Chapter Nine

When we first arrived, this would have tired me out, Paula thought a week later as she escorted two of the kitchen-maids down the long path to the paddocks where the horses were trained and exercised.

They were carrying baskets with what amounted to a large picnic lunch, and each also had a big pitcher of wine mixed with water at one-third to two-thirds, as cold as a cellar could manage.

Paula didn’t carry anything, because that would have upset and bewildered everyone.

As it is, it just makes me feel guilty. I never wanted to be Scarlett O’Hara!

It was still hot at midday and mostly cloudless an hour past noon, though there were thunderheads out over the lake that had sent the fishing-boats back to shore. And just lately you could sense fall in the air at dawn, and again by midnight. In another few weeks the leaves would begin to turn. The grapes in the vineyards were more and more juicy-looking and fairly soon they’d be harvested, though there were proportionately a lot fewer acres under vines than there had been in the 2030’s because everyone needed a lot of acres of wheat to be self-sufficient, much less produce a surplus for the cities and armies.

Only a few top-flight vintages like the famous Falernian from Italy were sent any distance overland. When wine could be moved in ships on the sea or boats and barges on rivers… now that was big business. It was cheaper to ship something from Syria to Sicily by sea than a hundred miles by road, even a Roman road… and Roman roads were better than anything mainland Europe would have again until well into the nineteenth century.

Meanwhile she was sticky and sweaty enough to look longingly at that wind-ruffled expanse of water just eastward. The air smelled of lake, slightly of the brackish swamps around it, more of green-hot-dusty fields, and increasing whiffs of horse and equine byproducts as she got closer to her destination, and less of the flower-scents around the mansion. She was wearing a straw hat rather like a Panama today, and glad of it.

People swam in the lake sometimes, in places where you could get at the water without wading through reed-swamp; for that matter, the big marble-lined pool on the back terrace of the pars urbana was a swimming pool among other things, and not a little one at that, and just for the owner’s family and their guests. The problem was that nobody here had ever heard of bathing suits for swimming, any more than they’d wear clothes bathing in an actual bath, and Paula had never found nudism attractive either in theory or practice.

There were two biggish bath suites in the mansion, like cozy miniatures of the great collective ones in towns and cities: hot-dry and hot-wet saunas, hot and cold plunges, the whole nine yards… except that you rubbed on olive oil and scraped it off with a curved metal strigil rather than using soap. It worked surprisingly well; she still missed soap. Nice mild soap, and shampoo…

They know about soap but they mostly use it for cloth and laundry, Paula thought disgustedly.

She’d tried what they called sapo, and it was alkaline enough to take your skin off though apparently a few people washed with it, especially those with skin diseases. Using the town baths had been a bit hair-raising, because there were people with skin diseases using them, and racking coughs, and other things that made you want to launder your own skin and lungs afterwards.

Someday we’ll make better soap.

Currently one bath suite was for the women staying at the house and one for the men, because in this generation free women didn’t strip in front of free men not their husbands or immediate family. The terrace pool was divided for alternate days for the same reason.

That was as close to a nudity taboo as they had, and even there… slaves apparently didn’t count. Any more than a dog would back home. The slaves didn’t separate the sexes in their bathhouse, which had been the case with most public baths once, and was apparently still true in any small low-status localized community that thought of itself as an extended family.

Takes getting used to, she thought grimly. But girl, you ain’t goin’ home, nohow. Home’s not there anymore and that car you came here in has been well and truly repossessed, too. So this is home now, Rome is home now, and you get used to smelling like olive oil and having people see everything. Damned if I’m going to start shaving down there, though. Not with their razors!

There were a dozen people around a trestle table set up in the uppermost horse-paddock. Most of them were men; the estate’s senior horse-trainer, several of the wranglers who worked with him, the carpenters and leatherworkers and their assistants, one of the smiths and his son, and as many visitors from outside the estate, bailiffs from other properties of various sizes, and prosperous middle-sized free farmers come to take a look at where the rumors were all coming from.

One thing her studies had gotten pretty much right was that most Romans were absolute jackdaws for useful tricks and intensely practical about copying anything that gave them an advantage, financial or otherwise. They took it, ran with it, tweaked it and made it their own.

Jeremey was there too, taking a break from his bucolic, though mostly supervisory, labors.

Jem enjoys telling people what to do too much. And those two girls he’s screwing… they’re happy about it from the look of things. Even putting on airs and showing off the hairpins and rings and they dance around him like frolicking puppies and apparently they consider him a mad magical genius of sexual technique and boast about that, too. But can a slave really consent even if she does say yes?

The table held several brand-new saddles copied from the ones they’d brought; they’d made dozens by now, besides the ones they’d sent down to Josephus in Sirmium where he advertised them by gift-giving. More precisely they were copied painstakingly from the disassembled one provided by Fuchs. Though the complete ones had helped by showing what it was supposed to look like when finished, with sewing and lacing and gluing and nailing done.

For once, something besides wheelbarrows worked right away and first time. Even fitting them to the horses—a couple of standard sizes handles that, usually.

Sarukê was riding one of her horses with its new gear to show it off to the visitors and encourage sales; she owned four mounts herself, and treated them somewhere between a doting mother with her kids and a car enthusiast with a vintage Lamborghini.

Romans often liked horses and were usually proud of a good one. Evidently Sarmatians really liked horses, and accumulated them just as much as they could, as if they were money in and of themselves. Among Sarmatians, they were… and they were the bank you kept your money in, too, and the best of all possible status symbols.

And horses were what they really, really enjoyed stealing; it was the nomad national sport. Sarukê reminisced about it occasionally, like someone remembering playing soccer when they were young, only with a lot more violence.

Sarmatians collected scalps, too, and hung them from their horse-tack as boastful mementos.

Sort of like blond Lakota.

Sarukê had taken to the new gear like a duck to water as well, though occasionally she visibly had to remind herself not to bend her legs back at the knee to grip the barrel with feet and shins. Right now she’d just finished a series of obstacles and leaps, and came trotting back near where the table rested; her rather hawklike face was grinning from ear to ear, not least because the trotting gait especially was so much easier with stirrups. Without them the up-and-down motion meant smacking your buttocks and other sensitive nether parts on the horse, hard, unless you kept a tight grip with your thighs and used the muscles there to cushion it.

So the Prof wants Mark and me to learn to ride. I see why. I don’t think I could handle a litter with slaves. I just don’t like riding. Or horses, much. Too big and strong and stupid for my taste.

With an earsplitting whoop Sarukê snatched up a lance standing point-down in the dirt, couched it underarm and rode at a target, leaning forward with her feet braced in the stirrups as she galloped. Paula’s eyebrows went up.

From what she’d read before and seen since getting here, cavalry here and now didn’t use lances that way. They mostly used their spears in an arm-powered stabbing motion. Some of Sarukê’s people did use long lances; they were called a contus by the Romans who’d copied them, which meant ‘barge-pole’. But they were used at moderate speeds, gripped nearly at the balance point with both hands in a thrusting motion of the arms, more like a pikeman sitting on a horse than the King Arthur tournament-stuff Sarukê was doing.

This…

Crack!

The lance-point smacked into the chest-high circle of wood on the end of a pole; it wheeled around the pivot, and she was past it fast, letting the lance turn in her hand to pull it free. One of the better-dressed visiting strangers—who might well be a retired cavalryman from his bandy-legged looks—shot to his feet with a complex oath, his eyes nearly bugging out of his head.

The Villa Lunae men nudged each other with proprietary smug grins. They generally got a little when a saddle was sold, and it was turning into a nice bonne bouche. Eventually other craftsmen would be able to copy them, but they intended to make hay while the sun shone.

Then Sarukê stabbed the point down, flipping a turnip up into the air; before it had reached the apogee of its curve she’d dropped the lance, drawn her sword and bisected it neatly on the way down, leaning far over in the saddle to reach it.

That had all the Romans watching who hadn’t seen it before murmuring in surprise. You just couldn’t do that with their gear, because it required throwing your weight on a foot. Then she came back at a gallop, between a double row of posts set at varying heights, each with one of the root vegetables on it, and—

What was that old jingle? She slices, she dices, she julienne-fries, Paula thought as the whetted metal blurred too fast to really see.

It was pretty, if you didn’t think about what it would be like with human targets, sprays of blood and occasional detached bits flying. There were more whistles and gasps at the way the Sarmatian could throw the whole weight of her body into the cuts, not just the action of arms and shoulders, and twist whip-fast from one side to another, and the greater reach.

Filipa was grinning too as she turned back from watching Sarukê, and the maids put lunch on the table. There was one set for the estate staff and hangers-on and visitors down at the other end beyond the saddles and a smaller but more elaborate one for the Americans.

Filipa’s expression turned into a frown of puzzlement as the two girls winced back very slightly from her smile, lowered their eyes, did their bobbing curtsy-like thing, and disappeared back up the pathway to the domus faster than they’d walked down, the skirts of their long tunics flying around their ankles.

The men looked after them, mostly puzzled too. Why hurry back to where they’d be given more work? Then they chuckled at something one of the older set said sotto voce, with a stabbing motion of two fingers, and fell to dividing the goodies in the baskets. It was mostly bread and jars of oil for them, goat-cheese and pickles, but with some cold meat and fruit—the ones from the estate might be slaves, but they were all above the common ruck of unskilled field labor.

Events with horses evidently bred a certain cross-class camaraderie, too, because the visitors pitched in as well. And someone was passing around a flask of superwine. People who’d been raised on wine tended to get a bit tiddly on first exposure to the distilled stuff, which could be useful in a bargain.

“What is it with the maids here, Paula?” Filipa said in English, taking out the bundle intended for her.

They’d managed to get the kitchens going on things like ham sandwiches and BLT’s—the earliest tomatoes were coming ripe and they were diverting a precious few from seed production since it looked like they’d yield better than expected. Paula took one at her wave and a hard-boiled egg in her other hand, and dipped it into the little pile of salt wrapped in a twist of rag. The tomato was incredibly nostalgic.

Lady Julia had exclaimed with delight when she got a bit, too.

And this egg tastes free range, all right. Watered wine with everything, though, what I’d give for a good old Coke Zero, or a diet Dr. Pepper! And I miss mayonnaise on the BLT. Mayonnaise we could do, when we have time. A decent beer occasionally would be nice… we are growing hops…

Filipa went on: “I swear to God, eighty percent of the maids and whatnot treat me like I’ve got rabies and might bite, and the others… am I misreading the signals? Because they seem to be flirting with me, or trying to in a sort of sidelong-glance, little-coy-smile, fluttering-eyelashes, sway-of-the-butt way.”

Paula felt a laugh bubbling up. Filipa wasn’t anything like the clueless dork at personal stuff that dear Mark was, but sometimes…

Still, we’ve gotten a lot closer. We’re really friends now, because there’s no choice. So I really do have to tell her.

“Ah… it’s the way you dress, Fil.”

The other woman looked down towards her riding breeks and the bloused-up green-and-blue tunic that covered them, falling to just below her knees through the swordbelt.

“I feel like I’m wearing a housedress, or a giant’s baggy t-shirt over spray-on bicycle shorts, only made out of chamois leather? Camel-toe territory, if it weren’t for the loincloths, I’m glad the tunic covers things up most of the time. Buddha and Jesus on a bicycle built for two, but I miss real underwear. And tampons…”

Paula sighed; she did too. Rags were incredibly awkward and messy. The dried moss the slave women used was even more so.

And for a hundred thousand years it was just a woman’s problem and therefore not important. But on to the matter at hand:

“Well, for starters, they think you’re gay. Not the way they’d put it, but pretty much what they mean by what they’d say.”

Filipa shrugged. “Well, I am gay… lately. But hell, I’m riding all the time. I can’t wear what you’ve got on.”

Her face went bleak for a second, remembering someone left behind in 2032… and under a rain of fusion bombs. Then she visibly put it aside, as Paula did the thought of her fiancé, and her parents who’d been so proud when she was accepted at Harvard…

They’d quickly developed what amounted to a taboo about discussing that.

Probably the example of our Stern, Silent Spartan Stoic Suck It When You Suffer Repression Is Good For You, You Wussie Prof Artorio’ the Cowboy General. S,SSSSIWYSRIGFY,YW + SPQR.

Instead Filipa forced a smile and waggled a finger at Paula:

“And don’t you dare use the dread acronyms LUG, BUG and GUG! Anyway, I thought that wasn’t a big deal here? Antinoüs was Emperor Hadrian’s boyfriend, and after he died the Emperor went full-throttle and had him declared a God, for God’s sake. Named a city after him, too! That’s only two emperors back, about thirty years. But you did the sex-and-gender stuff a lot more than I did, my area was more economics and technology and how they were conceptualized.”

Paula sighed again; this time at trying to convey a specialty… not to mention the sometimes painful modifications actually being here had made in some of her most cherished theories.

“It’s not a big deal for men. What’s important there is who sticks it into who, not what orifice gets used. Who’s pitching and who’s catching, all tied up with the class system, age, whether or not you’re an adult Roman citizen—who only pitches, officially—and all that good shit. The Roman Empire’s an autocracy, an aristocracy, an oligarchy, but most of all it’s a phallus-ocracy. It’s the Kingdom of the Dicks, here, in every sense of the word.”

Filipa rolled her eyes. “Hell, yes. It reminds me of biker gangs or convicts in a penitentiary, that way, some of the things I’ve seen. The Greeks were even worse, of course, if I remember my courses. And if the courses were on course. So, the maids?”

“So, as far as the men here are concerned it’s not really sex at all if there’s no dick involved. What women do without them is an icky-poo repulsive inversion of their sacred Gods-defined penetrative role, or maybe funny, or possibly a fun kink to think about, but it’s not really serious. They just assume it’s all dildoes, anyway, mostly. Dick-fixation-in-operation, to get poetic.”

“But why are the maids scared of me?”

“Well, it’s the clothes again. In local terms, you’re not just signaling that you’re gay, you’re signaling that you’re very, very butch, too. Really, seriously, hard-ass butch. Role-playing stuff. And from what I’ve heard… I talk to the women a lot more than the rest of you do…”

“Well, they’re the ones who do textiles.”

“Yes, they are and they do talk to me now. And upper-class stone butch types here, there aren’t many but it does happen occasionally, tend to… ummm… imitate the way their men act. And the men here are dicks about sex, the average is ‘way worse than any but the worst back home. Especially when it’s upper-class man to lower-class woman, but maybe that’s just because the women I’ve been talking to are slaves.”

“But why—”

Paula put down her sandwich, even the tomato taking second place, and leaned forward.

“Fil, those maids—”

She pointed to their now-distant figures.

“—are slaves. Actual, buyable and sellable and whip-able slaves. You’re free, you’re a guest of their owners, you’re connected to mysteriously powerful people. If you put the make on them they wouldn’t dare say no. So they’re sending please, please don’t vibes and avoiding you as much as they can.”

“Euuw!” Filipa said, making a disgusted face and looking as if she’d like to spit out her mouthful of ham-and-cheese sandwich for a moment.

“And you’re not only free and rich and well-connected, you’ve got weird arcane knowledge too, maybe you’re a sorceress who could make their hair drop out and their toenails split. The flirty ones are likely… a lot of them… thinking of what they could get out of it if they caught your eye, not your winsome charm and exotic good looks.”

“Euuw all over again. Euuw, euuw. Euuw squared, cubed and to the tenth. Look, could you, just, oh pass the word that I’m not La Belle Dame Sans Merci and they don’t have to worry?”

“I’ll try.”

Changing the subject, Paula jerked her chin at Sarukê as she picked up her sandwich again.

“That girl there is putting on quite a show.”

“She’s a natural, and she’s enchanted with what she can do with the new gear!” Filipa said, probably happy to talk about something other than colliding misread signals, and showing genuine enthusiasm. “She makes me feel like I’m seven and just got on my first pony, too! I swear she can read a horse’s mind and communicate with them telepathically.”

A grin. “And I finally figured out who she reminded me of.”

@@@

Mark Findleman’s jaw dropped as he picked up the seal-cutter’s work.

His office was in one of the rooms fronting the first story of the outer courtyard. That meant it was reasonably spacious, had good light, and looked out on the reflecting pool and the banks of flowers and fancifully pruned bushes, and was only a single staircase from his bedroom suite above. There was a scent of flowers, and he’d had a desk made and bookshelves…

“It is work that requires great skill, but now it is finished, sir!” the man said. “Twenty-four seals… punches, did you call them? In hard brass!”

He was forty or so, but looked older—and the broken veins in his nose and the slight trembling in his hand showed why he’d been willing to leave Vindobona and travel to someplace as deeply rural as the Villa Lunae. That and how gaunt he’d been when they started out, and how they’d had to pay to get his tools out of hock in a pawnshop.

Ah. And Josephus said it was sheer luck there was a seal-cutter passing through Vindobona at all… and that there were only two in Carnuntum, which is twice Vindobona’s size and the provincial capital and neither of them would be interested. It’s a big-city skill and we were in the sticks. The equivalent of a town on the Mexican border in Arizona Territory in 1911.

The seals were actually well-done, and precisely the right size for capitalis quadrata print on paper… except…

“I said the impressions the stamps made had to be reversed! So the type we cast in the impressions would print correctly.”

His voice rose to a shout. “Like a seal!”

Seals were pressed into wax, or sometimes into lead; they were personal identifiers. That made them exactly like type-metal letters you used in a printing press. Stamps, on the other hand, were punched into soft copper to make the matrix for type, by enclosing them and pouring in a molten lead-tin alloy.

Spurius…

And never was a man named better!

… had managed to carefully listen to his description of what he wanted and done it precisely backward.

Mark had a sudden flash of picking up the inkstand from his desk, leaping over it, and smashing it into the man’s face. Over and over and over and over…

He shuddered, feeling slightly nauseous. That was not like him.

Spurius looked at him and stumbled backward. Tears began to run down his cheeks into the grizzled stubble on his cheeks. Mark stood… which was a bit of a mistake, because the man was short by Roman standards and Mark was very tall by those same standards…

And I must look like an ax-murder in prospect. Because by the smell he just pissed his loincloth.

Spurius collapsed onto the floor, sobbing. Mark dropped his face into his hands until his breath was nearly back to normal. Then he stood, carefully navigating around the puddle of sobs on the floor, and went to the door.

The equivalent of a footman stood outside it—young and strong-looking, with his arms crossed on his chest, in a plain good white tunic. His feet were bare; servants didn’t wear shoes or sandals indoors, not in summer at least.

“Master?” the man said.

I really don’t like being called master that way, Mark thought, and composed his voice to a flat neutral tone.

“Take Spurius here back to his room. Search the room and remove any wine or superwine… oh, and his tools. Have someone stand outside the door at all times. He’s to be allowed all the food and water he wants—the water should be mixed before it’s taken in, no more than one part in seven wine. Don’t let him out unless he’s dying. Bring him here tomorrow after breakfast.”

Romans used chamber-pots, so he wouldn’t have to be let out to the latrines. And he wasn’t so drunk he wouldn’t be conscious and reasonably sober by then; it wasn’t quite noon yet, anyway.

The slave ducked his head. “At your command, master,” he said cheerfully.

Then he walked into the room and hauled Spurius to his feet.

“Come with me, please, sir,” he said.

The words were respectful, but the tone wasn’t, nor was the firm grip he took on the man’s tunic and arm as he frogmarched him out.

A rich man’s slave told to manhandle a poor freeman would do so without hesitation, and could be confident he wouldn’t be called to account for it, given the way the Roman class system worked. A slave was an extension of his master’s will, and hence in a sense was the master in relations with outsiders when obeying orders. They were often used as impromptu muscle.

It would have been a different story if Spurius wasn’t a penniless pleb with no family or patron… not to mention a drunk… of course.

Mark went back to his desk and sat staring at nothing for a while. Then he blew out a sigh, and picked out the usable letters Spurius had done, the ones like A and H and I and T that were laterally symmetrical. They’d decided to use modern English textual conventions, rather than the run-together Roman style of cursive. After a number of surprised local literates had remarked on how it made things faster to read.

“Those I can use,” he said to himself. “All nine of them.”

They had the type-metal, that hadn’t been hard; lead and tin and antimony had low melting points. They could start on casting the type; you needed a lot more than one example of each letter anyway, and it would give the trainees experience.

Then he pulled a book over, opened it to where the straw he’d inserted rested and pulled two sheets of paper out of the desk drawer. At least the paper project was showing some progress; it was coarse and a little fuzzy, but useable, and they could refine it by stages. One piece held his transcription of the chatbot’s translation of the introductory astronomy text.

The other was going to be his translation. The AI could do a good translation, if you used the term literally. He could read the Latin and understand it. The problem started when you read it the way someone from this century… more than a thousand years before Kepler or Newton… would read it. To them it would be mystical gobbledygook, seasoned with words that just either didn’t exist or didn’t mean what the chatbot thought they meant, for a basic-level AI’s value of ‘thought’.

Oh, this is going to be six times longer because I need to use a paragraph every time there’s something they don’t have a word for, he decided, after an initial scan through. It’s easy enough to translate the books on horsemanship… with Fil helping out… or even the ones on farming with Jem if I don’t have to explain concepts like soil nitrogen, just give instructions to be followed… but this…

Twenty minutes later he put the pen down, looked at his ink-stained hand, and a page of crossed-out attempts, reached for his phone to check the time…

Paula’s got it, and the Prof was right—I couldn’t not pull it out without thinking.

Instead he rose, slapped ineffectually at his tunic—there were inkstains on that, too, fruit of his learning to use a dipped split reed as a pen—and walked out into the peristyle. Being careful on marble and tile because the traction of the sandals was entirely different from the sneakers he’d worn most of the time back home and he didn’t want to do another ungraceful sprawl. Or another painful impact on his knee.

The sundial said it was between half past noon and one.

I’m going to knock off, get something to eat, and go talk to the others. It’s been that sort of day.

@@@

Paula looked up. Mark Findlemann joined them after wandering down the path, finishing off a chicken drumstick.

“How’s the typesetting going, Mark?” Paula said.

“It’s upsetting typesetting, that’s how it’s not-going. My seal-cutter produced a marvelous set of stamps to make the molds for the letters… and got what I said about reversing them 180-degrees wrong, so they’re useless.”

Paula raised her brows. “Well, the ones that are—”

“Symmetrical, yes, those aren’t useless. But for the rest he has to do it all again… and he was drunk and made a puddle and cried, he does that a lot, but he won’t do anything but drink unless I’m standing over him with a sneer of cold command. I’ve never come closer to beating a man to death with an inkstand. So I tried to take a break by doing some translation while he slept it off.”

“Didn’t go well?” Filipa said.

Obviously, Paula thought, making herself not smile.

“Try finding a Latin word to describe the way gravity determines orbits—”

He mimed tearing out chunks of his hair, now closer-cropped, along with his beard, the better to fight off over-friendly insect life.

“And the paper?”

“Now that’s much better. Once we get the pulp-mash right, we’re still fiddling with that and right now it’s only sorta right. And once we made some wire screens with the right size holes. And once I remembered Martin Padway’s great concept.”

Filipa grinned, and Paula tried to remember the book. She’d read it a long time ago, in a collection of SF classics, and mainly remembered the limited female cast.

He smiled. “Use clay to keep it from being blotting paper. Though to my sorrow I now know not just any old clay. It’s cheaper than papyrus, if we’re using it for writing, but paper towels—fuhgeddaboudit, too expensive for that. And before I fuhgeddaboudit, Fil—who reminds you of who?”

“Sarukê reminds me of an actor from back in the ’80’s.”

“You’re Gen-Z like me. Born in 2006, right? Not even Lord Artorius the Nobly Brooding and Seriously Somber’s been around… had been around, you know what I mean… that far back. Born around the turn of the century, wasn’t he?”

“December 19th, 1999, but you were there for the movie and you watched it too. Remember that party—the one where they started with the new Conan: Blood of the Serpent movie? Well, new three years ago?”

“Oh, yeah, that was pretty decent. Much closer to the real Howard stuff than most of them. The AI effects were spectacular, too. God, those crocodiles!”

Filipa nodded: “And then they worked their way back through all the different versions?”

Mark smiled reminiscently. “Ah, the undergrad days of wine and weed… and search-streaming.”

“But remember the last one that was on? The very first Conan movie with young Arnie in a horned helmet, James Earl Jones as Dr. Stygian Evil, and the Wheel of Pain… must have been about 4:30 in the morning, most people had passed out or left, but I remember you were still there. Sort of there. Your body was there, at least.”

Mark frowned, then smiled as he snaffled a honey-and-nuts pastry from the basket.

“Yeah, by then it was days of wine, weed and cheese. Cheesy old movies, at least. God, that one was camp heaven, the true Gorgonzola of cinema.”

He sniggered. “Thorgrim is beside himself with grief! He raised that snake from the time it was born! So?”

“Remember the one who played Valeria, the warrior woman who was Conan’s love interest and dies in his arms and then did the heroic back from the afterlife thing to save him?”

“Yes! They actually took that from Howard, one of the few times in the flick. But it was Bêlit who did that, really. Though she and Valeria were both pirates in the Howard stuff and both knew Conan in the biblical sense—”

She pulled out her phone to cut off the building monologue, carefully putting it in the empty basket so the locals couldn’t see it, made sure it was on mute, and said quietly:

“Sandahl Bergman, Conan, stills.”

A tall blond woman with a sword appeared dressed in arty-looking camouflage paint and not much else, flicking through in multiple poses.

Mark brayed laughter and sprayed pastry-crumbs. “Showing off your private porn stash?”

Both the women rolled their eyes, and Filipa added:

“Dismiss, shut down.”

They could recharge them from the solar array, but it was a strict no-no to flaunt what would look outright supernatural. And they’d wear out eventually, anyway. It was still hard to remember not to whip it out to take a picture or look something up or just to check the time.

“Sandahl Bergmann!” Mark said, when he’d finished coughing up bits of hazelnut. “You’re right, she was a dead ringer for our very own Spectacular Sarmatian She-Samurai Swordswoman Sarukê… of the Steppes! Except Sarukê’s a bit shorter and she’s got more muscle. And wears lots of clothes all the time, dammit, I really wouldn’t mind a look at the Buns of Steel. She’s a literal and metaphorical hard-ass. I bet she could crack walnuts with one clench—”

Paula cleared her throat and he subsided. She hadn’t seen the movie; she wasn’t interested in that sort of archaeology, or metaphorically eating fifty-year-old cinematic cheese, whether she was stoned or not.

And I don’t really enjoy that much either… maybe because the damned Millenials do, usually.

But there was a definite resemblance to the face and body that Filipa had brought up. She looked up at the rider cantering back towards them, sword held exultantly aloft for a moment.

That did look like a still from a Conan movie, or a generic fantasy cover. That sort of literature, if you could call it that, was something Filipa and Mark shared and she didn’t. They used their rationed screen time to read it sometimes, and Mark was copying some out on his new paper when the struggle with Latin and Greek vocabulary got to be too much.

And doing Latin versions. Apparently it was fairly easy to translate that stuff.

Mark cleared his throat. “The Prof says that Josephus can get some officers of the auxiliary cavalry to come look, maybe in a couple of months. They’ll probably be impressed.”

Rapid footsteps made them glance up. An adolescent from the big-house staff stopped, panting, and he’d evidently run the whole way:

“The lord Josephus is returning, and with him our honored and esteemed master and lord, the excellent equites Sextus Hirrius Trogus! He comes early this year! They will arrive in no more than ten days! We are all to make ready!”

@@@

Copyright © 2023-2024 by S.M. Stirling