Malmquist lifted his head off the floor in a daze as he regained consciousness. “Where am I?”
“E tu chi sei?” a man whispered to him in the darkness.
“Who are you?”
“Sei lo schiavo nuovo?”
“What language are you speaking?”
“Che lingua stai parlando?”
“Do you speak English?”
“Inglese? No, non parlo Inglese.”
“Where am I? Chicago? What happened?”
“Di dove sei? Non sapevo che voleva uno schiavo nuovo.”
“I don’t understand you. Are you Italian?”
“Shsh. Fa silenzio.”
“L’eunuco ha preso uno della sua eta’,” murmured another, with a laugh.
They lit an oil lamp, and the room revealed a group of startled young men wearing simple tunics, lying on thin pallets. “Di dove sei?”
“Would you please tell me what the hell is going on? I was just in Gary, Indiana, in the future. Escaping from Gary. And then I must have blacked out. Am I shot?”
“Non capisce. Chiedi a Stefano questo da dove viene.”
They opened the door. Just outside the room another man was sleeping on a pallet. Moonlight bathed a spacious atrium, in the middle of which was a pool, and above that, an open roof. Colonnades, curtains, tall plants, and marble statues.
“Oh, Stefano, di dov’e’ sto tipo?”
The man peered in at Malmquist. “E che ne so.”
“Do you guys have any food? I’m really hungry,” said Malmquist, motioning to his stomach.
“Non ci e’ permesso mangiare finche’ la Padrona non finisce i suoi lavaggi mattutini,” said one.
“Non capisce niente. Vedi se Giulia gli trova qualche rimasuglio,” said another. “Stefano, chiedi a Giulia di dargli qualcosa da rosicchiare per stanotte.”
Stefano ran off. Malmquist got up to follow him.
“No!” they said, and held him back. One drew his hand across his neck like a knife. “Agli schiavi non e’ permesso di muoversi dal loro posto!”
Malmquist sat down in perplexed silence. In the lamplight, the walls of the simple room gave way to a landscape mural of mythological creatures—centaurs, satyrs, cupids, a minotaur.
“Come ti chiami?” one asked him.
“I don’t understand.”
Pointing outside he said, “Stefano.” Pointing at himself, “Riccardo.” He pointed at Malmquist.
Stefano had reappeared with a woman. “Uno nuovo?” she whispered, annoyed. “Come mai adesso?”
“E chi lo sa. E’ apparso dal nulla e ci ha svegliato.”
She crawled partway in the room and handed Malmquist a tray with a wet hand towel and several small bottles on it.
“What’s this?” he said, sniffing them. “Scents? Perfumes?”
She pointed to his stomach. “Devi assistere la Padrona nei suoi lavaggi mattutini, e poi puoi mangiare.”
“What? I can’t eat this.”
“No.” She gestured across the atrium to a large closed doorway. “E’ per la Padrona.”
As she bent forward to explain, her tunic dipped open. The atrium light shone through it from behind and revealed at a glance her long hanging breasts and pubic bush and in the distance, another man sleeping on a pallet who had lifted up his head at the ruckus.
“What?” asked Malmquist.
“Dio santo. Non sa che fare. Glielo devo fare vedere io.” She motioned to him to come closer. “Avvicinati. Vicino.”
She opened her legs and handed him the towel. He understood he was to wipe her down. She emptied a few drops from one of the vials on her fingers. “Questo è l’olio di rugosa,” she said, placing her fingertips under his nose before transferring the oil to her genitals. “È importante spalmare dall’alto in basso, non viceversa. Ora, questo è l’olio di reseda. Solo un poco!”
She then instructed him to apply the other scent to her vulva, perineum and anus, in that order and made kissing and licking motions with her mouth. “E poi baciala e leccala.”
“God, you’re gorgeous but this is all a bit sudden for me.”
When he bent down and pressed his lips to her groin, she slapped him. “Che stai facendo! Non lo devi fare a me ma a lei. Ti sto solo facendo vedere.” She pointed to the door across the atrium. “Fa’ lo stesso con la Padrona quando si sveglia.”
The others in the room were smirking. The man across the atrium signaled to keep the noise down.
“I don’t understand,” said Malmquist. Giulia sighed in exasperation. He rubbed his stomach. “I’m really hungry.”
She returned a minute later with a plate of boiled chicken feet.
He took one in thumb and forefinger and retracted his lips in disgust. “What are these?”
“Okay?” she said, and left.
He scraped the skin off the claws with his teeth and finished the plate. The others had gone back to sleep, and he slept too.
Malmquist was nudged awake at dawn. “E’ ora di andare dalla Padrona.”
Stefano handed him the tray with the scented oils and a fresh hot towel. He led him across the atrium. The man guarding the mysterious room received them and Malmquist entered. It was a luxurious room with recessed windows. The walls were splashed with colorful frescoes. There were ivory-inlaid wardrobes and bench chests with gilded feet carved into lion’s paws. A large bed with a disordered blue-and-yellow striped satin bedspread took up the middle of the room and was raised so high a footstool was at its side for climbing onto it. Stefano and the guard pushed Malmquist forward and he mounted the bed.
“Ei, nucai, kuaidian’er. Deng shenme ne? Mali’er de!” snapped the person on the bed, an elderly woman of Asian race. “Ba maojin na guolai,” she said, before sitting up at the sight of him. “E? Ni na’er laide? Wo zenme mei jianguo ni?”
“Xin laide nucai,” said the two men from the doorway.
“Zenme huishi’er? Shui anpai de? Hao ba. Jiu zheyang. Wo xian shishi ni, kan ni zuo de zenmeyang.”
Malmquist set the tray down by her legs. She opened them. Where there should have been a vagina was only a tiny red scar. At the sight of this he convulsed and unleashed a torrent of vomit on her groin.
“Wode ma ya!” she screamed. “Lairen!” Pointing to Malmquist she said to the guard, “Ba ta la xiqu bile!”
He was seized and led back to the slaves’ chamber to be confined. Stefano summoned Giulia, while the Mistress’s guard dashed out of the house. The female servants ran into her room to attend to the emergency. Other servants ran across the atrium in different directions.
“What’s happening?” asked Malmquist.
The others looked at him with fear and malice in their eyes.
“Cosa dice la tua maglietta?” asked Riccardo, pointing to the writing on Malmquist’s T-shirt.
“What, this? Who cares what it says? That’s all you can think of to ask me right now? I was just thrown onto an old transvestite with deformed genitalia. I had no idea what I was supposed to do, and now I’m being accused of a crime? What did I do wrong? I don’t even know where I am right now. A few hours ago I was in some kind of pedophile colony, and this dosn’t look to be all that different. What are you all, a bunch of slaves? How do you put up with this bullshit? Is this some kind of comedy routine?”
“Stai per morire, quindi ci piacerebbe avere la maglietta.”
“Tu,” said another to Malmquist as he drew his finger across his neck, “morire.” He too pointed to his T-shirt. “Dacci.”
“You want my T-shirt?”
“Non è utile per te. Stai per essere giustiziato!” said a third man in the room, who got up and grabbed Malmquist’s shirt in his fist.
“Let go of me, you asshole!”
He tried to yank the shirt out of his hand and when that didn’t work grabbed his arms. They struggled and Malmquist slammed him against the wall.
“Mi sta attaccando!” screamed the man.
Three muscular men wearing Roman military uniforms rushed in. They dragged Malmquist into the atrium, by which time everyone had been assembled. Two of them retracted his arms and yanked his head back by the hair. The third was about to slice open his neck with a sword when Giulia yelled, “Non uccidetelo, vi prego! Non sapeva cosa fare! E’ nuovo, non e’ Italiano e non capisce niente. Risparmiatelo, vi prego. E’ stato un incidente!”
The mistress had emerged from her room dressed in a robe. Giulia got down on her knees before her and implored, “Nuzhuren, ta bushi guyi de!”
“Zhende? Hao! Danshi, fang ta zou zhiqian, ta bixu gei wo daoqian!”
“Peili daoqian!” the head soldier said to Malmquist.
“I don’t understand.”
“Daoqian! Chiedi perdono!”
Stefano got on his knees and showed Malmquist how to kowtow. Malmquist prostrated himself in front of the Mistress.
“Please, I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“Ta shuo shenme yuyan? Yingyu a? Zenmekeng?”
“Nucai gang daole. Women bu zhidao ta cong nali laide. Shi women de cuo.”
“Hao la,” said the mistress, softening. “Wo yuanliang ni. Buguo, zai yi buneng zai er. Hao, women xianzai jiushi pengyou le!” To the guard she said, “Rang ta gundan.”
Giulia plopped her head down on the marble floor in relief. The soldiers escorted Malmquist out of the house, deposited him on the street and marched off.
“What’s going on?” he said after them.
He reached for one of the bronze lion’s head knockers and banged on the door. A guard appeared.
Malmquist pointed to his mouth. “I’m thirsty.”
Giulia arrived with a cup of water. Malmquist gargled and spat out the remaining vomit. “I’m hungry.”
She glanced inside the house and back toward the street. “Vieni con me,” she said impatiently.
He followed her down the street. There were on a hillside, and soon the city’s vista came into view. “Holy shit! Where are we?”
They stepped into a small eatery with an open front. Vats built into the counter sold rice and corn porridges, along with fried dough twists, boiled eggs, and pickled cabbage. He ate ravenously.
“Come sei finito qua?”
“I really do not have any idea what’s going on.”
When he was finished, she pointed toward the city and said, “C’e’ una stazione di polizia a Suburra. Forse ti possono aiutare. Vedi quel quartiere nella vallata di la’ del Foro, sulla sinistra della collina dell’Esquilino? Chiedi a qualcuno quando arrivi la’.”
“Giulia, I don’t understand. Please help me and don’t leave me. Thank you so much for saving my life. Oh, god, you’re so lovely.” He passed his hand over her face and hair. She dropped her head in shyness.
Just then an Asian male customer came up to them and grabbed her breasts, dislodging them from her tunic and balancing them in his palms. “Wa! Zhen da!”
Malmquist moved toward him but Giulia held him fast under the table.
“Xiansheng, wo buzai zheli zuo gongzuo,” she calmly told the man. She pointed to a young waitress who had pulled out her breasts and beckoned him up a ladder to the second floor. “Ta hui manzu nin. Feichang ganxie!” He followed her upstairs.
“Who the fuck is he?”
She wagged her finger at Malmquist gravely. “Non litigarci. Mai. Andiamo!”
The food paid for, she led him briskly toward the destination she was mentioning before the rude interruption. “Ricorda la strada se dovessi aver bisogno di tornare per farti aituare da me.” Indicating the street they were on, she said, “Questa e’ Via Nova.”
They entered a public square with a tremendous display of classical architecture clad in white marble. Hundreds of people milled about, Asians in purple-fringed togas and Caucasians in tunics trailing behind. She pointed to the Temple of Julius Caesar on their right and the vast Basilica Julia on their left. They turned and crossed the square along the Via Sacra to another huge building, the Basilica Aemilia, which they proceeded around into a compact square lined with columns, the Forum of Nerva. Exiting out the other end, they descended along the Clivus Argiletum and into a shabby neighborhood teeming with shops and alleyways, Suburra.
Along one side of the street was a masonry wall punctuated by archways. One of these they entered. More soldiers in Ancient Roman armor were coming and going from the precinct headquarters across a courtyard interior paved with cobblestones. Giulia consulted with a guard in the entrance and they were directed to a back room, where a Black man in a toga was sitting at a desk adorned with a toy American flag.
“Now who have we got here?” he said.
“Finally, someone who can speak English. Man, am I happy to see you. Would you please tell me how I wound up in this fake Ancient Rome?”
“You ain’t Italian? Where you from?”
“Chicago? How’d you get here? Ain’t no foreigners except Italians here.”
“Then who are you, may I ask?”
“The American Ambassador.”
“This is the American Embassy?”
“Hey, wait a minute. I’ve seen you before. You’re Leroy from the police station in Gary, Indiana.”
“I ain’t seen you before. You must be thinking of someone else.”
“I could swear it’s you. No, it’s really you.”
“Wrong person. Now what you doing here?”
“Why is the Embassy in a police station? Are there other countries’ embassies here as well?”
“Only the Italian.”
“Italian? How could there be an Italian Embassy? We’re in Italy.”
“Italy? What made you think this Italy?”
“What are all these Italians doing here then?”
“They slaves. You in China.”
“China! Well, how do I get out?”
“You a slave too.”
“I am not a slave.”
“You in New Rome and you honky, then you a slave.”
“Are there other Americans?”
“You the first I’ve seen. Where were you before you came here?”
“I was trying to escape from Gary to Chicago. And you were helping me!”
“You all mixed up, man. Who that woman slave you come here with? Can’t she help you?”
Malmquist turned to Giulia. She was gone.
“That’s right, she gone. And you know why she gone? You know why they done through with you? She told us what happened. You offended a retired Chinese court eunuch.”
“It was an accident. I was disoriented and sick to my stomach when they shoved me onto her naked. They almost executed me. But I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“You made her lose face. It don’t matter why it happened but it happened. That ain’t no ordinary eunuch. You know who Guo Meimei is up there on that Palatine Hill where you almost got your head chopped off? Once you offend a Chinese ain’t nobody gonna help you nohow.”
“A eunuch? I thought eunuchs were male.”
“She call herself female, she dress female, she female.”
“Wait. The Palatine? How could it be the Palatine if we’re in China? Are you telling me it has the same topography as real Rome? They constructed this all so perfectly?”
“Down to the very inch. The Tiber too. They diverted another river nearby and carved it out. And they built the Aurelian Wall to keep all you slaves in.”
“How many slaves are there?”
“One million. Half as many Chinese masters. More during peak season, though most of the Chinese live here permanently and keep they own slaves.”
“Where did they get one million Italian slaves?”
“I mean how?”
“Heard they hired them all at first. Italy economy bad back then. After they arrived they got a big surprise. They had a job all right. Worked they asses off, but passports all confiscated and the only salary any of them ever seen was a few sesterces in tips for good behavior. Phones took too. No way to contact the outside world, no way to go home. No countries dare mess with China no more, and Italy can’t help them. Anyway, most of the slaves used to it by now. They’ve been here several decades or more. Some born here and already grown up. Don’t know nothing else.”
“What year is it?”
“Same as New Gary.”
“Don’t you start having fantasies of escaping back to the U.S. now. You better start worrying about finding gainful employment. They throw jobless slaves to the animals in the Colosseum.”
“As my country’s ambassador, you have an obligation to help out a fellow U.S. citizen. I have no money, no passport.”
“You already forget no matter where you from a slave ain’t no citizen. Where you living now, since they kicked you out?”
“Why don’t you tell me.”
“Yep, you need a master to take you on and give you a pallet to sleep on and some food to eat.”
“Can you help me find one?”
“Can you at least direct me to where I might find one?”
“Come to think of it, that balneum over there across the street, the manager slave he got beaten to death last week by some Chinese. Heard the slave boy helping him is struggling to operate the place. Maybe you can go ask him if he need someone.”
“Why was he killed?”
“Why would I want to work there?”
“Look, I’m just helping you out.”
“What’s a balneum?”
“The local bathhouse.”
“Could you take me over there and introduce me? I don’t know any Italian and can’t explain myself.”
“I can’t, but I’ll get one of the guards to take you there.”
“Wait. There’s one thing I still don’t understand. If this is the U.S. Embassy, then this must be the capital city of China. What happened to Beijing?”
“They can put the embassy anywhere they damn well please, and they put us here.”
“I thought this would be the consulate.”
“Ain’t no U.S. Consulates in China. Only me. I’m the man.”
* * *