Chapter 1: An Old Friend Is Seen
Jack and Annie stood under the treefort. Ten years had passed since they last visited here, deep in the woods behind their home in Frogton, NH. The treefort was their place of childhood mystery. Here they had met the Librarian and helped her mission to collect items, mostly writings, but also to deliver messages, to people in the past, or the future. Once, they had been to the moon.
Or so they told one another. Jack doubted his own memories, it all seemed so long ago. “Do you really believe it all happened, Annie? I mean, the way we remember it?”
“Of course it did, Jack!” Annie smiled. She had grown much in the past ten years. Adulthood was being kind to her. To both of them, really. “Come on! Let’s go up and see if there’s anything still there.”
“Oh, brother,” Jack said. He pushed back his glasses and looked up the long rope ladder that swayed slowly in invitation. It felt like old times except now the rungs felt too close together, too small. They were meant for feet other than Jack’s. They were meant for him when he had been half the size of his current six-foot frame. It had always been Annie who had gone first up the ladder, who had seen the mysteries to be found in the treefort, and who had always had to encourage him. Now he went first. He hoped for an empty, wooden floor.
“Oh, no,” he said as he hoisted himself into the treefort. On the floor lay a single book. On top of the book rested an envelope made of a kind of heavy, yellow paper. It felt crisp as he thumbed open the flap. “Annie? There’s something here.”
She pushed herself up through the square hole. They both weighed much more than they had the first time they’d come up here, but the treefort bore them as if they weren’t there at all. Jack would have expected creaking, or swaying, but there was none. The view outside the window said they were many feet in the air but the treefort may as well have been on solid ground for all the movement he felt.
Annie took the envelope and pulled out a sheet of something like parchment from within. She read it out loud:
Dear Jack and Annie. I am so pleased you came back now that you are adults. I have four more tasks to ask of you, tasks I could not give you when you were but children. These tasks require the skills, maturity, and development only adults can possess.
I ask that you find me four more stories, from four more places deep in our past. You will find the story I seek in a dark corner of a dark city, with a man who can be both kind and unkind, and whose drive to seek pleasure reveals the city to have kind of ugliness that can only be understood by those who have lived there. The story I seek is one that has been banned, but he will know how to find it. You know the rest.
“That doesn’t sound like much fun,” Jack said.
“Were they ever fun, Jack?” Annie’s voice made Jack looked up. “We nearly died, time and time again. The river in Japan, or that pyramid in Egypt. People tried to kill us, animals tried to eat us, and I still have nightmares about what would have happened if anything had gone wrong while we were on the Moon.”
“But they were exciting! We learned so much.” He tapped the notebook he still carried in the pocket of his vest. “What we learned set the course for our futures, Annie.” Jack had chosen archeology as his college major and had been accepted into the University of Michigan. Annie was planning on an Art History degree after the summer. “Come on, Annie. You know you want to do it.”
“Of course I do, Jack. I just worry. We’re not kids anymore. I doubt the Librarian’s going to be watching us quite so closely as she used to. I… I’m scared.”
“Funny, it used to be the other way around.”
Annie nodded. “Where’s the New Hampshire book?” Jack found it, in its corner, in a leather bag. The other book, the one on which he had found the envelope, waited for them. “Rome? We’re going to Rome?”
Rome, 67 A.D., the book said. “That wasn’t a very nice time in history, if I recall.”
“But, Jack… Rome. Can you imagine it?”
“We’ve been there.”
“No, we’ve been to Pompeii. We survived Vesuvius. Two years later. We never went to Rome, I mean, really Rome. Say yes, Jack.”
Annie grabbed the book from Jack’s hand and pointed to the cover. “I wish we could go there.”
A wind arose outside the treefort. A howling, mournful sound, not at all like the joyous noise they had heard as children. The world outside the window began to spin, and then the treefort began spin with it. Jack’s mind reeled at the assault on his senses, an overwhelming spiral down the rabbit hole of time. The howling outside grew in pitch and volume, blotting out all rational thought.
And then everything was still. Utterly still.
Chapter 2: Rome Stinks
Jack groaned and picked himself up off the floor. That ride had been rougher than he remembered. Annie rose too, holding her head in her hands. “Ugh,” she said. “Jack?”
“I’m okay.” He stepped over to the window, looked down. The faint nausea he felt vanished. “Annie, we’re really here!” He took out his notebook and pen, pulled off the elastic that held the notebook shut, and began writing furiously: Marble columns everywhere, and they’re painted! Never saw that in the artbooks. Everything is bright and garish. Lots of gold leaf. It’s pretty crowded and everyone is wearing a toga, but they don’t look like what you see in the movies. Indeed, they didn’t, for the cloth looked rougher and heavier, the cut and trim of it more utilitarian.
“Wow,” Annie said. She looked down. “Hey, Jack, we’ve got togas!”
Jack looked down and sure enough, the two of them were dressed in garb similar to that of the people walking. The cloth felt to be linen rather than cotton, and Jack remembered that cotton was a New World phenomenon, not something that would be found in ancient Rome. They also wore sandals, the kind where the straps mounted between their big toe and the rest. “Flip flops,” Jack sighed. “I never could wear these things. Annie, your hair!”
Jack wished for a mirror, but neither of them had one. Annie’s hair, normally long tresses of brown that fell down to somewhere between her shoulders, was now coiled in a striking flattened circular ziggurat atop her head, held in place with gold wire decorated with pearls. “You’re beautiful like that.”
“I just hope it doesn’t mean I’m a prostitute or something.”
Something in the Librarian’s words came back to Jack, and he wondered if that’s exactly what she was meant to be. He hoped it didn’t mean they would have to trade her for the artifact the Librarian wanted. On the other hand, every scratch, every cut, every bruise he had received while travelling on the Librarian’s adventures had been gone by the time they’d gotten home. So maybe…
“Let’s go,” Annie said. “Let’s find the parchment and go home. By the way, who’s Emperor?”
“Nero,” Jack said automatically.
“The one with the fiddle?”
“That’s a myth. There were no fiddles in Rome. The fiddle is a German invention of the mid-12th century, developed from a Turkish instrument.” Jack had learned that just the month before.
“I’m sure they had musical instruments in Rome.” Annie started down the ladder.
“Annie! Wait for me!”
They must have descended from the only tree in Rome, Jack thought. The road was just muddy dirt rutted through in places. It had rained recently, but now a bright sun beamed overhead. Citizens of Rome milled about in togas and other elaborate dresses, most of them stained with mud about the lower hems.
“I’m hungry,” Jack said suddenly as they broke from the protective spell that hid their treefort and plunged into the very breath of Rome. It stank with the smell of bodily waste, both human and horse. “Rome never had a sewer system to speak of.”
“How can you be hungry? I’m about to throw up,” Annie said.
“You’ll get used to it. These people lived with it every day.”
“I’m not these people.” Something growled about her midsection. “But I guess I’m hungry too. It’s been a while since breakfast.”
They walked down the street and found an intersection. The road they met was cobble-stoned and seemed to be much busier, especially in the direction going uphill. Jack and Annie walked in that direction, dodging several people, until an unmistakable smell reached Jack’s nose. “Annie, do you smell that?”
“I do!” She looked at him, her eyes wide. They looked about and found the little booth that gave off the delicious smell. Jack checked the purse at his belt and found it full of coins. To his amazement, he could read the numbers. “Two, please,” he said to the man behind the counter.
The man put an iron pan on top of a grill and threw two logs into the fire pit underneath it, then put two patties of ground beef into the pan. As he cooked, he would sometimes splash the patties with wine from a earthenware jug, and at the end he tossed on some chopped nuts. He expertly cut open two bread rolls and put the patties in, then handed one each to Jack and Annie. Jack grinned. “Hamburgers. Too bad they don’t have cheeseburgers.”
“Who knew they made hamburgers in Rome?” Annie said.
“Someone must have. Isn’t there a cookbook that survives from this time?”
“You’re the archaeologist, Jack,” Annie said. They both grinned. Annie said to the man, “What kind of nuts are those?”
The cook looked surprised. “They’re pine, miss.”
The burgers were actually good. After they were done, Annie said, “We still need to find that writing the Librarian wanted. A dark story in a dark corner of a dark city, by a man both cruel and kind.”
“I hope she doesn’t mean the Emperor,” Jack said.
“I don’t think Nero ever qualified as ‘kind’.”
Jack nodded. A voice cut through the hubbub of the bustling intersection, shouting out “Attention, citizens! The Emperor has announced that today at the Coliseum there shall be lions! Boats! And the gladiator Casus Maximus shall fight two men at once!” The crowd around the crier turned and boo’d briefly at that last, but Jack was already thinking.
“The Coliseum? Annie, you know how these missions go. We probably have to go there.”
Annie put a finger to her mouth. “I don’t know, Jack. Did you see that crier? He had no scroll, no paper. I don’t think most of these people can read. We won’t find a story at the Coliseum.”
“So what?” Jack said. “And you never know. The Coliseum is certainly one of the darkest corners of the city. And it’s where famous people go. We have to go there, just like we had to go to the Olympic fields.”
Annie said, “You’re probably right.”
Chapter 3: Blood and Terror
The Coliseum was easy to find: Jack and Annie just followed the surging crowd until they reached the gates. The Coliseum was a massive construction, a huge round building of concrete and marble, decorated in gold and painted in hues of yellow, red, and green. It was a sight to behold, the most magnificent single building Jack had ever seen, and he had seen many.
Neither had noticed that they were being followed until a short man missing some teeth approached them. “Sir? Lady? Why are you in this line? Are you new to Rome?”
“Yes,” Jack said automatically. “We’re from… from the provinces.”
“Your clothes mark you as clearly from the upper families.” Jack looked down, and could not tell what about his clothes made the difference. He looked at the man suspiciously, wondering if he was facing a pickpocket or a thief. Or some kind of cutthroat. “Through that door, please, kind sir.” There were other people, the kind who radiated wealth, going through what looked exactly like a turnstile made of wood. Jack and Annie decided to follow them.
Inside, the Coliseum reminded Jack of a high-end sports arena. People lined the hallways already, and what looked very much like a passel of clowns cavorted in the middle, but their act was not what Jack considered funny. They all sported enormous wooden penises and much of the laughter that the audience gave seemed to arise from each pretending to rape or assault another.
The usher sat them down, handed each of them a leathery cup of watery wine and left them. “I’m not sure…” Jack said.
“I’m not either. Remember, you suggested this.”
Jack nodded. More people were settled around them, and Jack noticed that almost all of them were scarred, pocked, or marked in the face in some way. None of them had escaped from the ravages of disease. Jack was grateful, suddenly, to live in a century where most diseases were a thing of the past. This past, he thought.
A blare of horns announced the arrival of the Emperor, who took his seat only a few yards away. Jack could see him clearly, a middle-aged man swathed in a purple toga and accompanied by a tall, thin man who talked animatedly while the Emperor waved him off. “That’s Nero, Jack!” Annie said.
“Wow,” Jack said. He had never thought of meeting the Emperor of Rome, although he had met a few kings along the way. “He ruled the world, you know.”
“What was known of it,” Annie said. More trumpets, and the games began. Jack took out his notebook and scribbled in it furiously, but Annie buried her face in his shoulder from time to time as they both watched the mounting horror in the center ring. Men were slaughtered before their eyes. Annie and Jack were no strangers to death and destruction: the San Francisco Earthquake and the eruption of Vesuvius had created no illusions for them. But the blood on the floor of the Colosseum was not wrought by unfeeling nature. Here, men killed one another, apparently for the mere pleasure of the crowd. Even as he wrote Annie said, “Jack, I want to leave.”
“Ah, a man of letters!” said a voice behind them. “I am so pleased that they teach writing out in the provinces. I have not seen you here before, and I assure you that I know every literate man in Rome. What is your name, young man?”
“Yohannus. You must be from the Eastern Provinces, then.” Jack nodded. “And your wife?”
“This is my sister. Anna.”
“Anna.” Annie turned away from the butchery in the center stage and looked up at the man who was talking to them. “By Jupiter’s beard! What a face! What skin! You have not a trace of the city upon you, my dear. How fortunate you must be! You must both come to my party tonight. You, for your beauty, and you, young man, for your letters.”
Jack said, “I would, sir, if I knew where to go.”
“Oh! I am Petronius Magister, and I live in a small villa near the palace. Find your way to the Palatine Hill and ask for my home. Make sure you get there just before dusk.”
Jack nodded, suddenly sure that this was the man they had been sent to find. “We will do that, sir.”
A scream went up from the center stage. Annie turned and blanched. Those slaves who could not perform useful work, those thinned and weak with disease, or those who were crippled by accidents, were being fed to lions. Bloody heaps of human viscera littered the sawdusty floor. “Jack!”
“We’ll go.” He led her past the cheering crowds, out of the Coliseum.
Chapter 4: Petronius Magister
They found a quiet restaurant in which to pass the rest of the afternoon. Rome was full of restaurants, all on the ground floor of what looked to be apartment buildings. The restaurants were open to the streets, for Rome had no glass, and so no windows. Jack saw shutters folded back, to close against the rain, but even the shutters had little openings to let in light. There was no artificial lighting. At night, Rome must have been a terrifying place. He mentioned this to Annie and she said, “No wonder Petronius wants us there before dusk.”
“Have you figured it out?” Jack asked.
“I bet we’re after the Satyricon. Most of it has been missing for centuries,” Annie said. “But Petronius… his parties were always a little overboard, weren’t they?”
“It’s Rome,” Jack said. “Everything is a little overboard.”
Annie nodded. “I’m frightened, Jack.”
“And we should be. We’re not kids anymore. I sometimes think that The Librarian had done something to us to make sure we would get home safely. Besides, wasn’t it always you going in headfirst, and me being the one to say you should slow down?”
“I guess so.” They sat and ate their food, a thick soup of ham and root vegetables. “We should go.”
They asked a man standing by the door which way to the palace, and he pointed with a bored expression. “That must not be an unusual question,” Jack observed.
“Rome was a tourist town along with everything else,” Annie said. “Everyone wanted to go see the palace.” The streets were crowded. Annie noticed the overwhelming smell of everything: men, waste, oxen, straw. Rome could not hide the fact that it was completely dependent upon the vast farmland that surrounded it: there were no plastics, and no refrigeration. This was a land that was truly “just in time” in its agriculture. And over it all, Annie smelled baking bread. She mentioned it to Jack.
“That would be the dole. Rome kept the peace through ‘bread and circuses’, literally. If you were a lower-class citizen, a plebeian, you were entitled to one free loaf of bread a day, and free admission to the Coliseum. It was enough to keep you full. And Rome kept its water supply independent of the Tiber. Everyone dumped their waste into the Tiber, but the water came through the aqueducts from above where the river fed into the city.” He glanced around. “A million loaves of bread a day, Annie. All by manual labor. Bakers boys would make the mix at dusk, and then, hours before dawn, they would wake up and knead it for an hour, forty-pound loaves each, with their feet, and then the oven masters would bake it. A million loaves. That’s what you smell.”
She shook her head. “Wow, Jack. It’s unimaginable.”
“Rome was, I think.” They found the palace. Jack was silent for a moment, then pulled his notebook from his pocket and began writing: Look at all the cloth! And it was red, not purple! The entire palace looks like it’s dressed and ready for a night on the town. Even the columns are wrapped in linen. Is it a show of wealth, or a real aesthetic decision?
Annie came back from talking to a man wearing a bronze headdress with a feathered ruffle running along the top of his head. “He says Petronius’s house is over there.”
“Just a second.” Jack was madly sketching what he could capture of the palace, trying to preserve this memory. He had insights into Roman culture that maybe no one had ever had. “The fashion cycle lives in Rome, Annie!”
“The fashion cycle! Nobody ever recorded that.” He pointed to the palace. “I think it’s the fashion cycle. This year, the style is to decorate your house in red. Let’s go to Petronius’s house and find out if his house is decorated the same way.”
They found the address the guard had given them easily. In this part of town, the roads were perfectly flat, inlaid bricks tightly fitted and mortared together. They passed a road crew of about twenty men sitting on the ground, working in two-man pairs hauling back-and-forth a heavy stone with rope handles while other men went from team to team, offering sips from a skin to the workers or dribbling oil in the path of the stone. Jack said, “We have huge machines that make the roads flat and smooth. They do it by hand. They’re sanding the road down by hand.”
Annie turned away from the construction team and approached Petronius’s house. The house was indeed painted red. An old man stood at the door and nodded. “Master Petronius said you would be coming, a tall young man and his magnificent sister. That must be you. Ioannus and Ioanna, from the Greek Provinces?”
“Yes.” One thing Jack had learned from The Librarian: how to lie. How to tell people what they wanted to hear. When they were younger, they had often gotten away with their exploits by explaining that they were on their way home, to their parents. He wondered what excuses they would have to master now that they were adults.
The old man bowed and allowed them to pass. They entered a square atrium. The roof was open to the sky, and the floor was dominated by a stepped square pool of water inlaid with blue tiles.
“Come in, my friends, come in!” Petronius Magister stepped through the doorway and beckoned to the two of them. Jack wondered how it was that he and Annie were both taller than their host. They were both taller than most of the people around them. Petronius merely bowed to the two of them and they responded in kind. Jack looked at Annie quizzically, then shrugged and led them into an inner room. Here, the air was thick with smoke and the smell of cooking food. A Roman party lay before them, a U-shaped collection of heavy, hand-made wooden tables ringed with benches on which to lie. Petronius introduced Jack and Annie to several of the guests. “You have heard of Pliny the Younger?” He indicated a fat man with lively eyes, behind who stood another man with a stylus. Jack realized he was looking at Pliny’s writing slave, who recorded every word the man said. As his eyes adjusted, he saw many men and a few women, most of the men portly in one fashion or another.
Jack bowed as the names and ranks were tattled off, and Petronius indicated a seat near his where Annie and Jack should recline. “Thank you for coming. I know this crowd far too well, and the stories they will tell will be far too boring. You, at least, can tell us of your travels. Where are you coming from?”
“We were last in Vesuvius,” Annie said. Jack looked at her then nodded. It was at least the truth. “My brother has a fascination for water works, and wanted to know how the aqueduct there was made.”
“Ah!” Petronius said. “So not only a lettered man, but an engineer!” He seemed suddenly to have lost interest in them, for which Jack was grateful.
Chapter 5: Jack’s Time
He took out his notebook and began noting the courses set before them: pastries and breads stuffed with vegetables and some meat, mostly ham and duck he learned. The “entertainment” was a trio of musicians who played percussion, and a following trio of women who danced provocatively before peeling off and placing themselves at the hands of some of the men who proceeded to paw them through their dresses. Jack coughed and tried to look away, but if he were to be honest with himself, the wine and the women were more than he wanted to bear. The Librarian had called these trips “missions,” and this certainly felt like one. But now he was older and able to question the sanity of these “missions.” What was he trying to accomplish here?
A women– a prostitute, Jack reminded himself, slipped an arm around his shoulder. “Young master, you do not seem to be enjoying yourself.”
“I am not… accustomed.”
“Ah, well, allow me to make you feel accustomed, then!” Her hands were on the back of his neck. Jack felt her touch rise like a wave within his body. He had had a few girlfriends but had never succeeded in getting much past first base. This woman was ready– had been paid to be ready, he tried to remind himself– to be whatever he wanted. Suddenly, he wanted a lot.
The end of the party started. Some of the men had chosen to take their wives or the offered attention of hired women right there. He looked around. Annie was not among those present. She and Petronius were missing.
“What’s your name?” he said.
“Acuzia,” she said. “Shh. You are new. That is well. Allow me.” She took his hand and led him down a hallway to a small side room. Acuzia pulled him close, her hand on his crotch. He was as hard as a sword. “You are all a man, young Master. Did you go to the bathhouse today?”
“Have you bathed?”
“Of course,” Jack said suddenly.
She smiled and dropped to her knees, lifting his toga and disappearing underneath it. Her head rustled dangerously close to his crotch, and then her mouth surrounding his cock. “Oh, brother,” he gasped as the wetness of her mouth drove all they way down the length of his cock. She suckled at the root while her fingers tickled his scrotum. His toga pulsated with the action going on underneath; in the dim lamplight it seemed that his clothes had been invaded by something less than human. And yet the sucking was so strong and suggestive his come rose within his groin. It seemed to bubble up from his balls and through his cock, held back only by some weak dam of inexperience.
The dam burst. Jack came with a shout, and Acuzia held still, making gurgling noises as she swallowed. She pushed out from underneath his toga. “Young men are often ready twice. Are you ready, sir?”
Jack found his cock still hard. “I… I think so.”
“Good.” She tossed off her own dress, a white shift held with an embroidered belt. Jack had never been this close to a naked woman before in his life, and Acuzia was a prime example of fully-flowered womanhood. Her body was lean and comfortably developed, her breasts hung from her frame like tempting fruit. Only her hair, with its oils, seemed out of place and unfamiliar. “Come, have me.”
Jack let her lead him to the bed. She lay down on it, her legs opened. He glanced down momentarily, stripped off his toga, then lay between her thighs. In moments he had lined up with her sex and then he slipped inside her. She was like a pool of warm olive oil, soft and unconstricting, yet Jack knew that he was in for the real first fuck of his life. He tried to get the rhythm right and soon found that it came naturally. He didn’t have to think about it at all. He looked down at Acuzia. Her eyes were closed tight, one hand on her mouth, a knuckle in her teeth. “Yes, master, take me, take me.”
Jack didn’t need to be told twice. He slipped in and out of her with the long strokes that his body already knew how to use. Acuzia moaned gently and Jack knew that he was about to come for the second time in less than an hour. He felt it, now growing inside him, and again it built and built until it spilled out of him, a shout, a jet of semen. And then it was over.
Ashamed of how mechanical it had all seemed, Jack pushed off her and sat on the edge of the bed. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“For what?” Acuzia pulled herself up to kneel beside him. “You did what you were supposed to do, young Master.”
Jack noticed for the first time that Acuzia smelled: of oils and fish, of clove and garlic, of her sweat and now his. It was not a memory he wished to treasure. “I am not used to Rome.”
“This is not Rome,” she said. “This is life close to the palace. We are what the gods have made us to be.” She pointed to the door, which was decorated with a hammered shield onto which an erect penis had been carved.
Chapter 6: Jack find Annie. Annie finds the Book.
“I must find my sister,” Jack said suddenly. He pulled his toga back on hastily and walked out into the hallway, almost bumping into Annie. “Annie!”
“Jack! What have you been… oh.”
“You didn’t… with Petronius, did you?”
“No, not like you have.” She glanced through the door at Acuzia. “No, we just talked. About Vesuvius and Greece and what I know of the wider world. He was fascinated that a woman could read and write.” She reached out with a scroll. “He gave me this. A gift, he said. It’s the complete Satyricon.”
“It’s what we came for. Let’s get out of here.”
Annie nodded, giving Acuzia one last look, and then the two of them were heading for the door. Annie said, “Too bad. I think he’s hoping I’m going to come back.”
“I’m not coming back,” Jack said. “We have what we came for. I wrote a lot in my notebook but, I would not want to live here.” Annie nodded.
The night was very dark when they stepped out. “Jack,” Annie whispered, “I don’t think it’s safe to go out at night here.”
“We have to go back to the treefort,” Jack said. “We can’t stay here. We’ve got the scroll.”
Annie nodded. They walked quickly down the hill, away from the palace. To Jack’s surprise, the streets were active and busy with people, and laughter came from one corner, where many people were surrounding a stage. On it, a naked woman and a man cavorted before their pratfall embrace to the laughter of the audience. It was some kind of farce but Jack could make not sense of it and he didn’t care to try.
They were unmolested as they made their way to the edge of the city. It was then that they heard footsteps. Frightened, the two of them ran the last hundred yards to the treefort, climbed quickly, and got in. Jack looked down. Two black-clothed men were peering up at them, but Annie had the New Hampshire book open. “I wish I could go home!” she said.
The wind began to blow. The treefort shook. “Here we go!” Annie giggled. 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
Chapter 7: Home
Jack opened up the parchment, but his ability to read Latin had ended along with the enchantment that had taken them to Rome. He could make out the individual letters, but he couldn’t read a word. He smiled and put the scroll down onto the letter L. The Librarian would come to pick it up later. “Well,” he said, “That was interesting.”
Annie smiled at him. “And you got laid.”
“Annie!” Jack said. It was not the kind of thing he expected to hear from his sister’s mouth.
“Jack,” she said, laying a gentle hand on his arm, “We’ve been through so many things before. At least this one wasn’t so dangerous.”
Jack nodded. Together, the two of them left the treefort and, confident in the reality of their childhood and each other, they walked home through the quiet woods.