It still smelled awful, the place that the Doctor had taken them to. Lorna had been horrified and Chris had been unsurprised by everything that flowed through the city, and picking their way through it had dampened their enthusiasm further.
They passed through tight crossroads and alleys they were barely able to squeeze through, before they finally came to a wider street. This at least looked a bit more like the books: there were buildings which looked like they might have been covered in marble, and the helmets of legionnaires occasionally poked through the crowd. But the place they finally came to looked as disappointingly wrong as most of the rest of the city. It was squat and small and made of dark brown brick, a badly-built balcony extending to a view beyond. It looked to Lorna that it might have been from around when she was born, not lifetimes before the birth of Jesus Christ.
A cheerful and bearded man greeted them as they made their way towards the house. “News travels quickly, it seems!” he beamed at them as they approached. “I’ve only been here since the morning, and already some women are down here to sell rich old Herminius things.”
“I’m not a woman,” said Chris grumpily.
“And I’m not buying any flowers or rubbish! Just because I’ve come into money, doesn’t mean I’ve lost all my sense.” There was no malice in any of his words; only joy at the situation he’d found himself in.
“It’s not what you might buy that we’re interested in,” said the Doctor. “But what you might sell, instead. You’ve done well for yourself, no doubt.” She grinned. “But you’d do even better with these.”
From a pocket of her jeans she pulled two giant rubies, with which it might be possible to buy the whole city twice. Herminius looked so stunned at them that he forgot that he should have been sceptical.
“Gems are a lot to offer,” he said, “for a man to bake you a loaf of bread.”
“You’re quite right! And they’re even more to offer, for what we’re actually asking for. We’ve been gossiping, as women.” She turned to her companions. “That’s what we do, right?”
“Gossip away!” said Lorna.
“I’m not a woman,” said Chris again. “I’m a girl.”
“Good for you! Anyway, we were talking to everyone round here, exchanging new gossip techniques. And we heard” – she glanced very quickly at her phone– “ that you’ve got some rooms spare here. For the slaves, who you’ve not quite got round to buying.
“Slaves?” said Chris, horrified.
“We were never offered any gems,” muttered her mother.
Herminius frowned, the offer of huge amounts of money unsettling him more than the idea he was about to be parted from it.
“You’re seeking lodgings here in Rome?” he said. “But you’re all so pale, and your clothes– they’re like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”
“That’s surprisingly easy to explain,” said the Doctor. “We’re from, ah, a very mysterious island–“
“We’re from the future,” said Chris.
“Chris!" said the Doctor.
Chris shrugged. “I like being honest.”
“The future?” said Herminius. “Well, that would explain a few things. The odd materials you wear, and how you’re white as a stone–“
“Oh, that’s not because of that,” said Lorna. “We’re just from Britain.”
Herminius looked at her in shock.
“Britain?” he said. “But that can’t be!”
“You believe that we’re from the future!” said Lorna. “Surely that’s stranger than us being from a rainy old island somewhere?”
“I know the future exists,” said Herminius. “I was never so sure your island did.”
“You’ll know all about Roman Britain,” said the Doctor to Chris and Lorna. “Straight roads and hot baths in the cold. But it’s too early for all that now. At the minute, it’s a strange island full of dark mists and pale barbarians; an awful tale to scare small children with. There’s some who wonder if it even exists at all.”
“If it does,” said Herminius, who still seemed unconvinced, “then it’s an unconquered wasteland. If in the future it has women with rubies such as yours? Then perhaps I can ignore my darkest fears.”
“You’re a thinking man,” said the Doctor.
“A citizen is what he makes himself. However high he rises.”
“Of course,” said the Doctor. “But even the greatest philosophers might be surprised to meet three travelers from the future.”
“Ah,” said Herminius with a grin, “But then I’m a practical man. And I’ve been persuaded by the evidence of my eyes. There’s more to the world than just the men and the gods.”
“Good for you,” said the Doctor, who was not returning Herminius’s smile. “Perhaps we can, you know. Put a few more eyes on whatever’s made you think that way?”
“Your lodgings await,” said Herminius knowingly, taking one of the rubies from the Doctor’s hand. They followed him into the smallish apartment, and saw at once what had changed how he saw the world.
This bit of Ancient Rome wasn’t much like it was in cartoons. But even so, Chris was sure the thing on Herminius’s table was not something a historian would think should be there. It was an enormous crystal that swelled up like a tumour, rocky tendrils snaking out in an organic way. It filled up the whole table to the point it could hardly take the weight, and above it flew wispy, crystal creatures a bit like Chinese dragons.
“It’s in pain,” said the Doctor softly. “It’s roaring out in pain.”
“And with us looking forward to relaxing,” said Lorna sadly.
“A busman’s holiday, then,” muttered the Doctor. “This is worse than my trip to Ibiza.”