The missive was written on a simple, cheap wax tablet, with many of the letters showing a distinct Greek-alphabet influence. There are some misspellings and the language is kept simple.
To my freind Nymphias from Clio,
I write to you because I have news! Now I live in the litle Aventine with new domina and family. She is young and very kind, and loves books. She lets me read books to, but I cannot write Latin well yet. I must read more. Her family is big but everybody is kind to. Its very different from the old family and ludus.
I hope we can meet soon so I can tell you everything in person! Is all well with you?
"You are young and beautiful, domina. I have no doubt you will have many suitors at your door soon, so you can take your time selecting the right one," Clio smiled encouragingly. Those were not just empty words; she believed everything she was saying. "And if your sister gets there first, perhaps it will make it easier to see what you do or do not wish for yourself." Also known as learning from another's mistakes, only in prettier words.
Marriage wasn't something that wasn't in the cards for Clio, she reckoned. Not while she stayed by her domina's side, who seemed intent on keeping her well away of men regardless of their intentions. Clio didn't mind it much: she was no stranger to heartache and did not enjoy being its constant prey. She was fine with the way things were... but she hoped that when the day came, Septima found a true companion.
An interruption in the form of the shop owner loudly clearing his throat next to them made Clio jump in surprise, and only at the last second did she strengthen her hold on the scrolls lest they tumble to the floor once and for all. According to Septima the man was patient, but it seemed even his reserve had run out as the two women had stood there talking. He might also suspect Clio of trying to leave without paying, which she could hardly fault him for - any merchant worried about his wares.
It was an opportune moment for Clio to take her leave. Time went by quickly when you were having fun, and so it was difficult for her to tell how long had passed since she had come across Septima. They might not meet again, but she would not forget the young woman's patience and kindness. She would think of her every time she read the scrolls.
"Apologies, domina, but I must be going." She bowed her head apologetically, hoping Septima didn't take offence at her hasty departure. "It was very nice to meet you. I will be praying for your continued well-being." With these words, she slowly stepped away and headed towards the shop owner, all set to pay for her purchase.
Still feeling fire radiating from her strawberry-red cheeks, Clio lowered her head and accepted the scroll from Septima with several words of thanks, placing it with the utmost care among the others she was already holding and had decided to buy. Many people - most, probably - were this cautious with their jewellery or objects of similar value; to Clio, who under the law had no possessions by virtue of being a slave, these written works were akin to fine jewels; she would treat them accordingly.
As Septima spoke, Clio suddenly felt sorry for her. Even somebody as well-read and independent as her new acquaintance was still subject to society's rules and expectations. Of course Septima was expected to settle down with a husband - and although she looked younger than Clio, that day was probably not too far away. How sad it would be if Septima ended up with some lecherous old fart who would have her trapped at home spinning wool or popping out children one after the other. Even if she did not marry for love, Clio hoped that whoever picked out Septima's husband would decide on somebody open-minded enough to allow her to fulfil her dream.
"I hope you will find such a man, domina, and that you can go on happy travels together. Is it something you often think about? Marriage?" Curiosity had got the best of her once again, and a part of Clio chided herself for being so out of line that Septima would be completely justified if she slapped Clio in the face for her insolency; yet another part argued that even if it was just for a few moments, it was liberating to speak so freely. It was a sweet illusion, that of chatting as if they had not only met within the last hour and were separated by the chasm of social rank.
Septima was well and truly a fountain of knowledge. Did she know so much only from reading? She seemed to come from a well-to-do family, and thus had probably had a good education too, but the way she spoke of these places gave Clio the impression that her familiarity came from pure interest. If such an occupation were possible for free, wealthy women, she was sure Septima would make a very kind and passionate tutor.
She listed raptly to the other Clio's words as the latter spoke of the places mentioned in a new scroll, mind filling with images of how she imagined them to be. The Colossus of Rhodes rang a very distant bell, but she couldn't say when or where she had heard it mentioned before. The others were not known to her, although she naturally recognised the names of gods. Her brown eyes flicked back and forth between Septima and the scroll, full of curiosity. She would very much like to read the poems of Antipater about all these fantastic wonders... but two things were paramount: did she have enough coin? And did she have enough skill?
Her hand started to slowly reach out for the new scroll without her being aware of it, and it took a few seconds for Clio to realise in horror what she was doing and immediately draw it back. "Ap-apologies..." she stammered out, deeply embarrassed and feeling her cheeks infuse with burning heat. What was she thinking?! It would have been extremely rude to take the scroll from Septima, after all the patience and kindness she had shown Clio.
To quickly change the subject and move on from her currently redder-than-a-strawberry state, Clio posed a question. "Domina, how could your wish come true?" Women were not supposed to embark on such adventures on their own, but maybe Septima could make that happen; she gave off a feeling of quiet determination. For some reason she couldn't quite put her finger on, Clio wanted her to succeed. Maybe to make up for all the freedom she lacked. "Could you perhaps visit the temples under the guise of a pilgrimage?"
Clio found that the dreamy smile on Septima's face fit her like a well-tailored dress. Even though they had only just met, she sincerely hoped, much to her own surprise, that the other woman's wish would come true. Perhaps Septima could write about her travels then, and Clio could read them and imagine herself in those wondrous places. Septima had managed to evoke such vivid images with her words that Clio had no doubt she could apply that same skill to the written word.
"The Seven Wonders?" Clio could not recall hearing of those, but by name alone they sounded very imposing. They must be difficult to visit, too, otherwise Septima would not have set them as such a lofty goal. "Apologies, domina. I do not think I have heard of them. Would you tell me more about them?" To think Clio had come to this place looking only to buy a simple book, and now she was learning so much about the world!
Sunshine and sparkling seas, what a wonderful picture those words painted! There had been plenty of sunshine at the farm too, but Clio had never seen the sea until the first time she was sold. It had been a sight to behold then, and in her memories still was. These days, the closest thing to it she could lay eyes on was the Tiber. In that instant she was grateful for the few recollections she had of the place she viewed as her homeland: she felt lucky to be able to remember the crisp flavour of the apples just after picking and the dusty feel of the earth beneath her bare feet... even if she had trouble remembering the sound of her mother's voice or what her father had looked like.
To Septima's question, she answered with a shake of her head before elaborating. "No, domina stays in Rome. Sometimes dominus is away for a few days, but I stay here with my mistress. I do not see it changing in the near future." Thus far all of Clio's travels had been a consequence of her slave status, and while she knew free people travelled for leisure, she did not see herself doing it if she had had a choice. "Where would you like to travel to? Rhodes, where the Apollonius you spoke of is from?"
Clio had been loath to ask where Septima's ancestors were originally from - Romans came in all shapes, sizes and skin colours - but was inwardly pleased to see her curiosity sated. The other Clio's accent was that of the educated born and bred Roman, which in the slave Clio's mind were all very well-travelled and read. She blinked thus in surprise when Septima admitted to the opposite, and subconsciously loosened her grip on the scrolls, catching herself just before she let them tumble gracelessly to the ground.
"Mauretania... Isn't that beyond the interior sea?" Clio could not remember where all the provinces of the empire were, but she was positive it was not anywhere between Bithynia and Italia. "Do you remember what it was like there?" Maybe it was too bold a question, a sign of overconfidence, but Clio had always been curious. "I don't remember much of Bithynia. My whole world there was a farm and nothing else..." she trailed off, smiling in nostalgia. What had become of her relatives, she wondered?
Assuaged by Septima's affirmations, Clio made up her mind for good. She would buy these particular 'Parallel Lives' to begin with, and in time - hopefully - expand her collection. She did not dare voice the thought, but maybe, just maybe, she could continue to rely on the other Clio's goodwill in the future too, if she appeared so inclined.
"Thank you, domina. That is good to know." She hugged the scrolls to her chest, now as protective of them as a mother hen of her chicks even though she hadn't paid for them yet. As long as they were in her possession, she would treat them very carefully.
The question was not an unusual one, but it had come so much later in the conversation than what Clio was used to that she blinked in surprise before breaking out the small smile she saved for recollections of her childhood. "I was born in a farm in Bithynia. My parents were also slaves, from Syria and Numidia." A roundabout explanation for the origin of her looks, should Septima wonder. Clio cut her life's history short; it was irrelevant for someone of Septima's rank. "I learnt my letters alongside the master's daughter, but it was a long time ago. And then a few years ago I came to Rome." Put like that, it sounded very uneventful, and Clio was happy to keep it that way.
It seemed that in spite of his retirement, Aexius still enjoyed the occasional brawl. Clio couldn't say she was surprised: successful gladiators could grow addicted to the public's adoration as if it were wine, intoxicated by the crowd crying out their names in unison and the frenzy that followed a particularly skilled move in the arena. "Once a gladiator, always a gladiator," Clio commented with an amused shrug, taking a few sips of her wine. "Do you fight in any games from time to time? Or is it the... more unsanctioned variety you take part in?" The type that could arise from a night of heavy drinking, or a quarrel about a beautiful lover, or a few coins in exchange for physical protection from wrongdoers.
What Alexius spoke made a lot of sense to her, even if it had never been an important consideration in the brief period Clio lusted after freedom. The men and women in a ludus shared a special bond, forged in blood and sweat and sometimes tears. They fought together, ate together, slept together, joked together, sparred together, trained together... Many came to see their companions as equals, sometimes friends. To wake up one day and find yourself taking orders from the bloke you had been drinking yourself stupid with the day before must be quite a trial of character.
"I imagine it was even tougher on you than it was on them. Even if you know them to be good fighters, their opponents might be even better." She raised her cup in a mock toast to fallen gladiators of past and present and took another sip. Alexius had been generous in sharing his wine so far, but she wanted to stay sober for his stories.
"The gods are wise, even if we don't always understand their designs. It's good that Fortuna let you try other things so you could see where your true calling lay. Fighting and drinking." Clio laughed, fully aware that she'd pushed things a bit but feeling Aexius wasn't the kind to get offended at that sort of joke. If he let it slide, she would also let slide his flirtatious comment about his having fun with good people like her. Tit for tat. "I'm Clio. Have been Clio my whole life, now that I think of it," she mused, frowning. It was common for owners to change their slaves' names, but maybe all her owners had thought hers fit her well and so never had; the alternative was that not one of them had cared enough to change it, and that was a sadder thought.
Clio raised her eyebrows in a 'aha' fashion as Septima pointed out which scroll was which and wondered if she had enough coin for both of them. It would probably be more sensible to start off with just the one, and see if she managed to hide it well enough. And if the language was accessible enough for her. And if the author didn't take a leaf out of Landicus' writings. And if it was, well, interesting rather than sleep-inducing.
"Can they be read in any particular order?" From what Septima had said so far, it sounded like each pair of parallel lives was self-contained, but it couldn't hurt to confirm, and the other woman had been so nice all the time...
There were indeed other subjects she was interested in, but Clio didn't want to bite off more than she could chew. "In time I think I would like to learn more about other lands and their gods. I don't know mu-- actually, anything about them," she admitted, dipping her head and staring a hole into the floor. It occurred to Clio that she really had no business talking to Septima like this: she was a mere slave, barely literate, and the other Clio was a free, educated woman from a family of some standing and wealth. Slaves should know their place, and Clio was no scribe or accountant - she did not need to know more about anything that did not relate to serving her masters, and this whim of thirst for learning definitely didn't.
Downcast all of a sudden, Clio swallowed the small lump that had just formed in her throat. "Apologies, domina. I did not mean to be so forward." So impudent.