Given the way the man had been acting so far and the bomb he had just dropped, it was a little odd that he should be turning bashful all of a sudden, confirming his claim with a simple declaration and then hiding behind his cup. At least he had been kind enough to refill hers too. Clio took a few sips to aid in regaining her bearings, having to force herself to drink slowly. Who would have thought this womaniser to have such an interesting story to tell?
"Lexus..." Clio squinted, searching the depths of her brain for anything she might have heard about the man. She did not fancy herself the ultimate encyclopedia of gladiators past and present, but many former stars of the arena still lived on in the memories of the public or even erstwhile ludus mates. However, she could not recall having heard anything about this man - perhaps it had been too long ago. His next words confirmed that hypothesis.
"Uh-huh, it sure does," Clio agreed, taking another drink from her cup. The wine had moderated her enthusiasm, but her eyes were still glinting with interest. "Fourteen years ago I was still a little girl in a Bithynian farm who had never heard of gladiators," she chuckled, offering an explanation as way of apology as to why his name had not rung a bell. "A shame I never got to see you fight, Alexius." She wondered what his style had been and what ludus he had originally been affiliated with.
Her curiosity got the best of her. "Please, tell me more." The way she asked was not unlike a child begging for another story. "How old are you now? Was your ludus here in Rome? Are you still a lanista?" He'd mentioned that too, but she hadn't been able to tell if it was all in the past now. Most gladiators loved talking about themselves and their achievements in the arena, and from how this chance meeting had been going, Clio doubted Alexius was any different. Funny how she had pegged him for nothing but an overly friendly seducer at first - which he in all likelihood still was - but was eager to learn more about him and his past career now. Freed gladiators, while far from the stuff of legend, were not a dime a dozen; most fighters died attempting to reach that status.
If Septima thought any less of Clio for telling on her mistress the way a capricious child might, she was gracious enough not to let it show. Clio didn't really consider it 'telling on', though - she was simply explaining to a helpful person just why her domina could not assist in this conundrum.
She listened attentively as Septima spoke, taking the young woman's word for it. She was so cultured despite her age, and did not seem to be the malicious type who would mislead Clio just for the fun of landing her into trouble. "That one sounds good, domina. Being the lover of a nymph or god should not be offensive, I think." Especially if the nymph turned out to be a wise tutor, as seemed to be the case. So long as there weren't any luscious description of torrid love-making jammed in between the teaching of laws.
Her mind made up, Clio smiled at Septima and nodded decisively. "Then I shall buy these 'Parallel Lives' of Lycurgos and Numa Pompilius at your recommendation." She looked down at the scrolls in her hands: what was the right one? Did both lives fit in one scroll or were they sold as a pair? She was afraid of unrolling them and accidentally damaging them - 'you break it, you buy it' wasn't exactly a chance those of limited means like herself were keen on taking. Her determination deflating like a punctured pig bladder, Clio smiled again at the other woman, this time very sheepishly. "Um... Which scroll is that, domina?"
Clio the slave nodded as Septima confirmed her inquiries. The lives of kings of Rome should in theory be a respectable topic to read about, but some people had led very colourful lives. The last thing she wanted was for her masters to reproach her for her readings, or having other slaves be telltales and snitch on her. Lowering her eyes in embarrassment, she attempted to explain the reason for her reservations.
"To be entirely honest, domina, neither do I. She is not the type to read much," the slave admitted, shuffling her feet. It was not something she felt comfortable sharing as it could reflect badly on both her and her mistress, but at the same time, Septima had been so helpful and kind that Clio felt she deserved to know why it would have made no sense to ask her domina for book recommendations. The only thing Clio could recall ever having seen her read were letters.
"Nevertheless, if she should grow curious about these stories, it would not be wise to have them mention fugitive or rebellious slaves in a good light... Or, for that matter, star-crossed lovers and secret affairs. She might think it is these things that drew my attention, or that somebody of weak morals gave me the books to convert me to their way of thinking..." Although she could not say it in so many words, what Clio feared was the scrolls making her owners think she was considering running away or that she was having a secret relationship.
Clio had a faint, vague idea of where Rhodes was, but not the foggiest clue as to who its son Apollonius was. If he was a writer, then it was only natural it escaped her; there were many things her masters favoured, but literature just did not seem to be one of them. But if there were too many characters in the story he wrote, it should follow that the script would be extensive - and probably expensive. Perhaps it would be better to go with Parallel Lives, at least in the beginning, until she had got a better grasp on the letters and words and hiding places available to her in which to hide the scrolls.
She watched as Septima expertly pulled out some pieces and confirmed she was a frequent visitor to the small shop. It must be pleasant to have enough time and money to buy new books often, Clio wondered without envy; she knew so, so little of Septima's life that she could not be jealous. "Thank you, domina," Clio blurted out, pulled from her thoughts as the other woman presented a few scrolls to her. They were short and flimsy enough that they should be within range of her reading skills and money purse. "Romulus, that was the founder of Rome, wasn't it?" The other Roman name sounded less familiar, but she'd heard people mutter and sometimes even shout swears related to a Numa's balls, so maybe they were one and the same. Whether that was a good or bad thing, Clio couldn't say.
Taking one scroll in each hand, Clio took their weight and examined them carefully, afraid to damage them. They would not be difficult to hide among her sparse belongings, but first, she had to make sure their contents were safe if they should ever be discovered. "Domina, is the text in these, um..." She struggled to find the right words - the elegant and polite words - for her question. "... is it, um, proper? Would my mistress be angry if she found these and read them?" If they were chock-full of descriptions of naked people and lecherous acts, Annia Comna would have her skinned. But Septima was still young and she looked innocent enough, so Clio doubted these would be spicy tellings.
Her joke seemed to have been well-received from the way the friendly giant was grinning. He certainly didn't admonish her for thinking too highly of herself; what with the flirty compliments he had been spewing, all things pointed to him agreeing with her. Well, now that Clio pondered it, he seemed to be agreeing with her on almost all counts - yet another mark of the professional flirter.
Clio had to suppress a chuckle at the man's mention of 'feminine skills' the gladiatrices could use. What would they do, bare their breasts in hopes of stunning a male opponent? Moan sultrily and blow kisses? There was no doubt that sort of match would still draw an audience, but then again, a brothel would provide similar entertainment. For a brief second, she wondered what Thessala of the Magnus would say if she could hear the man at that very moment. Possibly run him through with a sword in a very feminine display of skill.
She sat up a little straighter and slowly pushed her cup towards the man in a silent request for a refill as she paid more attention to his words. So he did go to the other ludi... And when his sudden admission came, Clio was glad that she had no cup in her hand nor drink in her mouth, because she would have made a spectacular mess of it all. She had not seen it coming. "You were a gladiator?!" Her voice strained with incredulity and surprise, but somehow Clio managed to keep it low enough that the other patrons would not hear.
Yet it made perfect sense. He definitely had the physique for it, even now. And he must have been successful and well-liked, since the ludi allowed him to come and go. And then he even went on to make it as lanista! Mouth agape, Clio looked at her companion with newfound respect. "Wow... That is very impressive. You must have been very good." He had to have, since he was still in one piece, not missing limbs or eyes, and sported no disfiguring scars. "What were you called? And when did you retire? Did you gain your freedom?" Clio rattled off breathlessly, looking at the man with big astonished eyes.
The gods had a truly particular sense of humour! That two women, at least one of them coming from the other end of the empire, should share a name and end up meeting before a little bookshop of all places. They also shared an interest in stories and a complexion darker than that of the Italian natives, but Clio the slave doubted their similarities extended beyond these few coincidences. Not wanting to make her cynicism obvious, she too laughed softly. "A surprise indeed." Was Septima called it because of her bookish inclinations? She had to test the waters. "It is an apt name for you, domina, with your knowledge of such stories. For me, not so much," she chuckled mirthlessly, "but nobody ever bothered to change it."
Clio waited in silent excitement for Septima's recommendations, and perked up her ears when they came. Paired biographies seemed like a good topic - if she did not see the relevance to the first man, perhaps the second would make it clearer. Like killing two birds with one stone. She mimicked Septima's look towards the shelves, already convinced. "Do you think these 'Parallel Lives' can be bought a pair at a time?" Clio hoped so. "I heard the tale of the Argonauts many times in my childhood, but somehow it was always a bit different every time. It would be nice to have a definitive version, I think." If it wasn't too pricey for her purse.
Equal parts eager and apprehensive, Clio approached the shelves, looking at them in respectful awe for a heartbeat. So much wisdom and knowledge crammed into some simple-looking pages and scrolls, accessible to those with the twin tools of coin and literacy - and a good measure of free time, too. Clio glanced back at Septima in a silent plea for guidance before the bookseller came and shooed her off. How to figure out where were the stories she wanted to buy? "Domina, how do you know where to find what you seek?"
Once she had blurted out her thoughts, Clio felt surprisingly much more at ease. When no ridicule or snooty laughter came in response, she allowed herself to relax her posture a little and droop her shoulders. Maybe it wasn't as strange for a slave to seek out books as she thought.
The younger woman seemed very familiar with the shop's selection as she came closer to Clio, and her words soon brought to light the why. Since she was a frequent customer, she must be educated and from a family of some means, with enough time and money to spare in scholarly pursuits. Calmer but still self-conscious, Clio smiled timidly back and gave a deferential nod; however friendly their interaction with Septima Minor was so far, she was still but a slave. "It's very nice to make your acquaintance, domina. I am called Clio."
She turned her focus back to the information Septima had provided. "I think something short would be adequate for me, if it's too long or has many difficult words it may become frustrating to read. Poetry... I don't think I can appreciate it well," she confessed diplomatically. Poetry was lofty and elaborate, although there were stark exceptions like that Landicus the gladiators liked to quote so often - Clio preferred something more down-to-earth, less stylistic. "I think I would like to know more about gods and heroes and their stories, like the Trojan war... Or about important people of old, like Hannibal and his elephants. But do you think there are there short texts about these subjects?" she asked Septima with an edge of uncertainty in her voice. The young woman probably thought Clio was in over her head, trying to learn too much about things that didn't concern her in the least... but she had been kind and helpful so far.
A master in the art of flirting, this friendly giant. Yet he was refilling her cup and hadn't made any outrageous comments yet, so Clio was willing to play along a while longer. She took a gulp of fresh wine and chuckled at his poor explanation and devilish wink. "Why, thank you! Let us hope we never cross paths while you're working, lest you become distracted and I take the blame for it." Maybe with a bit of teasing banter the man would tell her what he did for a living, and she could adjust her words accordingly.
"She is indeed." Too clever, in truth. "Sweaty bodies training in the sun, rippling muscles, breezy clothes or none at all... Both sides could get ideas," Clio suggested in a tone that was anything but innocent as she hid an amused grin behind her cup and another swig. If anyone were to ask her, the green-eyed man was the sort to have aaaaall the ideas, and possibly act on them. He seemed to be the easy-to-read type.
He made a good point. Ares facing off against Thessala would have been a match fit for the emperor! Both were graceful yet deadly, and beloved by the crowds for their entertaining antics. Perhaps in a future collaboration with the Ludus Magnus, Clio could make the suggestion to her master - but best to run it by domina first to see if it could be well-received. "I have. She's very feisty, and very skilled too. The Magnus is very lucky to have somebody of her calibre." The aforementioned ludus had certainly played a part in honing the gladiatrix's skills, but Clio would obviously neglect to mention it.
She shook her head in disagreement with the man's opinion. "That would never be a remotely fair fight, men are much stronger." A gladiatrix could train long and hard, but when it came to sheer strength, even a middling gladiator would overpower her. Speed and agility helped little when a single blow could floor her. "It'd be over very soon, and then the public would be displeased." And nobody liked that - not the booed gladiators, not the humiliated client, and certainly not the emperor. Angry poor people were hard to control.
"Do you visit the other ludi as well?" If so, who was this man that apparently had carte-blanche to come and go as he pleased, and why?
Her outburst had drawn the attention of shoppers nearby, and Clio hesitated between looking down at her feet with a mortified look or flashing an annoyed glare at those who looked her way. She could feel the heat rising in her cheeks and was just about to turn tail and head home when a friendly voice addressed her. Clio turned a little to the side and saw a pretty young woman - just on the fence between girl and woman, by her looks - smiling at her as she posed questions in a gentle tone.
It was impossible to tell if the young woman was somehow affiliated with the bookseller or if she was a more experienced patron, but her offer of help was very welcome. Clio gave a smile of her own and exhaled in relief. "I... I think I'm browsing? I mean, I sort of know what I'd like, but I don't know if that's really what I want, if that makes sense," she replied tentatively. That very inarticulate response made little sense even to her, and Clio tried to explain herself a little better.
"Umm..." she started, suddenly self-conscious. What if the younger woman had a gigantic library at home and ended up laughing in Clio's face?! But she seemed nice enough, so she couldn't be that mean. Clio willed herself onwards. "I'm not well-read, and I don't have a lot of money. And I'd prefer to read in Greek. Do you think this place has books for the likes of me?"