They passed by several rooms opening onto the balcony. Most were rectangular and small without an opening of any kind to the outside, making them at first seem dark and forbidding, but all the walls displayed elaborate paintings on smooth plaster, and much of it remained in vivid color, making the past come alive as almost nothing else could.
Rachel stopped smiling and became serious. She put her arms on the ancient table and leaned toward him, her eyes roaming his face as she spoke. “Think of me as you would a fancy, expensive, Italian sports car. Everybody wants it, but the only one who will drive it home and park it in his garage will be the one who earns it.
“This very spot you have selected may just be the most romantic spot in all of Italia. It could have been two thousand years ago or now, and the effect on me would be the same. Sitting across from you, admiring your beautiful face, and listening to your captivating voice has created a powerful feeling within me and one that I will carry with me the rest of my life. This is one of those treasured moments that you only get a few of in life. Thank you, Rachel.”
Bending down, he used his hand to wipe away the dust over a paving block of stone. There was lettering just at the surface, a name perhaps. He knelt down and blew away the rest of the dust. Yes, there were two words crafted in bronze and inlaid into stone. An odd place for such a thing. “Quoniam Antonius,” he said aloud, then stood up.
Cosimo felt the immediacy of Herculaneum, the life of the place, the objects remaining so real, so unchanged from a specific moment in time, and its people still moved through these streets pursuing their lives. He felt as though he was back with them, as if he knew them, was part of the pattern of life, breathing the same air as they still do.
“I’m angry, Cosimo, very angry. This is the biggest hoax I’ve ever encountered. I have to ask why you would so easily toss your entire education for a bit of cheap publicity?”
Cosimo watched as his father’s expression changed. His face became pained as if, suddenly, he had received a hard punch to the chest. Cosimo noticed the long look between his parents. This was something they were involved in for sure.
She lay face down, her face in the pillow, her body shaking with regret and loss. Cosimus had died for her and for Anthony. She could not change what happened then nor could it be altered now.
Once again he looked around the room and marveled. Two walls were decorated with elaborate scenes which drew the mind in, nearly accepting the premise of the artist as fact instead of mere decoration. The colors chosen were mostly in the blue restful range, befitting a bed chamber. The rear wall was consumed by large windows which held a spectacular view toward the west and the vast bay, the sea sparkling beyond, blending imperceptibly at the horizon.
Old Màthair, though aging, still went joyfully about her tasks each day, uncomplaining and wanting nothing in return. The few times Cos had presented her with things he thought she might want, she had laughed and refused. She wanted nothing but a safe home and honest labor and, of course, the happiness of her son.
“Ah, it’s simple for you, my son. You are handsome beyond description, rich and famous as well. Just walk down the street and pick a woman, even a married woman. Any of them would rush home with you if given a chance.
He walked around the carriages looking for an opening and discovered a cloth cover on the far side. He pulled the cloth off with a jerk and was greeted by the sight of several women huddled in one corner. Walking down the line, he did the same for three other wagons, each with the same result. A quick guess was nearly twenty women being held for sale. Most were dressed in rags and weathered furs, and all were dirty and had fearful eyes looking back at this new threat.
As Cos considered his next offer, he looked the line of women over again. One was still on the floor near the corner of the cage. “What about that one?” he pointed to the still figure.
“We expect that one to die shortly, if she is still alive. She refused to eat for the last two weeks. She is not worthy of your attention.”
On the bed lay Alia, her eyes open, studying Cos as he, at last, slept. Her eyes followed his masculine form from the top of his bushy head and along the muscular contours of his body. Then her wandering eyes saw the room she was in for the first time, the wall paintings, the lavish furnishings, and the floor covered in shiny mosaic tiles forming an intricate pattern of geometric shapes.
The vendors harked their products loudly to all who passed. One, a bit too forward, approached Alia from the side and touched her arm, then looked at her companion, quickly withdrawing. Alia leaned her head back and laughed, her free hand passing her face as if to shoo away a pesky fly. She looked up at Cos, squeezing his arm in the delight of the moment.
It had been another nearly sleepless night. Tossing and turning, his mind burned with thoughts and desires fixated on one tenacious subject. Alia. She had become his partner, at least during his dreams, and when he awakened without her warm body next to him, his sleep world seemed preferable to the real one.
Cos took her hands in his and looked her over from toe to head. “You look more and more like a marble creation of a myth. I traveled for 2000 years to find you, and here you are.”