. She was also dressed and holding her Library card. "Jack?" she asked.

"How long have you been standing there?" he said.

"Only a few minutes." She smiled, tiredly. "She's calling us."

"Annie..."

"Can you say no, Jack?"

Jack glanced down the hallway to the window that overlooked the woods. "I don't know."

Annie said, "Let's... let's go read her note, Jack. We owe her that at least."

Jack nodded. They grabbed flashlights and walked out of the house. Jack glanced at his watch. It was two in the morning.

They found the treefort in the woods without a problem. It was exactly where it always was, on the tallest branch of the tallest tree. Jack looked up the length of the ladder, and then he saw the swing of Annie's flashlight on her hip as she started up.

"Hey!" he said.

"There's no point in waiting, Jack," Annie said.

Jack grumbled and took hold of the ladder. He knew it was Annie's role to leap and for him to think, but she did not have to always be so obvious about it. When he pulled himself into the treefort, Annie was already holding the folded piece of parchment. She started reading it even before he asked.

Dear Jack and Annie,

I know the last mission was very hard on the two of you. The next two will be very easy. You're going to a lovely summer island in Greece, where you will meet a sad woman who writes joyful poems.

You are simply the best people I have ever known, and have never said no to anything I have asked of you. Please do this for me,

L.

Jack sighed. "It can't be that bad. Where's the book?"

Annie laughed when she picked it up, knowing that Jack couldn't refuse. He loved knowledge, he loved knowing. It was what made him the great scholar that he was. The book had the now-common bookmark of bright green leather sticking out of it, and when Jack saw it, he smiled too. The book was entitled Sappho's Lyre: Archaic Lyric Poetry of Ancient Greece. "I guess I know who's getting laid on this trip," Jack said.

"Jack!" Annie said. "You can't mean that. Besides, I'm not attracted to girls, any more than you are to guys."

Jack had finally confessed to Annie what had happened to him at the hands of the Marquis de Sade. Annie had first tried to tell him it was rape, and Jack had scoffed it off as little more than a horrible hazing gone wrong, and he clung to that interpretation because the alternative was not acceptable to him. He didn't want to think of himself as a victim, nor the Marquis as a monster. He was alive and whole, and that past was more like a dream than anything that Jack could remember.

"Still," Annie said, her hand stroking the leathery cover of the book. "No."

"What?" Jack said.

Annie smiled. "Girls are supposed to be nice to each other."

Jack gave a lopsided grin. "Yeah, well..." He blushed. He wasn't supposed to think of his sister that way. Annie was supposed to be a nice girl. "She promised these would be easier."

Annie nodded, opened the book. A woodcut illustration showed a scene outside an old brick wall, painted white. Inside, a woman sat with a lyre, holding it but not playing it. "I wish we could go here," Annie said.

A wind arose outside the treefort. A sweet, playful sound this time, reminding Jack of the thrill they both felt when they were children. The world outside the window began to spin, and then the treefort began to spin with it. The wind picked up enough to be frightening.

And then everything was still. Utterly still.

Chapter 2: Sappho

Jack opened his eyes. He always closed them during the flight although he was never sure why-- what was he afraid of seeing? Annie, if she kept her eyes opened, never told him that he had missed any particularly spectacular light shows. Sunlight streamed in through the large window of the treefort (was it a window still when it lacked any glass? he wondered) and the sounds of seagulls pealed nearby in the air. Annie laughed and clapped her hands together. "We're here!"

"Where's here?" Jack asked. He picked up the book. "Sappho's family lived on the island nation of Sicily for fifteen years, after they were banished from their home nation following a political reversal of fortune."

"Jack," Annie said. "Sicily is where the Mafia come from!"

"That was hundreds of years later, Annie. Right now Sicily is just a large island kingdom."

"Oh," Annie said. Despite all she had done with Jack and the treefort over the years, ordinary world history was still not her strongest subject. Jack had tried to explain to her that Art History was world history, only from a certain point of view. Annie understood that, but events outside of art itself still escaped her. Annie tried to look appropriately abashed, but she didn't quite make it. "Let's go, Jack."

The treefort was lodged in a palm tree swaying gently back and forth. The air was sultry and bright without a single cloud in the sky. Over the cries of the seagulls, the playing of something that sounded like a harp reached their ears. It sounded out of tune. "Come on, Jack. We'll never get anywhere if we don't leave the treefort."

Jack followed Annie down the rope ladder. The tree in which they had landed was short but strong-looking, and the drop much less than usual. The treefort had followed its backup strategy: rather than the tallest tree, it had looked for any tree on which to land. Twice, Jack recalled, it had landed on the ground because there had been no tree within walking distance of the mission: once at the North Pole, and once on the moon.

Although it hung late on the horizon, the sun was merciless to this southern stretch of beach overlooking the Mediterranean. Jack and Annie had seen this ocean before many times on their voyages, and Jack never grew tired of its beauty. He knew that part of the reason he wanted to be an archaeologist was that so many interesting digs could be found around its waters, and that was one of the many things the Librarian had taught him. The sea hovered just off the sand, its lazily breathing surface hot and flat and shining like a hammered shield of green copper. Even the seagulls refused to cry too loudly.

"Let's follow the music, Jack," Annie said gently. She started walking toward the stone-and-plaster buildings. Jack followed. The music still came, sad and haunting, from a building with a doorway that led down to the beach. "Hello?" Annie said.

A woman sat in a courtyard, her hands on a small lute. Jack recognized the instrument from the illustration. She turned her head to them. "Hello," she said. "What brings you here?"

"My brother and I are looking for the poet, Sappho."

The woman smile was a contrast to the sea-deep sadness in her eyes. "Poet, you say? I am no poet. No woman can be a poet here. It is unseemly."

"You mean, in Sicily?" Jack asked.

The woman nodded.

"But you are Sappho, right?" Annie asked.

"That is my name. But who are you, strangers?"

"I'm Annie, and this is my brother, Jack. We have come from far away to hear your poems. I would like to write them down, if I may."

"Annie," Jack hissed. "Didn't you hear what she said? You can't tell people here you can read and write." He looked up at Sappho. "Is it... is there some penalty for a woman who can read or write?"

"Only rejection from polite society," Sappho said. "It is more troublesome for the man who taught her. Did you teach her?"

"What? Oh, no. Annie learned to read and write from our parents, first." Both of them had been exposed to many stories from their parents, who had done the right thing and read to them almost from the time they were one year old.

"You said you were from far away? Are you returning there? Then you have no need to fear from polite society, if you have come to hear me. I shall... I shall sing tonight. Annie, you are welcome to come and hear my poems. Would you like that?"

"I would!" Annie said. "I would very much! I've heard so much about your poetry!"

"Then you are welcome in my home as is your brother. However, my song tonight is not for him or any man."

"I understand." Once, when Jack and Annie had met Aristotle, Jack had been the one privileged to wander free, and Annie had been the one given over to chaperons. Jack sighed. "What will I do?"

"My brother has returned from Etrusca. I am sure he can regale you with a thousand stories that will turn your hair white," Sappho said. "The Etruscans are at war with the Gauls. Once more."

Jack stared. The Etruscans? Nobody knew anything about the Etruscans other than a few scraps and relics left over from digs in southeastern Italy. They had been artistic and yet unlettered, and no writing from them persisted. "I think I should like very much to talk to your brother," Jack said.

"Then it is settled," Sappho said. She clapped her hands together and a servant came out from hiding. She was shorter than Sappho, but heavier too. "Zef, fetch our guests some wine, and then fetch my brother. He has a guest."

"Yes, mistress," the woman said, bowed, and walked away. Jack and Annie exchanged glances, for they had known that the nobility of all these times kept slaves, and they had become familiar with it. Jack thought he should worry about himself if he ever become comfortable with it. The slave girl returned with two large goblets, one in each hand, and she presented them to Jack and Annie.

Chapter 3: The men around Sappho

Jack took his and sniffed it. There was an acrid smell to it, as if it had turned slightly to vinegar, but when he lifted it to his mouth the coolness of the wine washed away any doubts. It was wonderful, and he smiled up at Sappho. "Thank you," he said.

"You are welcome," she said. "Ah, here his is. This is Palmris. Palmris, this is Jack. He is the brother of my friend, Annie. If you would keep him out of trouble this evening, I would most appreciate it."

Palmris was a short man, older than Sappho. His grey, smokey eyes seemed flat and tired as if he had been going without much sleep recently, but he nodded. "You must stay in my quarters," he said, eyeing Jack with a vague sense of curiosity but nothing more. Jack was relieved. After his encounter with the Marquis de Sade he wasn't sure if even his own ironically correct sensibilities could take more tweaking, and he didn't need to be reminded that in this era of Greek history homosexuality was a potential hazard of life. The sexes thought of the other as alien and distinct, without much overlap in culture or interest.

Palmris grinned at him briefly. "Forgive me. I was up last night drinking with my men, and I have just awakened from a nap. Where are you from, stranger?"

"The city-state of Hamp," Jack said, translating as best as he could. "It is very far from here. My sister came in search of yours."

Palmris looked at Annie the same way someone might examine a horse. The he shrugged. "May she find what she came for. Come, I shall show you my quarters. Later this evening my soldiers will come by and we shall be conducting some business and then... drink!" He laughed, but Sappho gave him a withering look. "I shall not end up a slobbering old fool, sister."

"Oh, Palmris, I know that. But when you return from a journey you are always so celebratory, and I worry that you shall become a scourge of the island. Someday, you shall fight a man who shall leave a knife between your ribs."

Palmris placed his hand on his side just under his left armpit as if feeling for the knife already. Jack watched, wide-eyed, as he pulled one out. "Someone has!"

Sappho said, "Your tricks with knives are cute, dear brother, but surely you can do better than that."

"How did you do that?" Annie asked.

Palmris showed Jack and Annie the leather sheath braced on his wrist, and how he had freed the knife from it before reaching up to feign the search. "It is a useful skill when one is a mercenary."

Mercenary. Palmris was a soldier who sold his services to a buyer and would fight on whichever side had the most gold. Jack shivered: this tired-looking little man was a soldier and a killer who carried a knife with him everywhere he went, even in the presence of his sister, one of the greatest poets the world had ever known.

"Jack, come," Palmris said. He was not one to speak quietly. Apparently his lowest volume was meant to be heard over the din of battle. It was not an order but an invitation. The only kind Palmris knew how to make. "My men will be here shortly."

Jack smiled tightly. "Thanks. I think. Annie? Be careful."

"You too, Jack."

Jack walked off with Palmris.

Chapter 4: Wives and daughters

Annie sat quietly while Sappho played her lyre, not saying a word. She watched the sun sink lower into the west, and heard the songs of the seagulls, and smelled the salt of an ocean rich with life. Other smells reached her from time to time, sweet and savory. She had often wondered if there would come a day when she would not return to Frogton but would instead choose to stay in a time and place other than the 21st century. She had had her shots, and she knew enough modern hygiene and nutrition that she could probably have stayed alive much longer than her peers in any time she settled down into. She had even managed to get smallpox and polio vaccinations back when there had been fears of a terrorist outbreak.

A woman appeared in the doorway. Sappho looked up and nodded at her. She nodded back, regarded Annie with surprised eyes, then sat down next to her. "I am Aithra."

"Annie," Annie told her. She was a small woman, clear of skin but missing a tooth. That was no surprise to Annie. Other women came in, all of whom seemed to know one another, but all wanted to be introduced to Annie. She realized after a while that it was her pale skin and especially her hair they were all looking at, the soft curls so different from the tight, wax-laden hairstyles the women of Greece wore at this time. Annie collected names: Kolette, Ouriana, Dianetris, Selini. Soon twenty or more women were collected in the courtyard even as the sun touched the sea.

Sappho stood up. "Thank you all for coming here, for braving the night to be one with your own kind. There is little that the world of men has given to us, so let us enjoy our short time together." She picked up a basket, walked to the door. "Come, if you will."

Annie noticed that most of the other women had baskets as well. Not all of them, which made her feel better.

They walked down to the beach and Sappho led them along its sands until they reached a cave. The sun had gone down completely and now only dusk settled across the sea sent grey shards of light off a still sea into the cave's darkness. Annie saw that it was a grotto, half-full of water. "We have a few hours," Aithra said, "Before the tide brings back the sea. We mark our time carefully and well."

Annie nodded. "Thanks," she said, knowing Aithra was trying to make her feel comfortable.

Sappho led them to the back of the grotto. Annie had been afraid that it would smell of seaweed, but it had a clean, sweet smell like the ocean. Waves washed in regularly, soft rushes of noise that made Annie feel as if she were in the sea already, rhythmically swaying back and forth. She saw other women affected as she was. Sappho produced a lit oil lamp, and others shared with lamps taken from their baskets until the grotto was alight with little fires. Reed mats were also placed down on the ground, and the women sat upon them.

Sappho beckoned to Annie, and Annie joined her. "Are you familiar with Aphrodite?"

"Only... she is one of your gods, Sappho. Not one of mine."

"But you know of her?"

"Yes."

"Good." She raised her head. "Let us sit. Aithra, you shall lead the prayer tonight."

Aithra sat cross-legged before a bowl from which smoke rose in lazy wisps. She raised the bowl to her face, inhaled deeply, held the smoke within her lungs for as long as she could, then released it with a gasp. She began a chant that Annie could not make out. The other women began to dance, gyrating around her. "Come, Annie, come!" Sappho shouted, holding out her hands.

Annie jumped into the dancing circle, her feet mysteriously falling into place as if she had always known this dance. She linked hands with Sappho and another, shorter woman with dark hair and kohl-rimmed eyes, and followed along as their dance spiralled in toward Aithra. Aithra's chant grew louder and faster, and the women spiralled in closer and closer until Annie was pressed up, chest to back with women before her and after her. Sappho was the one behind her, and Annie felt a soft kiss planted on her neck.

Chapter 5: Boys with their toys.

Palmris had led Jack back to the the men's side of the building. There were two men waiting for Palmris already. "Kyrenios," Palmris said, reaching out with a hand to grasp the wrist of the shorter man. "Good to see you."

"And you, Captain," Kyrenios said. "What have you here? I thought you did not go for morsels so--"

Palmris laughed. "He is the brother of a friend of my sister's. Do not presume. I do not believe he goes for your 'morsels' either."

"Pity that," said the other man.

"Heraklesr," Palmris said. "What is the tally?"

"Excellent, Captain. Enough to keep all the men in their cups for six months if they are so inclined. And your share is respectable. Not enough to take back Lesbos, but..."

Palmris cut him off with a wave of the hand. "The tide will turn even there, Heraklesr, even there. There will come a time." Jack sat and watched as Palmris conducted business, using a small box of shallow pits and stones, as well as a wax tablet, as Heraklesr rummaged through a green cloth bag and pulled out little tokens. Palmris nodded when it was done. "It is good, Heraklesr. You are correct. It is enough to keep the men in food and drink through the winter." He grinned. "Let us go find the others. I should like to drink to this tonight."

Palmris and the other men led Jack out into the streets. The tavern they sought was not far away through the dusty narrow streets, and when they entered a cheer greeted Palmris. Two dozen men, handsome and recognizably powerful under their simple, belted tunics rose and lifted the cups to him. "Men!" Palmris shouted. Then he lowered his voice. "We have done well, and Heraklesr will distribute to you your rewards in the morning. In the meantime, drink, drink and be happy, for your captain commands you!"

The roar that greeted Jack's ears impressed him. "And who is this?" said one of the men.

"Blathyllos, this is Jack, the brother of one of my sister's friends. We are to show him the life of our town. He will be here only a while before he and his sister return to their own state."

Jack realized that he was taller than just about every man there. Most of them looked like they were stronger than Jack, and certainly all of them had much more combat experience. The past was funny that way. Thanks to the Librarian, Jack had become much more grateful to modern medicine and hygiene. They all looked at him with curiosity, one or two with something more. "Tell us of your travels, Jack!"

Jack told what he could. He talked of Crete, of the mainland, and of lands so far away that they might have been mere legends. "You speak as one who truly has traveled. Your eyes say you speak the truth, but you are too young to have been to so many places," one man said.

Jack shrugged. "I've been lucky."

"Lucky!" Palmris said. "Man is lucky when he is allowed to settle to his land, farm it, raise his brood on it, and be buried in it. All else is folly." He had hit his wine hard and fast, Jack saw, and his eyes burned with frustration. "Someday, we shall return to Lesbos, and I shall take my rightful place!"

"Aye!" the men all said at once.

Jack lifted the cup to his lips. "Aye," he said. He drank only a little. The wine was bitter.

A huge man with muscles all over his arms and shoulders gave Jack a friendly punch on the shoulder, handed him a wooden sword. "Are you with us, lad?"

Jack looked at the handle presented to him. "I'm not a soldier."

"Ah, then a lover, are ya?"

"He is a guest of my sister's," Palmris said. "Leave him be."

The man looked like he was about to say more when a commotion at the door caught everyone's attention. "Palmris, you jackal! What are you doing here?"

Palmris stood up quickly. "Doing what any man does here, Aristoxenus! I am drinking!"

"With money I should have won!"

"You bid high, you fool, of course you didn't win!"

The man called Aristoxenus was taller than Palmris, a muscle-hided powerhouse, tanned where his arms were visible through his tunic. Behind him, a small crowd of other men, all strong-looking, waited with fierce eyes. "I am no fool to let some foreign noble child walk out with my money and my honor!" he shouted.

"You will have to, this time!"

There were murmurs from behind Aristoxenus, and one of the men threw something at Palmris. The man who had offered Jack the wooden sword now swung it upwards, intercepting a thrown jug. The jug shattered and a ripe, vile smell erupted as fluids splashed from the shattered ceramic.

Palmris stood there, droplets clinging to his face. "Gentlemen!" he roared. "Aristoxenus and his men have sent us his water!" Palmris's own men were now on their feet. "Let's send it back, and take his blood instead!"

"Oh, man," Jack said, stepping back away from door even as Aristoxenus's soldiers surged through and Palmris led his roaring men to meet them. The tavern keeper was shouting, "Take it outside! Take it outside!" but it was too late.

Chapter 6: The other world

Sappho's kiss lingered on her neck.

Annie shivered, convinced that she wanted to do this, convinced that this was what The Librarian had sent her to do. She wasn't sure how she should do it; certainly, she had never made love to another woman before. She'd had the reliable three or four boyfriends, including the one who had taken her virginity. Like any woman growing up in the 21st century she couldn't deny that lesbian imagery had been part of her high school years. She had never considered actually doing it, though. Her high school friends hadn't seemed the type.

The pressure of the dancing circle was easing. The ecstatic ululations that had ended the dance gave way to soft murmurs as women made choices. Annie could tell that some of them made established pairs, two women who had known one another for a long time and had long since become comfortable with each other's ways. Others took longer as they eyed each other, not warily but with hope, each hoping that the other's promises would translate into gifts.

Annie turned. Sappho was slightly shorter than Annie, but she still threw her arms over Annie's shoulders and pulled Annie close. Annie hesitated.

"Have you never been intimate with a woman?" Sappho said.

"No," Annie said.

"Do you wish to be?"

Annie looked at Sappho's face, then suddenly leaned forward and kissed the other woman. The closed-mouth kiss quickly became open-mouthed, tongues greeting one another, mouths slick. Annie felt herself grow moist between her thighs and her nipples throbbed under her tunic.

She pressed her body to Sappho's, and then Sappho's hands slipped down her arms to her wrists. She took one hand and led Annie to a mat of thick, woven reeds lain down on the cave floor. She tossed off her tunic, her body bare to Annie's eyes.

Annie looked at Sappho and liked what she saw. Sappho's body showed signs of premature age, the stress of her primitive civilization and her flight from her homeland showing in heavy thighs and visible ribs, in sunburn signatures on her skin and hair. Sappho appeared to Annie as a kind of angel, a reification of determination, maturity, and beauty. Sappho's gesture of vulnerability inspired Annie to repeat it. Her own tunic fell to the ground.

Sappho knelt backward, slowly dragging Annie down with her. Annie winced as she landed on her knees with a solid thump, and then she was above Sappho, looking down on the other woman. Was this a position men liked, where they could look down into the faces of their beloved, hold them close? She could imagine it. But she didn't have the equipment for what a man would do next.

She would have to do something else. She lowered her mouth to Sappho's collar, kissing skin. Sappho tasted of sea salt, body salt, and rare oils. Annie liked what she tasted. Sappho whispered, "Sweet Annie, what Goddess brought you to me?"

Annie tried to say, "A goddess of books," but her words were muffled as she touched Sappho's belly and found the rich, full tangle of Sappho's pubes. They were dark and spread everywhere. She had never thought of what she might smell or taste like, and yet she was about to kiss and taste another woman there. She lowered her mouth to Sappho's pubes and tried to kiss Sappho without inhaling, but that was not possible. She needed air. Sappho smelled of the sea, of morning dawn, and Annie knew then that she could fall in love with Sappho and stay here. She could, but she would not. She had a mission, and a responsibility to Jack, and a better life her herself twenty centuries in the future.

She kissed at Sappho's inner sanctum, and Sappho opened her thighs to Annie's awkward intrusion. Sappho moaned as Annie found her clitoris and licked at it, determined to give Sappho pleasure. Annie did this with her fingers all the time, and knew what she liked.

Sappho said not a word, but her voice may as well have formed poetry in whimpers of love and desire, of reaching for ecstasy and falling away, time and again, until finally Sappho grasped an Annie's gift and crested over the edge of pleasure, her whole body heaving and thrusting.

Annie inhaled deeply as she raised her head. "You've brought the Goddess to us, Annie," Sappho whispered. "You have a touch no man and few women ever find within themselves." She reached down and pulled Annie to her, and Annie kissed her again, this time with a tenderness that welled up from deep inside her soul. She had never imagined she could do this with a woman, but it really wasn't so different after all. "And now, Annie, I shall reach to your gates and pray for the goddess to touch you." She turned Annie onto her back and followed the same map over different territory, ending between Annie's thighs, her mouth open, her pink lips promising. "Such artistry, Annie, such risk." Annie wondered what Sappho was talking about and then she remembered: she trimmed her pubes with scissors and kept it tame with a razor. To these women, that must have been an exotic affectation.

Annie held her breath as Sappho's mouth touched down against her full, liquid nether lips, and then Sappho's tongue was probing between, deeper into her secret places. The last two missions had been Jack's to complete, and now Annie was taking her turn. She moaned and let herself be carried away. It was not just the physical sensations; those were nice, but it was the woman doing them, the mystery of it, the freedom and the promise of pleasure that the Librarian and Sappho together granted her.

Annie's hands were in the oiled tangle of Sappho's rich, black hair, holding on to the other woman as if every breath depended upon it. Annie shivered as one after another preclimax pleasures darted through her body, each one coming sooner and stronger than the previous until she bear them no longer and she came with a high-pitched cry of release and desperation.

Chapter 7: Worlds apart

Jack tried to stay out of the swirl of fighting, but he couldn't. A man charged at him, roaring. Jack ducked, frightened, and the man tripped over him and went sailing through the air to skid to a stop against the stone wall.

He fell unconscious, and Jack hoped he wasn't dead.

The room had already become a melee' of big, sweaty men exchanging punches, blocking blows with their forearms and their wrists. Jack saw Palmris and Aristoxenus locked in hateful embrace, each shouting epithets at the other. Palmris's knees buckled and suddenly Aristoxenus was thrown into the air, shouting with something halfway between rage and cheer.

Bodies shoved aside the crude furniture. A long table fell on its side as men shouted and punched at one another. Another wine jug fell next to Jack and shattered on the floor, covering him with its contents. He jumped behind the long table and pressed his back to the wall, his legs to the table to keep it from crushing him, and he hoped it would all die away soon. From his vantage point he heard crashing, shouting, the thick sound of fists striking.

His makeshift wall was pulled away and another man peered over it, a man with a nose squashed flat from one to many fights just like this one. "What have we here, a bug?" He grabbed Jack by the tunic. The fabric bunched under Jack's arms as he lifted Jack to his knees, then with both hands heaved Jack like a weapon at a melee of men near the door. Jack's body was battered by fists and elbows as he fell on them, knocking them over, but the door was there. Dazed, he picked himself up off the floor and ran for it. A shouting soldier reached out to grab his ankle. Jack stumbled and slammed face-first into the wall by the door. "Ow!" he shouted, then fell against the door and out into the dusty street. He lurched across the street and fell against the wall of an adjacent building. Inside the tavern the fight went on.

Jack wondered if they would fight all night. It seemed to him that they might, but eventually the fighting died away and men staggered out into the streets, some bloodied, others holding bruises. Many seemed to be laughing.

"Jack! Jack my friend!" Palmris stepped across the street and met Jack. "You are well?"

"My face hurts," Jack said.

"Ah, you were not successful in dodging every fist then?" Palmris laughed and reached down with a hand.

Jack let himself be hauled to something resembling an upright stance, then looked. "Why are you laughing? Those men tried to kill you!"

"Aristoxenus? Nah, Jack. That was a friendly barfight." Jack stared at him. "He was angry because I won that contract and word had gotten out that I made a lot of money. Did you not see one of his spies leave while we were bragging about it?" Jack shook his head. "You're not a very good spy yourself, then."

"Did you think I was a spy?"

"Your story isn't very believable, lad, and you and your sister do make a queer couple. Aristoxenus was just letting off steam in a friendly way, as men will do here in Greece."

"Poor bartender," Jack said.

"But that's part of it, Jack!" Palmris said. "My soldiers will have to pay to set that right. Aristoxenus is just making sure that the money we made gets put out to the people quicker, to the right people: carpenters and potters and masons, rather than whores and-- " Palmris glanced over his shoulder-- "tavernmasters. But come, Jack. You look like you could use a beer, and there must be some left in the poor man's stores."

Chapter 8: A scroll of wonders.

Annie lay on the reed mat, panting softly, looking up into the face of the woman who had just done so much to her. She had never imagined that pleasure could be so great, or so caring. She knew full well that she would never be a lesbian (or a Lesbian). Back in her time, she thought, she would never have been attracted to a woman, and probably wouldn't in the future. There was something about the missions that was liberating. She'd been free to do crazy things when she'd been young, and this was just another kind of crazy thing. But now she knew what she was capable of experiencing, and any boy who tried to touch her had better have the skill and thoughtfulness to get her there again.

Sappho smiled down at her. "Such a stage is on your face, Annie. What dreams do the gods arouse within you?"

Annie shook her head. "Nothing important," she said. "Nothing that will change the world."

"Do you have the power to change the world, Annie?"

"I might," Annie said. "Someday."

"Then, if you do, make sure that the world you change has a place of women, and their love."

Annie thought momentarily that that mission was already accomplished, that it was in some sense done. She didn't know the details-- that wasn't her world, after all. For a moment, Annie had a shiver. Was there a lesson here, in the way Sappho's world was separate from that of Sicily, and the way "her" world, even in her own time, was separate from all of the other worlds that shared the Earth of 2015? The Librarian, she noted, was fond of lessons.

"The gods stir with you constantly," Sappho said. She leaned down and kissed Annie's mouth. Annie kissed back, awkward and unsure that she wanted to continue this dalliance. "That does not quiet them."

"No," Annie agreed. "I must ask of you a favor."

"You have given me a gift."

"You mentioned earlier that you had a poem to Anatikva. Could I... Could I read it?"

Sappho closed her eyes and sighed with a strange pleasure. "Read it? What a strange thing to ask. Where you come, poetry is read, not heard?"

"Yes, I'm afraid that's right. Poetry is put into little books and put on a shelf, and maybe sometimes we read them."

"And yet, where you come from the world is full of art and science, you said."

"It's not easy to explain," Annie said. "And I don't think I should try anymore."

"I will give you my poem," Sappho said. "Come with me." She reached out a hand, and Annie took it. Sappho helped her pull the dress back over her head, and together they walked the short distance from the grotto back to Sappho's father's villa. Sappho led her into the courtyard, and then into a smaller room. "This is my home."

There was not much to see that Annie was not familiar with. She saw the harp again, and the bed looked comfortable enough. Sappho opened a small wooden chest and pulled out a scroll. "This is the poem. These are all my poems."

"But... Making copies--"

"I have copies. This is a gift I give to a few who... show they need it."

In all her years as an agent of the Librarian, Annie had never felt tears rise in her eyes quite the way she did now. They welled up so strongly she almost thought of keeping the scroll for herself. She knew that ultimately, she could not do that. She would put it in the Library for the safekeeping of Eternity, and she would visit it from time to time until she knew them all. "May I... may I read them now?"

Sappho nodded, her face happy as one woman to another who could read. Annie had always known how strange her ability to read had been to all of the ancient peoples they had known, but never before had the ability itself brought joy to another. The Librarian had to know of this gift, of this welcome knowing that she shared only with a few. "Or I can read them to you."

Annie looked at the scroll, at its fine calfskin layer, and handed it to Sappho. "Please?"

All night long and in the light of an oil lamp, Sappho held Annie in an embrace of arms and words and beauty that were completely unlike the lovemaking of the early evening. It was so empowering and beautiful that Annie cried more than once, laughed several times, and experienced moments of rapture so breathtaking she knew that forgetting would be impossible. She read some of the poems aloud to Sappho in her own halting way.

In the morning, she knew that giving the scroll to the Librarian would be easy. She knew Sappho's magic within her heart now. It was not unlike the spell she could weave over animals, and they over her. She wondered if what she had felt in those hours were shared by Sappho. She hoped so.

Dawn broke over the island nation of Sicily. A cock crowed, and Annie almost laughed despite her exhaustion. She thought it such a silly thing, so much a part of her own mythology, of Westerns with their roosters. She wouldn't have thought to hear a rooster out here. But she knew her duty now. "My brother and I... we have to go."

"I know. I did not expect you to stay. Your clothes and manners, even your reading, say that you are not from here, now." Sappho smiled and handed Annie the scroll. "Give your Librarian a hug from me, when you see her."

Annie stared at her, unable to speak. She shouldn't have been surprised. Of all the people that the Librarian could have known, it made sense that Sappho might be one of them. She finally nodded. "Come," Sappho said softly. "Let's go find your brother."

Jack was asleep in the male quarters of the household, lying on cot, tongue hanging out of the side of his head. Annie grinned. They had spent overnight on missions before, but they had always gotten sleep together. This time Annie had stayed awake.

It would be two in the morning when they got home, if the treefort's pattern of keeping time stayed true. If so, she would get half a night's sleep-- and in some sense, so would Jack. She would live. "Jack," she said softly. "Ja-a-a-ck."

"Wha?" He blinked up at her, looking sleepy. She wondered if he'd gone to bed late, or if it was just the uncomfortable sleeping arrangement. It did not look like the most comfortable of beds.

"Time to go," Annie said. As Jack rose she saw a bruise on his cheek. "Oh, Jack! What happened to you?"

"A barfight," Jack said with a smile. "And I think I'm still a little drunk."

"You smell like it. Are you okay?" Annie didn't know that her brother had ever drunk before at all, but she certainly knew he didn't fight in bars!

"I'm great," Jack said. "C'mon. You got it?"

Annie nodded, waving the scroll under his nose. His eyes followed it with less than perfect acuity. He swayed slightly as he stood.

Sappho met them at the door. "I have something else for you," she said. "A friend left this here." She held out a black bracelet. "Take it with you. Your friend might know what to do with it. It does not belong here." Annie looked at it. It looked like simple plastic ring, but the inside glowed. Annie held it up. The inside of the ring looked like it was covered with green, white, and blue images, like some strange distorted map.

"If you give it to us," Annie said. "We'll take it." She held open her arms and embraced Sappho, and Sappho returned the embrace gratefully.

"Oh man," Jack said. "I was right."

Annie said, "Be quiet, Jack. Don't be mean."

"Such is the way of men," Sappho said, but she smiled as she said it. "Go, both of you."

The tree was just a little bit outside Sappho's home compound, and they found it easily. Annie told Jack to go first; in his inebriated state, it was probably better if she stayed and watched him.

Inside, Annie opened the New Hampshire book. She glanced out the window one last time, and then looked at the aerial photo of Frogton. "I wish I could go home," she said, not entirely convinced that she was telling the truth when she said it.

The wind began to blow. The treefort shook the palm leaves. "Bye, Sappho," Annie said softly. Jack continued to look dazed. The roar of the wind grew, louder and louder. The treefort seemed to spin rapidly, faster and faster. The roaring grew until it blotted out all other sounds, and then everything was still. Utterly still.

Jack was sober, and his bruise had faded to nothingness. Annie held the scroll for a moment, like a memory, then put it down onto the letter L. "Did you have fun?" Annie said.

"It was better than the last one," Jack said.

"But you got hurt, Jack."

Jack touched his face where the bruise had been. "It healed. And I learned something. And I bet you did, too." Annie nodded.

"Jack," she said, laying her hand on his, "It didn't change me." She pointed to the scroll. "It was beautiful, but I don't know if I'll ever do anything like that again."

"What do we do with the bracelet?"

"It wasn't in her instructions. We'll keep it, like we did last time, and see what she says."

Jack nodded. "Let's go."

They descended down the rope ladder and walked home through the cold but somehow comforting night.

Nymphs In November
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is copyright © February 1, 2008 Elf Mathieu Sternberg and is available under a Creative Commons License.