Face claimFreida Pinto
Clio made to swallow and found out her throat was as parched as the swaths of land the Nile did not reach, according to her meagre knowledge of Ægyptus. Up until today, the image she had of her dominus was of a serious man, continuously (pre)occupied by business matters, but after this meeting, that image would be tinged with a shade of fear. She got the feeling that even freeborns would not enjoy finding themselves on the bad side of Titus Justinius Canicus Phiscerus... As her master exhaled, Clio's own breathing caught in her chest, and she tightened her fists until her knuckles shone pale against her brown skin. Was a storm coming? Had she said the wrong thing?
The moment of doubt was over as quickly as it came, and Clio allowed herself to let out a shaky breath. No more talk of gladiators, unless the master brought it up first. Domina was an intelligent woman with a keen eye for quality wares, but when said wares were fighting men, it would be unwise to arouse her husband's suspicion, and if Clio were the one to do it by mistake... well, it would be a very costly mistake for everyone involved.
She quivered as the master spoke to her, but somehow managed to relax her hands; her fingernails had left crescent-shaped marks on her palms, and they were starting to smart a little. "Yes, Domine, I shall!" she nodded vigorously. "Is there anything that should be brought to Domina's attention before the next event?"
What Clio really wanted to ask, but would never dare to, was how much longer this interrogation would go on for. She hoped she had a little more tact than that, and so she would stand up as straight as her unease would let her until the master dismissed her.
Clio winced instinctively when the towel hit the old man, who grumbled at the interruption but wiped his arms on his stained tunic before resuming his meal. The owner clearly had no qualms about setting his clientele straight, and she found his no-nonsense manner refreshing. To his his straightforward question about her funds, Clio replied by patting the coin pouch she was trusted with and letting the sound of metal clinking on metal speak for itself. "I've got a bit."
She took the piece the shopkeeper offered her and put it in her mouth. It tasted great, and the longer she chewed the more complex the flavours became. The salty ham was the perfect counterpart to the richness of the cheese. Her masters would like it, possibly paired with some wine. Cheese always went well with wine. "It's delicious!" she beamed. No wonder the thermopolium was almost always full, if all the food was like this. "I think I'll take..." Clio trailed off, looking at the ceiling for a split second as she did some reckoning, "four of these." One for domina, one for dominus, one for young Canica, and maybe one to be split among Clio herself and dominus' body slave, if the masters were feeling kindly towards them.
But just one filling wouldn't be enough; there had to be more variety. "And I'll have four with pork, too." Best to take fewer pieces of different flavours. "You mentioned ones with spices. What sorts?" There were probably more types of fillings than she could afford at the moment, so she would have to select the ones more likely to be approved of. Two or three more should be enough, taking both palate and budget into account. Hopefully the man wouldn't try to rip her off - but if she tried, she had a secret weapon ready to be used!
The last man who had complimented Clio on her name had deceived her and sold her off, so she was naturally not quite as elated by the comment as one would think. "Thank you. She is the muse of history. I don't know who chose it, probably my first master..." She trailed off, allowing herself a moment's silence to wonder what of the mousy man. He would be in his fifties now, if he lived still. And his daughter, who she had played so often with, was likely married with children of her own. Before her thoughts turned to her parents and siblings, Clio snapped back to the present - no use wondering what had become of them; she knew they would not meet again in this life.
No segregated baths for the slaves? How very generous. "Such progressive overseers you have," she chuckled mirthlessly, letting herself be drawn along. "What do the old codgers say to the likes of you or me bathing alongside them?" In the households Clio had been a part of, the slaves would take care of their personal hygiene at times when it didn't inconvenience the masters, but the thermae were clearly their own little world, in more ways than one.
And in this little world, a headstrong slave was putting Clio's resolve to the test. She blushed and averted her eyes from his, unsettled by Helenus' intense gaze. "I, um..." She tensed up, not realising the instinctive action had accidentally tightened the grip of her hand on his. "I d-don't really think I should..." Somehow her voice had naturally dropped a tone to match his, but she was now sounding more unsure than ever. With a modicum of courage, Clio looked up again, feeling the heat on her cheeks as they made eye contact once more. "My domina would have me killed if she found out." It wasn't an understatement; for this kind of transgression, Annia Comna's trust in Clio would be so irreparably broken that mere flogging would not sate her desire for punishment.
Finally aware of how tightly she was gripping Helenus' hand, Clio released it in a sudden gesture, as if it burned her. "I'm sure you value your life, within the bounds of our kind. I value mine too, and especially as it is now." Her voice was still quiet, but sterner; a little of her resolve had returned, now that it was no longer being drained away by the warmth of his hand. "In a place like this, I'm sure every brick and stone has eyes and ears, and many who would snitch and gossip simply to sow strife, I think." She bit her lower lip, still holding his dark gaze.
"Am I wrong?"
Can you prove me wrong?
She was not the target of the shop owner's irritation, and still Clio couldn't help but flinch at the mention of the mines. They were a slave's worst nightmare, their mention more fear-inducing than Medusa's face. Many owners would insult their slaves; a few, like this one, would threaten them with promises of a terrible fate, but only a very small part of them actually made good on it, the gods be thanked. Perhaps this vendor was like the fire-spitting mountains to the south that Clio had heard of: troublesome , unpredictable and sometimes inclined to blow everything around them up, but also capable of great periods of rest between explosions. Looking at the scene around her, there was no doubt the man and his household would be stretched thin at times.
Still, the man wore a kinder expression when he turned to her and requested she speak up. Of course the cacophony of voices and sounds would leave anyone a little hard of hearing if they had to deal with it day in and day out. That, and short on patience, probably, so she'd better hurry up and pick something from their selection. "I was sent by my masters to purchase your specialties," Clio started tentatively, smiling back at the vendor. "It seems like meat and cheese are popular with your patrons." She leaned forward a little, raising her voice - hopefully without sounding too shrill - as she looked at the plates of her bench neighbours. The meat looked juicy and tender, and an elderly man was going at it with such gusto that he even licked the juices dripping down his forearms. "I take it you have several kinds of each?"
The smell of fried onions and cooking meat beckoned to Clio irresistibly. She had walked past the thermopolium a number of times over the past few weeks and nearly succumbed to its delicious aromas, but it was only now that she had the agency (and bravery) to actually become a customer. She was a faithful slave on a secret mission: to sample the wares of the Wolf-man. If they passed the taste test, she was to bring some back - discreetly - for her domina to try. If they didn't, she got a free meal out of it anyway.
From inside the shop the owner's voice boomed, and Clio trembled in anticipation. The shopkeeper's reputation preceded him, and it was not the first time Clio heard him ranting or complaining at one of his helpers, probably a slave who knew better than to argue back or really do anything but nod. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and approached the stall. It's for Domina, she told herself in a bid for courage. Clio had not dared to bring up the subject, but could this particular craving of her mistress's be caused by new life in her womb? Pregnant women were known for wanting all sorts of extraordinary foodstuffs, after all. On the other hand, it might just be due to wanting to try some tasty commoner food. Clio would reserve judgment until a later date, when things became clearer, before reporting this to her master.
"Hello," she greeted timidly, elbowing her way between two patrons, each busy with gorging himself on bread and meat. The smell was enough to make anyone's mouth water.
It had come as a surprise to Clio herself, but she was indeed curious about how the slaves that took care of this place lived. It must be a very different life from hers, and yet very similar too: having to tend to the master's every whim and will, not being able to go out freely, not knowing if they would be treated with dignity or disdain that day (though that last part did not really apply to Clio's current household, fortunately)... And she, at least, was fortunate enough to live in a place with proper ventilation. There was no way all that tepid water could be healthy long-term; quite the opposite, probably.
It seemed they were approaching the private areas of the thermae, which patrons did not have access to. The corridor had got narrower and darker, and the beautiful frescoes had dwindled to nothing; it was clear the architects and builders had seen no impress those who would walk down these hallways. The idea of being led around by another slave lost much of its appeal suddenly, and Clio failed to suppress a shiver. Outwardly she could blame it on the colder air, but she knew that was not the reason. Her throat got progressively drier and she had to swallow a few times before managing to answer the male slave. "I'm called Clio. At least here in Rome, I am. Back home, it was more like Kleio." The difference in pronunciation had never bothered her, and a slave had whatever name their master chose to bestow upon them, anyway.
She wrinkled her nose at the stench in the air. It felt clammy and smelled of old sweat mixed with mould and unwashed clothes. Her domina would kill her if she turned up smelling like that, so Clio made a mental note to stand by one of the incense burners and allow herself to be fumigated once they were back at surface level. "Um, maybe later. Do you have kitchens down here? Or your own baths, maybe?" It did not seem wise or to let herself be shown the sleeping quarters just yet - or actually, ever. This was turning out to have been a really bad idea. Why had she let her pride blind her so easily? She should have just stayed put and waited somewhere for domina to be done with her bathing routine. Foolish, foolish Clio. She prayed silently to every deity she could remember not to let her come to harm, promising them daily offerings for a month if they protected her. Being in this deep, it was all she could do.
It was getting progressively harder not to let her impatience shine through, but Clio knew how important perseverance was in the end. She had to act the part and keep a cold head, for irritation would only bring about inattention. Still, she couldn't help but feel annoyed at the other slave's duality: he seemed to have moments of self-agency, and then a second later it was back to 'my masters' this and 'the rules' that. What a stick in the mud.
Now she had no choice but to agree to his proposition - it was very similar to the one she'd put forth herself, after all. And after putting on charming airs, it would be mostly counterproductive to suddenly change her mind. "That sounds fair," Clio admitted. But it didn't completely do away with her reservations, for another slave could still enter the chamber during their absence and spirit away some of Annia Comna's belongings. What to do? If something was amiss when they returned to the chamber, how could she lodge a complaint? Clio only hoped it wouldn't have to come down to that.
She gazed at the hand the baths slave offered her. It looked strong, but not calloused like those of the farm slaves of her childhood, and it was bigger and rougher than her own. With a hardening of her jaw, Clio took his hand. His olive skin felt warm to the touch. "I'd like to know more about your life here." That much was true; she was curious about the duties of capsarii and how they juggled serving their many masters. Hopefully he wouldn't take her anywhere too scary...
"What was your name again?"
Just as she had expected, the other slave didn't seem all inclined to let Clio stay and keep watch. There were a great many shelves in the chamber, a few waiting for a new user but most of them full of the patrons' belongings. It was as natural for her to be suspicious of him as he of her, but how should they solve this conundrum? She smiled back at him in so sweet a manner that it made her teeth hurt.
"I understand. You want to make sure I don't steal anything... and I want to make sure you don't steal anything." There. No more misgivings or playing cat and mouse. "Since we have the same goal, why not make an exception this time?" Clio lowered her voice to a near whisper, almost conspiratorial. She tucked a lock of smooth brown hair behind her ear and looked at him with feigned interest. Her domina would have her go without food for this poor attempt at flirting; it was no way for Clio to behave, as the body slave of a respectable matron. Yet, if coy smiles and the batting of eyelashes didn't have an effect on the capsarius, perhaps he could be swayed by their now common understanding - partners in crime, almost, in defying the rules of the thermae in order to best carry out their tasks.
"If one of your group comes, we leave. In the meantime, I can look at you... and you can look at me... and maybe tell me more about your job here?" She raised an eyebrow in a silent invitation. "In what ways is it not comfortable?"
By the gods, how nerve-wracking this was! Try as much as she liked, Clio's expression was sure to be transparent for someone as used to dealing with shady characters as her master; no doubt he could read her as easily as one of the pieces of parchment placed in front of him. It seemed her passionate defence of her domina had been successful, though.
Clio stood attentively, listening to her new orders. They did not seem to conflict with those her domina would give her, and so she would not have any difficulty following them. It did not, however, mean that she would not have to be careful. There may be times to come when what the dominus wants to hear and what truly is happening are not the same, and Clio would have to juggle that fine balance in the information she would give. She had a closer relationship to her mistress and thus felt more loyal to her, but it was the master who held the actual power over his household, wife and child included. To even try to deceive him would be utter foolishness. "Yes, domine, I understand. I shall keep you informed."
Well. Now this was the truly hard part. Clio chewed on the inside of her cheek thoughtfully, considering what to say. She did not want to cause a rift between husband and wife, but neither did she want to arouse the master's suspicions. "I am not always privy to all that happens, Domine," she started timidly, "but she has been observing a number of gladiators training in the arena lately. She often comments on their talents and flaws, and fighting styles. It is my impression she may be considering which ones have a better chance of being successful in actual matches, although I am but an ignorant slave on this matter, Domine." She attempted a small smile. What Clio did not dare tell her master is that the domina also often commented on their physical prowess and appearance, and had on more than one occasion asked for Clio's opinion on how a particular fighter would perform in bed.
"Domina has also been trying to cultivate acquaintances among the higher class, Domine. Results have been... mixed." The more conservative crowd had no interest for the parties Annia Comna organised, whereas those of a more Epicurean nature seemed to look forward to the next such event. Regardless, both parties talked about the mistress and her parties, whether to disdain or praise them. Clio had once heard that there was no such a thing as bad publicity in the business world, and her mistress seemed to be aiming for exactly that - putting her name, and by extension that of the Ludus Dacicus, in the mouths of Romans everywhere.
What a stubborn man this slave was. All right, he could not do anything about baskets or the lack thereof: how many more times was he going to state it? Was he proud of his own powerlessness? Or was he one of the 'woe-is-me'-types, out for commiseration from any unaware person who would provide it? Clio rolled her eyes and made what she thought was the wise decision of not saying anything else on that subject.
Perhaps he was just generally chatty, Clio considered as they walked past occupied niches and finally into the room where the bathers' belongings were kept. "I've heard being an imperial slave can be quite comfortable," she mused, chewing absentmindedly on her lower lip. Not having a single master made them less susceptible to flights of temper that could end in punishment, in Clio's opinion, but at the same time, it might be more difficult for them to gain their freedom if they did not possess good enough qualifications; after all, how could they impress several masters equally?
"Indeed, it's all one can do." She understood his reasons well, and it was possibly the most likely motive for a slave to behave well... But Clio felt there was also a certain pride to be had in doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. To serve well not only because they feared the whip or the mines, but also to make life easier or more agreeable to their master and find fulfillment in that knowledge. But, she supposed, serving many could mean a shallow relationship to one another; the thermae slave's master were probably not as dependent on his help as Clio's domina was on hers, since there were certainly several other capsarii who could perform the same tasks.
Clio looked at the vacant shelf the man pointed out. It was just a bit too high on the wall for her liking, but nothing could be done about that. She gently placed Annia Comna's belongings on it, taking great care to avoid ruffling them. The leather pouch hadn't moved from its hiding place, but a muted clanging sounded as Clio shifted her arms. Damn it. The last thing she wanted was to attract attention to it! That just made Clio all the more determined to guard her domina's possessions.
"Are there any rules against me staying here? I would like to keep an eye on my mistress's belongings." There didn't seem to be any other personal slaves around, from what she could tell... Did that mean only the thermae slaves were allowed here? Or were the other patrons simply carefree about the possible illegal subtraction of their things?