“As for family matters, one concubine, with whom I had several children over the succeeding years, was enough to satisfy the lust in my veins, and she and our children were enough to satisfy the love in my heart. You might think that I maintained reserve, knowing that I would outlive the mothers of my children, my children, my children’s children, and so on. But such was not the case, even if the grief I felt at the loss of my last Londinium concubine was real and not entirely confined to her youthful beauty. I loved with all my heart, even if my love was akin to that felt for a short-lived pet, minus the firm sense of superiority.
“My life was thus quite good, except for one detail: my ambition. When I learned of Emperor Trajan’s annexation of the city of Petra and his subsequent creation of the Roman province of Arabia (like the creation of Upper and Lower Germania, a fanciful claim to an entire region through the naming of a slice), I saw instantly the commercial opportunities.
“Fearful that my sole companion would arouse suspicion if she were returned to Londinium with an innocent knowledge of my longevity to convey to my familial trading partners (she had known me scarcely twenty years while some of them had known me forty), I left her and her children with the son I had brought with me from Londinium, the son who was now a father in his own right by a local peasant girl. I left him my hearth and business, and told him that his adoptive mother should never be allowed to return to Londinium, much as she might like to escape the isolated outpost of Segontium, and cited bad blood between her and my other concubines as reason.
“With only a few stout chests filled with codices and valuables as a burden, I sailed around Britannia, avoiding Londinium on the journey southward to one of two stops before Petra: an Adriatic lagoon.”
“The first stop on my journey was the forum at Mediolanum in the Padus Valley, and from thence myself, two new concubines, and a middle-aged male slave proceeded eastward to the shores of the Mare Superum. I obtained passage from a fisherman for the four of us across the lagoon to its most central island, and it was there, on a northern shore of the river bisecting the island, that I built my third villa with workers and materials transported by barge from the mainland. The locals, at best, thought our arrival and apparent permanence strange, but we were safe under the Pax Romana at its height there in the heart of the Empire, and, in any event, they soon abandoned the island once their crops on land required their attention.
“The last touch to my new estate was the construction of a stone sarcophagus, placed in a cold and dank corner room of my new residence. I imported a sculptor from nearby Patavium, and my last request of him was the simple Latin inscription ‘Here lies Cartaphilus.’ He must have attributed the project to a morbid tendency on my part, and whatever questions he might have had were no doubt silenced by the generous commission he received before being oared back across the lagoon.
“That night I plied my slaves with generous portions of wine during the farewell feast, and sent my manservant off to bed with the concubine I had purchased for his domestication. My own concubine slept unmolested as I filled my tomb with numerous manuscripts, jewels, and other timeless valuables before replacing the lid with considerable effort.
“As dawn broke over the river just beyond my villa’s patio, I woke my concubine to enjoy her, then bid her dress and pack as I roused my manservant from his own bed. I instructed him to maintain the villa until my return (which I did not expect to occur for many years), told him I would write from Petra, then embarked across the lagoon in a skiff oared by self and occupied by self and shivering concubine.
“Both of us found Arabia much warmer, and we soon settled into our respective roles of breadwinner and mother. Even after the construction of my Italian villa I had plenty of capital to spare, and I was soon purchasing large quantities of cassia and cinnamon from the Arab traders who had brought them directly from the Spice Islands. Dismissing the traders’ tales of spices harvested from shallow lakes guarded by winged animals and from deep glens infested with poisonous snakes, I haggled down the prices of those glorified flavorings and resold them to Greek traders headed north, often at a much higher price and with a glib repetition of those tales for the ear of the ignorant.
“It was with that trading in Petra that I first acquired significant wealth. I constructed yet another villa for myself, this one built of sandstone and hydrated by means of a ceramic pipe (yes, running water in the second century!). I also assembled a proper harem during my twenty years in that city, purchasing new concubines from Northern Europe, Africa, and the Arabian interior, my every whim capable of satiation.
“You might imagine, my friend, that I would be content with such a life, and indeed, perhaps I could have been, but that old insidious danger of discovery flapped its leathery wings more and more with each passing year. But this time fear and ambition could be married in the same action, as I resolved at the end of those twenty years to be the first Roman to establish a direct route to the fabled Spice Islands, and to thus multiply my fortune many times over.
“In secret, for my Arab counterparts would do everything in their power to stop me, I purchased a trio of lateen-rigged trading vessels upon their arrival in Petra’s port of Aelana. These boats I immediately crewed with sailors hired in the port of Alexandria and transported over the Sinai on the fastest camels available. Before even my harem girls knew that I was gone, we were in the Red Sea, bound for the Spice Islands.
“Ah, that voyage of wonder, my friend! We sailed straight into the Gulf of Aden on a near-moonless night, I thinking myself outwitting the guardians of the Kingdom of Sheba, but little knowing that the rulers of the Gate of Tears allowed free passage eastbound on the theory that those same ships could pay handsomely if they survived to return westbound, laden with commodities from the Orient.
“Across the Arabian Sea we sailed, arriving in Ceylon at the end of August courtesy of the summer Monsoon Drift. I had possessed every original intention of pressing on across the Bay of Bengal and through the Strait of Malacca, but alas, I realized that our three small vessels and our lack of experience with them made such a proposition hazardous in the extreme. Thus I settled on the more modest goal of buying in Ceylon and returning the next season with a more seasoned fleet.
“Ceylon! Buddhist temples already centuries old, and bright yellow bananas sold by vendors on the streets of Kolamba: those are the things I remember most. But the spices we had come for were much harder to come by, for word had spread amongst the Arab traders and even to their Chinese counterparts that we were interlopers not to be encouraged in our endeavor.
“And discouraged by any means possible. One crew of my men were sleeping off an evening of rice wine on their vessel when the boat caught fire at its moorings with extraordinary rapidity. The light of dawn pointed to arson, but the harbormaster insisted the drunk crewmen had started the fire themselves, and ordered my remaining two vessels to set sail immediately.
“Sail immediately we did, for the Spice Islands themselves. Our two boats each had more than one unnecessary hand now as we sailed into the eastern Indian’s cyclone season, but I was determined to not return to the Gulf of Aelana empty-handed.
“As a consequence, I very nearly didn’t return at all. It was off the Nicobar Islands, near the eastern end of the ocean we had just crossed, that we encountered one of those in-season cyclones. One boat was sunk, with all hands presumably lost, and the problem of overcrowding on my flagship was solved when an enormous wave broke across our deck.
“You might imagine then, my friend, that we survivors were no match for the pirates we encountered at the far end of the far Strait, after my men had been sufficiently weakened by disease and tropical heat. I watched my surviving crew members disemboweled on the deck before my very eyes, and thrown into the sea to be devoured by sharks.
“The captain of the pirate vessel instantly took note of my remarkable health, however, and had me bound and transported to his ship before the remains of my own vessel were torched. Taken to an island my captors called Temasek, I was held in a steamy hut in a fishing village and periodically taken back out on sailings.
“It was on my last outing with these fishing pirates that I discovered the fate they had destined for me. A ship of Chinese traders just returned from Ceylon was approached in the Strait, and it took little encouragement on the part of my captors for the Chinamen to part with a tidy sum of spice profits for the possession of my person. Once that person was on board the junk, my new captors were shouting at one another to set sail immediately.
“We sailed for the ancient Chinese city of Wu-yang Ch’eng. I did not know what fate awaited me in China, but I took gratitude in the smooth sailing over the South China Sea to whatever fate that might be. And the captain of the vessel, a small man with a graying goatee and an aristocrat’s bearing, seemed to take pleasure in teaching me the rudiments of his language’s vocabulary and even grammar during our weeklong voyage.
“The sailing and tutoring ended once we made sight of the Chinese coast, however, for at that point I was bound by the wrists and ankles and placed in a corner before the crew put oars to water and rowed the vessel upriver into port. I expected to be placed on a slave stand once we reached port, but instead I was held under guard in that same corner as the Tropic of Cancer sun beat down upon both captors and captive.
“With the setting of the sun arrived the bureaucrats, who deigned to board the junk and inspect me in my corner while taking care that the hems of their silk robes did not touch the ship’s deck. One asked me in the language taught by the captain what my name was, and I answered, ‘Cartaphilus.’ Another leaned over to peer more closely at the fair skin poking out from beneath the fresh tunic and trousers supplied to me by my captors, and a third kept peering about the deck of the junk, as if inspecting the milieu of a pet’s breeding.
“Round coins with square holes were counted out into the captain’s hand by one of the silk-robed men, and I was dragged from my corner by two uniformed guards bearing pikes in the hands which did not grasp me by the arms. Into an enclosed cart I was led, and wheeled away from the waterfront which I peered at from between the bars on my windows.”
“North and under mounted guard my cart journeyed, the setting sun forever on my right. Whether as a result of new latitude or the advance of the season, the branches of the trees became more barren with each passing week, and snow crunched beneath my sandals when I was finally allowed to set foot on the Earth once more.
“That snow, the freshest layers being broomed away by servants almost as quickly as they fell, lay within a large and sumptuous courtyard which in turn lay within a palace. I had been woken from a fitful sleep by my arrival, and I allowed myself to be led away in a daze, into the palace’s interior.
“Within, I was bathed, shaved, and groomed by more male servants, then dressed in a silk robe and slippers and led over a marble hallway floor resting beneath a magnificent collection of gold and jade statuary watched over by guards who looked about as likely to move or smile as the statues. My slippered heels were allowed to cool in an antechamber for an hour or more, and then I was led into the room of the jade throne.
“Atop that throne, beneath a silk canopy embroidered with gold and pearls, sat a boy Emperor, his legs dangling comically beneath the level of the immense cushion upon which he sat. On one side of him stood a middle-aged man with bony hands and wrists jutting out from within the immense silk sleeves of his white robe, and on his other side sat a middle-aged woman, this aged creature plump and seemingly comfortable on an identical seat cushion.
“A new guide who had joined my entourage of guards at the entrance to the throne room instructed, in a high-pitched whisper, ‘Follow me.’ Follow him I did, in slippers which whispered across the immense length to be crossed. I pulled up beside my guide before the throne, and stood silently as he belted out a string of his foreign words in that same high pitch. The man standing beside the throne leaned down to whisper something in an ear in a second high pitch, and I realized these men were eunuchs.
“When this Emperor spoke for the first time in my presence, it was in the form a child’s simple question: ‘You speak Han?’
“I replied with an even simpler ‘Yes,’ and made a pinching gesture with my right thumb and forefinger to indicate the limited extent of my knowledge.
“It was in an instant that I first witnessed a sign of the delicate nature of the throne. Almost as one with the rise of my hand, the pikes of the guards who had followed me across the room snapped down into the gulf between myself and their Emperor, the sharp edges of the blades turned in my direction.
“There were equally sharp words at the guards from the man in white, then more whispered ones in the Emperor’s ear after the blades had been snapped up. The gelding stood erect once more, and the Emperor intoned, seemingly without thought, ‘Sun Cheng will teach you Han.’
“The eunuch beside me bowed to the Emperor, but smiled in my direction. As instantly as the guards’ pikes had fallen a minute before, however, the smile in my direction became a deep, fearful frown back in the boy’s direction.
“As the woman beside the throne rushed to place her bare hand over the stream of blood flowing out of one of the Emperor’s nostrils, I noticed for the first time how pale the child was. In this manner I realized just how delicate indeed was the Earth upon which the jade throne rested.”
“I also soon realized that I had been assigned to the eunuch Sun Cheng not so much to learn Han as to teach him and others Latin. At least that seemed to be his interpretation of the Imperial order, for the very next day I found myself standing beside a warming stove in front of a class of thirty eunuchs (Sun Cheng front and center), all with the bright and sinister light of ambition in their eyes.
“And I soon learned that I was not the first contact the Han had experienced with the Roman Empire; apparently a Chinese delegation had been sent to Rome some thirty years before my arrival in the their own capital of Lo-yang. Following the age-old principle that ‘He who has the knowledge makes the rules,’ my bureaucrat pupils were determined to be the sole intermediaries between the two great empires of the known world.
“Intermediaries excluding myself of course. I learned enough Han after a few days with the eunuchs to point out to Sun that a knowledge of my students’ native language would make me a better teacher, and he reluctantly assigned a low-level member of the thirty to teach the teacher. Thus it was that I rapidly acquired a mastery of my masters’ language, and from a private, full-time tutor who was not as guarded about affairs of state as his superior Sun might have been.
“It was after two months of tutoring, and a subtle question on my part, that I learned the woman beside the throne was Empress Dowager Yan, widow of the Emperor who had died in May. The late Emperor’s only son Liu Bao (by an imperial consort who had been poisoned by the Empress) had been the rightful heir, but had been passed over for the even younger (and more pliable) Liu Yi, the boy Emperor who was now gravely sick with a mysterious illness.
“As I mulled this new knowledge over that afternoon in late December, standing before my thirty students who had already acquired a working mastery of classical Latin, I realized that I was a pawn on more than one chessboard. For the thirty members of the Imperial administration before me, gathering together on a daily basis under the perfectly legitimate guise of learning a rival Empire’s tongue, had been gathering together to plot the succession to the Emperor who was growing more unwell with each passing day.