The Exquisite Corpse of Ava Cotto: Part 3

This book, tentatively titled The Numa Legacy, is a collaboration between ten different members of the Avocado. Every week, a different member will publish a new chapter, and after that the story is out of their hands.

See here for Chapter 1, in which romanes eunt domus sets the stage, and see here for the Chapter 2, in which Robert Maitland Architect kicks things into high gear.


Feigning attention is a skill, and Stevens would have liked to think himself an expert. As he and Professor Durand navigated the estate’s basement, spacious yet cramped with the objects of his master’s latest obsession, he wore a mask of polite interest, unwavering in the face of the old man’s rambling.

“What we have here is an example of early Hadrianic pottery, the earliest known samples dating back to…”

Did the man actually say “Hadrianic”? Would it have mattered? He was obliged only to listen, and later the torrent of adjectives and nouns would exit his brain as promptly as they had entered.

What did pique his interest was the professor’s preoccupation with ownership. Stevens’ master, the esteemed Lord Bradley, had a robust constitution, buoyed by long walks and the occasional racquetball match. To hear Durand speak of these items as if they were already museum pieces was a bit like hearing someone speculate on the make of one’s casket. As firmly as decorum would allow, Stevens interrupted his guest to assert the point:

“Yes sir, I am sure they would make fine additions to the Museum of Natural History. But that decision will have to be made by my master, or, in the event of his…passing, by his former son-in-law.”

“Former?” said the professor. “Is he no longer married?”

“I am afraid to say that my master’s only daughter passed away in an accident last year, sir. My master’s will dictates that his estate be sold and the money distributed to various charities. His possessions, including the vase you hold now, will go to one St. John Metaxas.”

The handsome sum that would be left to Stevens went tactfully unacknowledged.

If Durand’s face fell a little, he rallied before Stevens could look at him again. “I can only hope that Mr. Metaxas will appreciate these pieces for the treasures they are. This tablet in particular would be the crown of any museum’s collection.” He motioned to a bronze piece farther down the table from where they were standing, and he put down the vase and drew closer in order to scrutinize it.

“The metalwork suggests it comes from the late…” (here Stevens’ mind briefly touched the void), “but the script is of a language that predates it by several centuries. Which tells me that the text was not an original piece, but rather a reproduction of something passed down from much earlier.”

“And what would be so worth preserving, sir?” (Part of his job was knowing which questions his speaker wanted to be asked.)

“A good question! But we appear to have only a fragment of the entire text, which as you can observe here begins mid-sentence. There wouldn’t happen to be other bronze tablets, would there?”

“I am afraid not, sir. The master obtained this at auction, and it was the only piece of its kind.”

And how did it come to be sold at auction? Lord Bradley knew better than to ask. Curious collectors soon find themselves without dealers, and besides, it tickled his imagination to think that the object sitting in his basement could have arrived there by a network of grave robbers, black market merchants and smugglers’ ships. He would not let reality intrude.

“I’m sorry to hear that. But we can still deduce a few things from the fragment we have here.” Before he could help it Durand had reverted back to his old professorial role. “What sort of person would have had the resources to inscribe something in bronze?”

“A person of means, I imagine. An aristocrat, or a high-ranking public servant.”

“Precisely. They could hardly have been expected to make it themselves. The tablet’s existence speaks to the presence of scribes and servants, and the text means the commissioner possessed a certain degree of education. This you could reason without understanding any of the text itself.”

“And if someone were to understand the text itself, what would they conclude?” Tea time was fast approaching, so Stevens thought it best to direct the professor back to the purpose of his visit.

“I would need to consult my library to attempt a full translation. From here I can see the Latin word sēcrētus, which means exactly what you would think it means, and here”, his finger moved to the lower right portion of the stone, “we see the Greek word monárchēs, or monarch. And here…”

Durand paused, and if it weren’t exactly what Stevens had been hoping for, perhaps he would have noticed something off about the professor. No secret king, or king of secrets, would delay him any longer in his duties.

“Sir, I will need to take your leave shortly. My master will be expecting tea. Will you be joining him?”

Durand, whose vivacity up until this point had seemed to exceed his fragile frame, did not break his gaze from the tablet.

“No…no, sorry Stevens. I think I would like some more time to contemplate this inscription. Do you think Lord Bradley would allow me to take this back to my quarters?”

It is to Stevens’ credit that his face did not betray his feelings at the moment. “I see no reason why not”, and the reader may be assured that it was not for lack of trying. Wrapping paper was promptly produced, and soon the relic of antiquity resembled more closely a Christmas present than an object of archaeological significance. The unspoken assumption was that any damage it incurred would be entirely the fault of the carrier. This did not escape Durand’s notice, and he took the parcel from the butler’s hands with an air of mock solemnity.

“Thank you, Stevens. I am sure this tablet will survive the two flights of stairs to my room.”

“And the two flights back, when you return it, sir?”

“But of course.” The butler glided away to attend to other matters, leaving Durand to carry the package (carefully, carefully!) up one flight of stairs, then another, and finally down the cavernous wing that Lord Bradley referred to as the guest quarters. As delicately as he could, Durand placed the parcel on his desk, unwrapped it to display the text he was interested in, and shuffled over to his bookshelf, which held the few reference materials he saw fit to take with him.

Hours passed. Without his notice Durand’s shadow had moved across the bedroom wall, peaked in height against the Venetian boudoir, and shrank again until it could almost no longer be distinguished. The once tidy desk was now a hurricane of books and scribbled notes, and in the eye laid the tablet, as if exerting a force that repelled all attempts to decipher it. A few phrases could be made out among the smattering of notes. “…under an August moon…”, “…in service of the state…”, “…last of his name…”

What kept his eyes darting from book to book, paragraph to index to page, was not a phrase that was unfamiliar but rather too familiar. At this point his method no longer resembled conventional research but rather a studied unconvincing, the belief that the right book would dispel the symbols in front of him and assure him words did not mean what they were meant to mean.

Omnis-, all or all-encompassing.

-cīdium, the act of killing.

He knew them but had never seen linked together like that, did not know a word for it in any other language. But if he were to venture a translation…



Tune in next week to see where The Hayes Code takes us next.