Rooms within Rooms
All the colours of the rainbow danced before Thargelia's vision, then smashed together to create a white burst of light. When she could bear to open her eyes, she found that she was on her back staring up at the high, beamed ceiling of the Room. Relief filled her. She tugged her arm out from under Caesar's ribs and groaned as she hauled herself up. Around her, the other transients were beginning to untangle themselves. Pompey, his lead unclipped, yapped excitedly and gambolled off to explore.
The Room had changed: twin staircases with steel handrails now led up on either side to the gallery that ran around three sides of the cavernous space, suggesting they were permitted to venture up. They had appeared just in front of the dais, still with its long conference table and high-backed chairs. Before them, however, the previously empty space had been filled with furniture: long white sofas with black cushions, shelving for books and a narrow box with a black, reflective surface, a mysterious contraption in one corner with a bench seat and a row of black and white raised keys: a piano, her mind told her, which didn't make any more sense than if the Transition had kept silent. Light streamed in through the long windows, but she could hear nothing from outside. It was as if they were inside a bubble.
'We appear to be a man short: where is Odysseus?' asked Caesar, looking around. He was clothed once again in his white and purple tunic, but without the heavy-looking robe that Thargelia couldn't be bothered to remember the name of for the moment. The look suited him much better than the jacket and trousers: it showed off his impressively muscled calves, for once thing. She observed that they had almost all had restored to them the outfits they had worn before; Helen alone retained her jeans and t-shirt.
'That happens sometimes,' the blonde woman said, unconcerned. 'The Transition reviews how the mission went and swaps people round or brings someone new in. It keeps things interesting.'
Caesarion looked distraught. 'But we had so little chance to speak to him after we found out who he really was!'
'No point crying over it, kiddo. Nothing you can do. The Transition does as she pleases – and he's very dull once you get to know him, anyway. Right, let's get this show on the road.'
Helen didn't bother with the short flight of stairs, instead pulling herself up onto the dais and heading straight for the wall behind the table. She searched the blank marble for a moment and then pressed her palm against a particular place. The stone glowed blue around her fingers; the shimmering form of a person rose up out of the centre of the table.
'Greetings to you. Come. Sit,' it commanded, although its tone was kindly.
They obeyed in silence, eyes all locked on the spirit – or whatever it was. Caesar headed the table with Caesarion on his right and Romulus on his left. Helen took the seat Odysseus had occupied before between Caesarion and Gorgo. Thargelia seated herself next to Archimedes. She wondered what had happened to his bruised face: had one of the others finally got fed up of his caustic comments? Probably Romulus, she decided: he seemed impulsive enough.
As before, cups and glasses appeared before each transient. Thargelia's glass contained more of the delicious pink concoction the Concierge had given her in the First Room, as she had taken to thinking of it. There was a little umbrella perched on the rim of the glass. She looked over towards Caesar: he had already brought his steaming mug to his lips. There was a look of pure contentment on his face: coffee, then.
'You must be curious about what has happened to you,' said the image. It appeared to be female, with shoulder-length black hair and dark skin.
Caesar had quickly set his mug down and seemed about to respond, but Helen interrupted him: 'You can't interact with her. She's just a messenger. It's the same every time.' The Roman's lips thinned and his brows crinkled in consternation.
'You have been saved from death to carry out a vital task,' the messenger continued, mechanically. Thargelia noticed with some amusement that Helen was mouthing the words along with her. 'Should you be successful, the whole human race will benefit: the future will be free from war, hunger and pestilence. Long after your lives, a project will be designed to create this utopian world by deliberately altering the course of history according to a precise plan. It is the labour of decades: thousands of historians and scientists have spent their entire careers mapping out the effects of making those alterations in minute detail, then creating the technology to allow you all to participate in this great work – to bring you back from the dead. Seventeen historical figures across the whole of human history have been selected for elimination, each at a very specific point in their lives. Their deaths will – in the long-term – have an overwhelmingly positive effect on history. Even those citizens whose bloodlines will be wiped out by the changes we have planned have consented – they are willing to make the sacrifice for the good of humanity.
'This is where you come in.' She smiled. 'You, along with those in a number of other teams, have all been selected by expert historians for your individual skills and qualities to carry out the eliminations. Seven of the targets have already been successfully neutralised by other teams. Ten remain. You will be given a few days to recover from your last task and adapt to your new existence, and then you will receive details of your first real mission. Wish for anything and the Room will provide it. Good luck.'
The woman's image faded. After a beat, Caesar turned to face Helen, lip curled in disgust. He had placed both palms against the edge of the table, as if bracing himself for more bad news. 'We're to be assassins? You didn't consider mentioning that at any point?'
'You seem to have overlooked the part of the message about improving the lot of all mankind,' she replied, drily. 'I would have thought that would appeal to someone with an ego as sizeable as yours.' Thargelia sucked in her lip to hide her grin, which died when she saw the horror on young Caesarion's face: he had been raised to lead armies in gleaming armour while perched nobly atop a white warhorse, not commit murder in the dark. Poor bastard. At least the rest of them had had a fair go at life before being dragged into this.
'And what happens to us when all of the people we're supposed to kill are dead?' asked Archimedes. Everyone suddenly seemed to be listening more attentively.
Helen shrugged. 'No idea. Maybe we get a parade. Maybe our heads will spontaneously explode. I don't really care. Happy to be doing something I enjoy for as long as possible. It's a huge improvement on my first life.'
There was a clink as a fork landed on the edge of a plate to her right beyond Archimedes. Everyone stared at Romulus, who calmly picked up the implement and attacked the enormous slab of cake that had appeared in front of him. As the idea that they could once again wish for anything they wanted took hold, plates of food popped into existence in front of several of the other transients. Thargelia privately suspected that they didn't really need to eat anymore – she hadn't felt truly hungry since she had sunk into an unconscious fever back in Larissa – but she could understand the need for something familiar and comforting.
Along with the food came mixing bowls and the shallow wine cups familiar to her from many an evening spent at the traditional drinking parties that were the bedrock of Hellenic culture. Once Romulus had been instructed in the art of taking the trouble to mix water in with the wine by Archimedes, the Italian enthusiastically took on the role of jovial host, passing out cups filled to the brim. Caesarion snatched a neat little lyre out of the air and began to pluck out a traditional tune Thargelia recognised.
As the conversation became louder and Romulus, Gorgo and Helen started swapping obscene jokes, Thargelia looked across towards Caesar, only to find that he had slipped away unnoticed.
She found him sitting at the piano at the other end of the Room, pressing the keys so softly that they barely made a sound. She lay her hand on his shoulder and squeezed. He was as tense as a hunted hare.
'Gaius?' He reached up to cover her hand with his, but didn't meet her eyes. 'Why don't we go and see what's upstairs?'
After a moment's hesitation, he allowed her to pull him off the bench – even that simple thing was padded, she noticed – and towards one of the spiralling staircases. One of the other transients – Thargelia didn't bother looking too see who, but would have bet money on it being Romulus – noticed them ascending and let out a bawdy whoop of approval.
The mezzanine floor atop the arched arcade was carpeted in a soft scarlet, the fibres so thick that they reached up around the edges of their sandals to tickle the sides of their feet. Standing lamps lit their way and revealed doors set at regular intervals along the wall – eight of them.
'What do you think these are?' asked Thargelia, attempting to draw Caesar out of his reverie.
'Bedrooms, presumably,' he suggested, his voice uncharacteristically flat.
'Do we even need to sleep?'
'Perhaps not, but the Transition has gone to some lengths to make us comfortable, so they may just be private rooms for each of us.' He moved towards one of the doors, but Thargelia stayed where she was, determined to ask him at least one more question.
'Do you think that was her? The messenger?'
He turned back and considered this, head to the side. 'No, I don't believe so. Hers wasn't the voice we've been hearing in our heads so far. Maybe we're wrong in even assuming the Transition is a single person.'
Now he was talking again, Thargelia grew bolder: 'Well, now at least we know why Helen is so comfortable killing people.'
'I can't believe Martin was really one of the targets,' he said, frowning. 'How could the death of a single scholar have any significant effect on the course of history?'
She thought for a moment. 'But if he wasn't, that would mean she's allowed to run around killing whomever she likes… Which wouldn't make sense, would it? It would risk wrecking their perfect plan accidentally.'
'Once they're finished with their impromptu symposium down there, we must ask her. Whether she'll tell us the truth or not is another matter. Come, let's see what's behind these mysterious doors.'
He waved at her to go ahead, but a small brass rectangle beside the doorframe caught her eye and she withdrew her hand before it connected with the wood. It turned out to be a sign, obscured by the glare of the nearest light, poorly positioned: "Romulus", it said. 'You were right, general' she said, smiling at him.
'Don't call me that.'
'Look at it this way – at least we've been promoted from slave-hunters, Gaius.' He grunted in what might have been reluctant agreement.
They found their own doors almost at the end of the row. 'But there's an eighth room,' Thargelia noted, puzzled. She ticked them off on her fingers: 'You, me, Caesarion, Romulus, Archimedes, Gorgo, Helen. Does the dog get a whole room to himself?' This forced a small smile onto Caesar's face. They were making progress.
'There's no sign next to the last one, so I'd say Pompey has to bunk in the rather comfortable basket I spotted under the piano,' he said. 'Maybe the last room was going to be for Odysseus?'
'That's a sound idea. Alright, come on, let's see what mine's like.'
'Inviting me in already, Thargelia? That will set their tongues wagging downstairs.' But nonetheless there was something in his careful tone and the sudden intensity of his gaze that suggested he wouldn't object if she was.
She winked at him, falling easily back into old habits. 'I think they're too busy to notice, darling, but if you prefer, we could take a look in the last room first. Neutral territory?'
'You assume I give a fig for what anyone thinks, Thargelia,' he said, accepting her outstretched hand. The pad of his thumb pressed warmly against her knuckle. 'I don't. Lead on.'
She recognised the scent in the air immediately. Her mother had always hung rosemary around the courtyard of their little brick-and-tile house in the countryside outside Miletus to combat the smell of the cesspit and the animals. But the room in which they were now standing was otherwise entirely unlike her childhood home with its small windows and packed earth floor. White, glass-panelled double doors at the far end revealed a private garden, presumably the source of the aroma. Her eyes turned to the polished boards beneath their feet, which were interrupted by a huge square carpet patterned in red and gold: Persian work, undoubtedly. Thargelia nearly gave in to the impulse to roll all over it. Then she spotted the stately bed that occupied almost half the room and threw herself across it carelessly, squeaking with delight at the thick resistance of the mattress – no straw-filled pallet, this!
Out of the corner of her eye, she lazily watched as Caesar wandered over to a simple, brick-framed fireplace, above which hung an impossibly polished mirror in an elaborate gold frame. He halted abruptly, his gaze locked on his reflection.
'See anything you like?' she teased, resting her chin on her hand.
He turned, eyebrow aloft. 'I was wondering how such a faithful reflection is achieved, actually. Besides,' – he raked his dark eyes over her recumbent form - 'the view from this direction is considerably more pleasing.' His openly predatory look and low tone – almost a purr - raised the hairs on the back of her neck; she realised how short her breaths had become.
Thargelia wished, and the outer door, which they hadn't thought to close behind them, slammed shut. There was a sharp click as it locked itself. Caesar heard it too and took long strides over to the bed: she rose to meet him without hesitation, as keen as he evidently was to make the most of their time in private, but she quickly found herself pushed back down firmly onto the embroidered covers, cool lips raising flowers of fire down her neck and his splayed fingers caressing her thigh.
Sometime later, Thargelia woke, reached out for Caesar and found his half of the bed empty. Of course, the man never stayed still for more than a heartbeat, did he? Particularly when there were more rooms to explore. Raising herself onto her elbows, she checked the chairs set out in front of the hearth, but Caesar wasn't in any of them, nor anywhere else in her room. His discarded boots, belt and tunic were gone from the gorgeous rug as well. She hurriedly retrieved her green dress and pinned her hair back into place: there would be time for a bath later.
A light breeze drew her eyes to the garden doors, one of which stood slightly ajar. Her annoyance softened slightly: her lover had helpfully left her a clue to help her find him. She stepped out expecting to be on the roof, but the garden turned out instead to be a courtyard walled in the same reddish, hole-spattered brick that formed the fireplace. Here was evidence again that this building – wherever they were – profoundly defied reality. There was a path leading out through the beds, which were planted so densely and the plants themselves grown so high that it brought to mind the story of the labyrinth. Some of the flora she recognised: rosemary, of course, a yellow-flowering mullein, orange adralida, bright pink poeny; there was even a cherry tree in one corner. A circuit of the path, however, told her that Caesar wasn't here. She muttered a curse under her breath aimed both at him specifically and at men in general.
And then, as she turned the last corner to return to her room, she realised that there was another door in the wall almost obscured by a large bush with purple flowers. Had she turned right rather than left as she began her tour of the courtyard, she would have seen it immediately. The door was painted a concealing green and, once again, stood open, inviting her to tug on the brass knob.
Inside, she found a strange, domed chamber that might have been at the top of a tall tower. It was octagonal, with large windows on four walls, all facing in different directions. The window nearest to her looked out over a vast, red-roofed metropolis, where it appeared to be just before sunset. A vast murmuration of tiny black birds swirled across the pink sky. In the distance, she could see a wide river with an island in the middle of its murky waters cutting through the buildings before winding out into grassy countryside. Shelving lined with books and scrolls ran around half the room, fitting under the windows where necessary. While the walls were the same plain cream as in her own room, the floor was taken up by a vast, intricate mosaic depicting a complicated hunting scene. Here men stood on reed river boats spearing large, lumpen creatures with enormous square teeth; elsewhere leopards were being caught in nets; over there the poignant image of a dog being gored by a gigantic boar. In the midst of it all sat Caesar, hunched over a comparatively plain, uncluttered wooden desk, reading. His spectacles, which hadn't seemed odd when he was dressed in his Oxford outfit, now looked out of place perched on his patrician nose.
'Hello,' he said quietly, looking up. 'I see you followed my trail.' He folded his glasses, pushed his chair back and rounded the table to pull her flush against his body and lower his face to kiss her thoroughly. She was glad of the support of his arm.
'You could have waited for me, Gaius' she said, when they eventually parted.
'No, I'm afraid curiosity got the better of me and wouldn't be put aside,' he said, smiling. 'It was pleasing to discover that we share the garden.'
'And so the door over there,' – she indicated the far wall – 'must lead out onto the landing again, then? This building doesn't seem to obey the usual rules. Well, this eyrie of yours is very grand, darling. I was quite surprised to find it wasn't a tent littered with armour polish and military maps.'
He chuckled – it was the first time she had heard him do so and she found herself smiling in return. 'I'll concede that I enjoyed the life of a soldier rather more than governing my singularly problematic city, Thargelia, but even a general's tent isn't somewhere I would choose to live in for eternity. I used to carry around portable sections of flooring with me so that I wasn't always walking on mud, at least. No, the Transition has done well here: this suits me admirably.'
Thargelia glanced around, 'But where is your bed?'
'Looking to pick up where we left off so soon, Thargelia?' His expression was more than a little smug. Even more annoyingly, she found that his assumption wasn't entirely wrong. 'I would have thought that if I – or we - require a bed, one will appear.'
'But there was one in my room as soon as we entered,' she objected.
'Well, I imagine it was responding to your thoughts at the time,' he said, arching one of those expressive eyebrows of his. She swatted his arm.
'You clearly missed your calling as a comic poet!'
He chuckled again. 'I always adored comedy – the plays of Terentius in particular, but I could never write it. I did attempt a tragedy or two in my youth, but Thalia never graced me with her favours.'
'Well, it's never too late – it's not like you haven't the time to try again. Anyway, I'm glad you've cheered up a bit,' she said, meaning it.
'You've been quite helpful on that front,' he said lightly, 'But, in any case, I've never been much of a one for prolonged moping. As Helen said, our cause is a good one. I've done much worse things than kill a few individuals for the benefit of all mankind. No,' he cut her off before the question left her parted lips, 'I don't want to talk about what they were right this moment. We have another room to visit, I think?' He took her hand and led her back out onto the landing, which seemed very dreary compared to the wonders of their private rooms and what had taken place there.
Pushing open the last door, they stepped cautiously into a room that was apparently, despite all the time that had passed since they had returned, still in the process of building itself around them: only the floor, carpeted in a dull green, was fully in place. As they gawked, sections of cream wall concertinaed upwards, soon hidden by tall bookshelves that sprouted and spread like young trees. A wide bay window framed by curtains unpleasantly patterned in pink and green opened up in the wall opposite them and a battered-looking sofa appeared in front of it. The corner to the right of where they were standing was soon colonised by a small kitchen, complete with dirty mugs sitting in the sink waiting to be washed and an ancient machine chugging noisily as it brewed what, by the aroma, could only be coffee. A desk and chair materialised in front of one of the most overcrowded bookshelves, surrounded by tottering piles of books, magazines and bits of paper. To their left, the wall cracked open until there was a neat rectangular opening: within seconds, a wooden frame had unfolded itself around it and the gap was closed with an interior door. Finally, as the room seemed to sag and lurch to make itself comfortable, a light coating of dust dropped over everything like winter's first snowflakes.
'What is this supposed to be?' Thargelia finally asked, when all movement had stilled and she had brushed herself clean of the fine particles. 'It's very… lived-in.'
'Of course, you never came here, did you? You went missing too early.' Caesar was distracted, his dark eyes searching for something. The newly-birthed room had a significance for him that Thargelia didn't yet understand.
'You recognise this place?' she ventured.
'I do,' he replied, strong emotion rippling through his voice. Hope? Excitement? 'I spent some hours here this afternoon sitting in that very chair over there… But where is he, then?'
Caesar strode forward into the room, leaving Thargelia, still confused, to follow after him. He flung open the other door, carelessly letting its handle smack against the side of the bookshelf, and disappeared into the room beyond.
'Gaius?' she called out insistently, craning her neck to see what he was doing. 'Who is it you're looking for?'
The clues were all there and when Caesar heard the dog Pompey suddenly begin to bark urgently downstairs, he knew he must be right.
He turned on his heel, leaving the rumpled, untidy and deserted bedroom to its own devices, and dashed back out into Martin's study, saying nothing to Thargelia, who was staring at him as if he had gone quite mad. Reaching the edge of the balcony, he bent as far as he could over the handrail, curling one foot around a baluster to save himself from the long drop onto the polished marble below. There, a glimpse of that crest of fair hair. Hauling himself back onto terra firma, Caesar grinned broadly, then strode towards the stairs to welcome the newcomer.
A short while later, after the others had drifted back to resume drinking and Thargelia had disappeared off to enjoy a bath, the two men sat together on the old sofa in Martin's study, nursing mugs of tea. Caesar had taken to the drink with nearly as much enthusiasm as coffee, provided it came with milk and sugar. Martin had the brown and white spaniel draped across his knees and was combing his fingers through his coat in long, soothing motions.
'Alright, Martin, I have a question for you,' Caesar said, leaning his elbow on the back of the sofa so he could face his friend. 'What possessed you to name your dog Pompey? I assume it's short for Pompeius?'
Martin smiled. 'You know what, Caesar, the funny thing is, it's a complete coincidence. My father bought him as a puppy, then passed him on to me when he turned out to be too much of a handful. My dad's a fanatical Portsmouth fan – it's a football club – and they're often known as "Pompey". Simple as that. No Roman connection at all. People were always asking me why I didn't name him after you.'
'Thank the gods you didn't, Martin! Imagine having a Caesar, another Caesar and a Caesarion all in the one place all the time.'
'And for all time, by the sounds of it.' Martin's voice caught a little. He fixed his eyes on a point on the opposite wall.
'I assume the Concierge told you of our mission, then?' asked Caesar gently. Martin, just like Caesarion, had been ripped away in the prime of his life – and as a direct consequence of their actions, which made it even worse. He had every right to be angry.
'Yes. Fun guy. He said he wasn't usually allowed to go into details, but would make an exception for me, since I was to join a team that had already completed its evaluation task. I was pretty messed up. Took a long while to come to terms with the idea of joining some historical hit squad. And how mad is it that I was killed by Helen of Troy? I still haven't got over the weirdness of that.'
'That would be surreal for any of us, Martin. I must ask your pardon: If I hadn't let you come up to meet Helen with us, you would still be alive.'
Martin met his gaze again, his eyes hard. 'That's true, but it also wasn't your fault, Caesar. And if I ever have the opportunity to pay Helen back in kind, I'll be taking it.'
Caesar nodded. 'I respect that. I would do likewise.'
'On the flip side,' Martin continued, 'it does mean we can have that long conversation we never got around to. I have a list of questions as long as your arm.'
'I owe you at least the answers to those, Martin. Proceed.'
Martin's face lit up like a small boy on Saturnalia. He stood, allowing Pompey to claim his seat, then retrieved a small notebook from the desk drawer.
'What's that?' asked Caesar.
'Research journal. I used to write down questions I'd ask you in there, never expecting that I would ever have the chance to actually get the answers.' Martin made no move to open the book. 'But before we work our way through those, would you tell me one thing?'
'I've already said I'll answer any question you ask me, Martin,' said Caesar impatiently.
'What's going on with you and the gorgeous dark-haired woman? Is that Thargelia?'
Caesar sighed inwardly: were they women gossiping at the fountain now? 'Yes, that's Thargelia. She seems to enjoy my company – use your imagination, Martin. I decided in the circumstances not to ask her about the thirteen husbands you mentioned.'
'Indeed. You have other questions…?'
Martin did. At some point, hours later, Caesar got up to make another pot of tea.
In a wide-windowed office, a tall, slender man in a black suit approached the old-fashioned steel and glass desk where a woman sat downloading her thoughts onto a data tablet. A glass of viridescent liquid was conveniently located at her elbow. Her eyes were screwed shut in fierce concentration. The man coughed gently. After a moment, she dragged her eyelids apart and blinked once.
'They all accepted the usual story?' she asked.
'As always, despite its laughable implausibility. We've set the Room to adjust automatically to their requirements,' he said, wondering if she would ever ask a different question.
'Good. I'll expect to see the rough cut of the latest episode within the hour.'
He inclined his head. 'Of course. We'll need to put warnings on ahead of the broadcast because of the sex. I'll let the networks know in advance to expect the usual complaints, although the viewers shouldn't be surprised if they've been watching so far.'
'Fine. I'll look forward to that bit. Oh, and put through a bonus for the imprinting team this month, Jim. The characterisation is spot on.'
'I'll see to it.'
She nodded and closed her eyes once more, signalling that he was dismissed.
The End of the Beginning
Author's Note: And that really is the end for now! Phew. Time to write something shorter, methinks. Thanks for reading. Please review! Let me know if you think this is a story that you'd like to see continued - or not!