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Fiddle

Tim Pratt's stories have appeared in the Best American Short Stories, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, and other nice places, and his work has won a Hugo Award (and lost Nebula, World Fantasy, Stoker, Sturgeon, and Mythopoeic Awards). He is the author of two story collections and half a dozen novels, and works as a senior editor at Locus. He grew up in the rural south and now lives in the urban west with his wife Heather Shaw and their son. His website is www.timpratt.org.
Popular cliché has it that Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (better known as Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, or simply the Emperor Nero) played the fiddle while Rome burned. But here are some facts: Rome burned in the year 64, and fiddles (well, violins, but the distinction is only one of playing style, so let's not quibble) didn't emerge until the 16th century. Thus, you might assume Nero could not possibly have played the fiddle while singing "The Sack of Ilium" in full stage dress and watching his city disappear into beautiful flames. He could have played the lyre, certainly; in addition to violent rages, consistent sadism, and a tendency toward incest, Nero was famously a performer, more so than any other Emperor, and he knew his way around a harp.
But there are other explanations. Perhaps Nero did play a fiddle while Rome burned. The Devil is fond of fiddles, and one can only imagine that the Devil was fond of Nero, so perhaps the instrument was a gift from fiend to fiend-in-human-form. Or Nero might have been a time-traveler, someone from the future with a love for costume and a flair for drama, playing the part of the mad emperor. Maybe the man who died uttering Nero's last words--"What an artist dies in me!"--was not the emperor at all, but a rogue historian with a flair for music from some later, technologically advanced epoch like our own.
At any rate, ready your cameras, and make sure your bows are rosined. Our chronopede departs at dawn, and we'll settle onto Quirinal Hill in the year 64 with a fine view of the conflagration. If Nero is there, with a fiddle or lyre, very well; we shall join him and form a string quartet, and question him after. And if he is not there, perhaps some citizen of Rome, fleeing the fire, will see one of us playing, and start a rumor about the emperor's musical preferences, and thus the needs of history will be satisfied.
Titanic rules apply. We don't stop playing until the disaster ends.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, September 6th, 2010


The risk of writing story notes for such a short piece is that the notes can easily exceed the length of the story itself. So I'll keep it brief: I've always been fascinated by the truth of history as compared to the legend of history, and I love apocrypha, anecdotal accounts, and outrageous stories that tend to fall apart under scrutiny. (Well, sometimes. History is also full of outrageous stories that are completely true.) It's fun, sometimes, to come up with scenarios that reconcile the impossible and the actual.

- Tim Pratt

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