Face claimFreida Pinto
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?
Ugh. Had the other slave ever heard of venting one's frustrations? Clio didn't expect him to have any decision-making powers, or even suggestion powers for that matter. And given that her own condition was one of servitude as well, it was inconceivable for her to go to his masters and make a proposition. As for her domina, what was or was not included in the admission price was the furthest thing from her mind, and Clio would not be the one to bring it to its forefront. "I'm well aware of that," she replied with irritation. "Do you think I would able to do that? Go and talk to them?!" She shook her head half in disbelief, half in resignation.
She trailed after him, turning her head slightly to the left, then to the right, then to the left again so as to take in her surroundings. The building was indeed impressive: solid and spacious, and yet fancifully decorated. A pity about the damp air, but all in all, it seemed to be a very decent place to be working in as a slave... if one ignored the more personal services that could be purchased by the patrons.
Clio's face lit up at the change in subject, and she hugged the bundle of clothes closer to her chest as if to bring her closer to Annia Comna. "Yes, she truly is a formidable person. Just, intelligent and kind. Far kinder to me than I deserve," she smiled fondly. "Domina has never treated me badly nor let anyone else do so. I am very blessed to call her my mistress." Fortuna had indeed smiled upon Clio when she was bought into the Canici-Phisceri, and she would forever be grateful for it.
It was only after singing her domina's praises that Clio came to realise that maybe the other slave had never had a proper master of his own; there was a certain melancholy in the way he had spoken. All of a sudden, she pitied him. "Have you always worked here? Were you born into servitude?"
No baskets or boxes, really? For such a grand bath complex, it seemed to be lacking in some basics. "Given what you charge for admission, your masters should be able to commission a few wickers to make baskets," Clio muttered under her breath. Perhaps the moist environment did lead to premature rot, but it wasn't like wood and reed were prohibitively expensive, not to mention that acquisition costs could easily be recouped by renting out the containers to bathers.
Her gaze hardened. "No, it is my first time in this complex," she replied tersely. Her domina had not seen fit to bring her along until that morning, and right then and there that became a new thorn on Clio's side - brought about by some cheeky thermae slave, on top of it. If she were to visit this place with Annia Comna again, Clio could only hope they would be attended to by a humble slave instead of this know-it-all again.
She had no choice. "Very well." Clio turned her back on the young man and began carefully bundling up her domina's belongings in her arms, careful to shield them from his view with her body. What to do with the little leather pouch? And the rings? Clio couldn't very well wear them herself, it would be most improper. Into the pouch they went, supported gently by Clio's dark fingers so they wouldn't clink -an attractive sound for a thief - when they touched the coins. But where to hide the purse? If she let it hang from her wrist and relied on domina's clothes to hide it, the string could and would be cut in the blink of an eye, or someone could just tug it out of her grasp. Clio allowed herself a few seconds of brain racking and then came to the only logical conclusion.
A look over her shoulder confirmed that the other slave didn't seem to have a good visual on her machinations. Still, for good measure, she shifted a little to the right, hoping to obstruct his view further. With quick and furtive gestures Clio settled the leather purse against her breast, between the strophium and her skin, and adjusted it so the contents wouldn't jingle as she moved. Short of putting the pouch in a body cavity, this was the best hiding place she could think of, as long as undressing was not required.
Satisfied with her plan, Clio faced the bath slave again, her arms cradling the fine fabrics as if a newborn baby. "I'm ready. Lead the way." The young man had better not try and lure her to a dark deserted corner of the thermae... if worst came to worst, she would bite and scratch and scream, and her masters could sue the baths for incurred damages. She still had her suspicions, but had grown slightly emboldened by the realisation of how bad it would look for someone to attack her.
Clio furrowed her brow as the bath slave gave her a once-over. If he was going to appraise her like that, he should at least learn to be discreet about it! Although, now that she thought about it, he likely hadn't had a master to teach him how to spy on others or study them with sufficient class and poise. He probably attended to all sorts of patrons, too, not just the wealthy and well-mannered - and of course any greasy Gaius from the subura would ignore the slave's gaze, or even mistake it for an invitation to acquire a more personal service. So, if Clio were inclined to be benevolent, it wasn't really the poor sod's fault. Except she was not, because these capsarii were smooth-talking and nimble-fingered, and therefore she had to be on the lookout.
"Quite sure. My domina was very clear in her orders." Like a lioness protects her cubs, so would Clio guard the diaphanous bundle. Her lips thinned at the other slave's mention of a shelf. Did he believe in the 'out of site, out of mind' adagio? He did have a point, though. The fabrics of her lady's garments were delicate, and the gods knew who or what had been in touch with the bench they were placed on. She cast a quick glance at the clothes, satisfied that the small leather purse with Annia's rings and coin was well hidden by the fabric, and went back to stare at the young man.
An annoyed sigh escaped her lips. "Indeed. Do you have a basket, or perhaps a small box?" His friendliness had to be a façade, a thief's trick to allay Clio's suspicions. Did he think her a fool? That he merely had to beckon and she would follow him like a puppy? He was sorely mistaken. She pursed her lips. "I shall follow you after I've put them in a proper container." There was no way she was just going to gather the bundle in her arms and happily trail after him through the enormous building, she hadn't been that naïve in years.
"It is of no consequence to me. I can bathe more privately at home," Clio replied with a hint of self-satisfaction. While it was true that the complete thermae experience was quite enjoyable, she found it enough to peruse the domestic balneum. There were always many watchful eyes at the public baths, not to mention the questionable contents of the bath water. The massages were, indeed, very good, from what Clio had heard - she had yet to part with some of her meagre savings and experience for herself the deftness of the slaves' hands.
She smiled again. "... A basket?" If he was trying to distract her by convincing her to become a patron too, it wasn't working.
There seemed to be no signs of anger or displeasure in her master's brow. Clio allowed her tense shoulders to relax just a fraction of an inch. Their conversation, if it could be called one, was off to a good start in her opinion, biased as it was. No harsh words, no shouting, no punishment or promises of it - yes, it had started off well. To be fair, Clio had nothing to complain of in her current household: she was treated with respect, food was always abundant, the masters were fair to her and, thanks to the domina's influence, nobody had tried to put their hands on her for the last two years. Clio hoped it would stay that way in the future, too.
It had apparently been a good idea to bring up the domina's efforts, but it was a bit jarring to hear her master ask about such feminine matters. it felt inappropriate, shameful even, to discuss the minutiae of a woman's troubles with a man. But Titus Canicus Phiscerus was not any man; he was the master of the household and all his slaves owed him complete obedience and loyalty. Clio cleared her throat awkwardly, unsure of how to start.
"Y-yes, domine, they remain. They shall for several more years, may the Bona Dea have it so." It was certainly the case that a woman was at her most fertile in young adulthood, but many gave birth to strong children when they were already in their forties and proud grandmothers. The Vestals the Romans held in such high esteem, for instance, could still bear children after fulfilling their service to the goddess, and several had done so. Annia Comnia had already given birth to a healthy and well-formed baby years ago; reason followed that she could do it once more, if the gods so wished it. From what little Clio knew, the birth of not-so-little-anymore Canica had not been particularly traumatic, so all the equipment should still be in working condition.
Clio felt a strong impulse to defend her mistress. "Please, domine, do not judge domina too harshly. She tries very hard not to show it, but the matter distresses her greatly. Every wives' tale there is, she has tried it." She wrung her hands, a tinge of desperation seeping into her voice. "Domina wishes for nothing more than to honour this house with a healthy son." There might eventually be the need to employ more drastic measures, but Clio dare not even think of those. "She prays every night for a son to inherit the ludus and bring renown to this family."