The Exquisite Corpse of Ava Cotto: Part 1

Hello, as promised, here’s the first part of the game. A few caveats: I kept it short, and without the main characters yet, because I didn’t want to monopolize all the story. Also I apologize because, being somewhat devoid of imagination, I used my professional obsessions as a theme, and went for a historical thriller pastiche. Feel free to change the tone! I would also like to apologize for the clumsiness of my English and all the typos that I will inevitably find after hitting “send”.

Also, feel free to give a title to the whole thing.

RobertMaitlandArchitect, your turn now!

Prologue 1 : Rome, early VIIth c. B.C.

King Numa was old, and he felt death looming near. He was at peace with that. He felt rather proud of what had become of Rome during his long reign. What was still a rather uncouth group of men when they had come to him, asking him to be their king, had learned more peaceful ways, and had also gained a greater respect for the gods under his guidance, which he felt would guarantee the future of this young city. He would have been able to meet his death in perfect serenity, if not for the books. They had helped him, undeniably. But he still felt some unease because of the way he had acquired them, and often the thought of the books being found by someone unworthy woke him up at night. He took his decision. They would have to be buried with him.

Prologue 2 : Rome, 181 B.C.

Quintus Petilius was staring at the two stone chests his slaves had deposited in front of him.  They were still covered in dirt from when the labourers had unearthed them. He was in a bad mood. He’d finally reached the lofty position of praetor urbanus, and he was happy to serve his city and people this way. However, it was also a lot of work, and he didn’t need the memory of a long dead king coming to pile yet more trouble on his head. Yet here was the name “Numa”, engraved on both chests, in a script so archaic that he had trouble deciphering it. He called for a few slaves to break the lead lining on both chests. Once that was done, he stood staring at them suspiciously for a while, as if they might have been filled with snakes. Which, come to think of it, they might be. He approached one of the chests tentatively, tugged at its lid and cursed because he’d gotten dirt all over the toga that he hadn’t even had the time to take off after coming home. Finally, he swore, sent away his attendants, and opened one of the chests, which turned out to be empty. “Well, that was a lot of trouble for nothing”, he thought. He went to the second one, fully expecting another empty box. However, it wasn’t the case. There were books in there, fourteen of them. Careful not to damage the fragile rolls, he took out a few randomly, and started reading. Some seemed to be written in a Latin, others in Greek. He couldn’t get all the words, the language being closer to the archaic prayers some priesthoods still used, but what he could read was enough. He yelled for his secretary to come at once. The Senate would have to decide the fate of these books, but without a doubt they would have them destroyed. And who could blame them? Those weren’t meant for mortal eyes.  His secretary came into the room. Petilius opened his mouth to dictate to him a missive to be taken to the consuls. No words came. As his secretary looked at him expectantly, he took his decision, though later he thought that maybe the decision was taken for him, somehow. He wouldn’t warn the Senate just yet. Destroying that much knowledge would be almost sacrilegious. He would have at least part of one of the Latin books copied, on a more durable material, bronze, maybe. He’d keep the whole thing hidden, and he’d buy or coerce the silence of the artisans doing the work. Armed with a new resolve, he started issuing orders to his secretary.

Five years later, as he lay dying on a battlefield far away from Rome, he would still be wondering if he’d done the right thing.


Professor Durand wasn’t a field man, to say the least, and although his interest extended to archaeology, he liked to look at it in an abstract manner, devoid of the aching back, dirty hands, and scraped knees that seemed to him the hallmarks of this otherwise venerable profession that furnished him with beautiful inscriptions to cherish and study. He felt much more at ease in the tiny office he still occupied under the roofs of the Ecole Normale Supérieure de la rue d’Ulm in Paris. He had been retired or a year now, but was enjoying the release from his teaching duties to dive into some long delayed research, and he had managed to keep his office, which was all for the better because he honestly didn’t know what he would have done with the hundreds of pages of notes lining the walls of the room up to the rafters, all covered in his tiny handwriting during all his years as an academic specializing in ancient italic languages. His wife, who herself had accumulated quite an amount of notes during her own career as a physicist would probably have made him thrown some away, and he couldn’t bear the thought. He stretched his diminutive shape, and decided to check his emails. Some of his old students were asking for advice on papers they’d written, or positions to which they wished to apply. He set such matters aside for the moments, with a small pang of guilt. But the fact was that the openings for academic jobs were getting rarer every year, and he just couldn’t help everyone. One email caught his attention: it was from an estate in Great Britain called Solway Hall, asking for his advice on some inscriptions they’d apparently just found while doing an inventory of their collections. Idly, he googled the estate. It was a big Palladian house in the South East of England, the ancestral home, he read, of the lords of Holkchester. It seemed to boast quite an collection of Roman and Greek antiquities, as one of the XVIIIth c. earls had done his Grand Tour in a rather enthusiastic matter, happily buying anything that was offered to him by more or less reputable sellers. So there was a chance they might have some interesting material. He opened the picture of an inscription that had been joined to the email. It was apparently a bronze tablet, inscribed in Latin. He was intrigued at once. While the writing seemed to him to date back to the IInd c. B.C., the words thus copied and their spelling didn’t fit at all with the language of that century. He was starting to feel the delicious influx of adrenaline that had driven him during all the years of his career.

He gave another look at the number of emails waiting for him, allowed himself a small chuckle, got back on the Internet and booked a trip for England. If the inscriptions turned out to be disappointing, he could always hand their study over to one of his disciples. Maybe young Hélène, since she seemed to be having trouble to find a job after getting her PhD. That’d keep her busy, and it would be good for her CV.

As he crossed the courtyard of the venerable school on his way out, he felt absolutely elated. The sun was shining, students were lounging around the central fountain or on the window sills. A perfect weather for a nice trip. Smiling to himself, he made his way towards the door, blissfully unaware that since he’d opened this email his fate had been sealed.