Clio didn't know that she believed Nymphias' judgement on Briton men: the girl was obviously biased and still seemed very attached to her uncivilised land, not to mention that her young age likely meant she hadn't come across a very wide range of men of different dispositions. It was a fact that uncouth males could be found everywhere, and the only thing needed to lure them out was a minimally good-looking man or woman, but were Britons really more polite than Romans? Clio merely nodded softly, pretending to agree so her friend wouldn't feel slighted.
She smiled at Nymphias' question about her make-up, although it too reminded her of her encounter with the Briton gladiator: he had been just as curious about the eye paint as his fellow countrywoman now was, and Clio would provide Nymphias with the same explanation she'd given the young man. "It's very popular all across the Empire, in Bithynia we called it stimmi. It protects your eyes from the strong sun and keeps the evil eye away." Hearing Nymphias declare it looked pretty on her made Clio grin from ear to ear - that was one of the reasons she painted her eyes, but not the one she most easily admitted to.
"It starts to come out with water, like if you cry. The good stuff stays on much better, but I obviously can't afford that," she explained, failing to mention that she'd sometimes take a little bit from her domina's higher quality stash. " Clio paused to think about when had been the last time she'd gone without the cosmetic, and when she couldn't remember, concluded that she did indeed wear it all the time. "Yeah, I guess I do," she stated with a one-armed shrug. She always applied it after waking up, and did not dare remove it to sleep; one was at their most unprotected from curses when asleep.
"You don't wear it in Britannia, do you? I met another person from there who was also very intrigued about my make-up." Maybe they had another way to curse people, or very weak sun. Or maybe they were simply very fond of their blue drawings.
"Oh, I'm just having some posca. Wine hasn't been agreeing with me lately." 'Lately' was in fact the last few hours and, more likely than not, it was simply because of the butterflies in her stomach, but she didn't feel like sharing that. Clio glanced around for a barkeep to make eye contact with and raised a hand to head height, signalling an incoming order. The hairy man who had served her before raised his hand back in a 'just a moment' gesture; even if they had coin, slaves weren't usually the highest-priority customers.
She took another mouthful of her sour drink as Helenus explained himself again, looking a bit flustered despite his well-groomed state. It was actually cute how he avoided looking at her, like a child being scolded, and Clio found herself smiling a little despite not being entirely sure she believed his spiel. It could indeed have been a mere miscalculation of time on his part, so she decided to take his word for it, at least until he said or did something else suspicious. It would certainly be nice if he proved to be someone she could open up to, in the end...
"You're right about that. Just because you weren't punished at the time, doesn't mean they've forgotten it," she commented in a sympathetic tone. Slaves, whether treated well or poorly, were always at the mercy of their masters' whims, and how much time had passed since an offence had taken place played no role in the strength of the punishment. Poor Helenus, he would surely be living the next few days in fear of getting what he assumed was coming to him. "Let me guess, she was one of those snobby matrons with more coin than wits and a few dozen slaves at her grand domus..." Clio was passingly familiar with the type: it was the type of woman her mistress desperately sought to befriend for the gains such a relationship might bring.
She sought out Helenus' dark eyes with her own, bowing her head but staring straight at him to encourage him to look at her again. "But does your superior know about it?" Her voice was soft and tinged with worry. Even she did not dare imagine what could happen to the capsarius, but maybe he had already formed his own ideas. "What do you think will happen now?"
It seemed like Nymphias was having a difficult time conciliating Clio's description of her homeland with whatever her experience was, from the way her brows knitted and her pale face took on a puzzled expression. Having never been to Britannia, Clio could only guess how its landscape was, but since it was far to the northwest, she imagined it to be cold and desolate, as that would explain why its inhabitants seemed be to be someone's throat all the time. In her mind, it contrasted heavily with the land of her childhood, hilly and abundantly green thanks to its fertile soil. In spring big patches of white and light pink broke up the verdant terrain where fruit trees blossomed, and every year as a young girl she had looked forward to the natural spectacle as the farm became blanketed in a million flower petals. But Rome had its own sights and shows, most even more interesting to observe. And plenty of interesting characters too, like her new friend and the man, now long forgotten, who had apparently been following the blonde.
Unable to control the gesture, Clio's eyebrows shot up in a 'Aha!' way when Nymphias confirmed her suspicions. "For someone who's been here for such a short time, you learn very quickly! I bet your mistress is pleased with you," she remarked excitedly, clapping her hands once in front of her chest. "I'm sure you'll keep improving. You're doing the right thing, learning new words and listening to people speak." Many different accents could be heard about the city and some sounded decidedly more foreign than others, but with the capital being the melting pot it was, the most important thing was to understand and be understood.
Her elation died down a bit when the Briton asked her how long she had been in Rome, but Clio answered as nonchalantly as possible. "Oh, it's been some four or five years. To a newcomer like you I may sound like a native, but actual Romans know I'm not as soon as I start speaking. There are still many words I don't know." Most of those words would pertain to specialised milieus and activities like glassblowing or tanning - excepting textiles, but she had no use or need for those in her daily life anymore -, but Clio didn't elaborate; she didn't want Nymphias to feel like her efforts weren't enough.
'Crass' seemed to have found favour with Nymphias' expanding vocabulary. The girl was almost like a child with a new toy, and as she pointed out all the 'crass' men around, poor Mersis included, Clio could only follow with her eyes and produce hearty peals of laughter. Oh, it was too funny! And the finishing touch about Greeks made Clio laugh until her eyes teared up and her belly hurt, and she couldn't remember the last time she'd laughed like that, so freely and genuinely. Nymphias was a keeper, no question. "The absolute worst," Clio agreed, wiping the corners of her eyes with the back of her hand before the tears ruined her kohl and left dark tracks down her cheeks.
"What about Briton men, how crass are they?"
When she realised that she too was being scrutinised, Clio's blush intensified. She hadn't had the chance to doll herself up too much for fear of arousing suspicion in her household, and so had simply donned a dark-red tunic and a beige palla - the sort of thing her domina would sometimes have her parade in for the contrasting colours. Hopefully Helenus wouldn't think it too shabby.
"I'm glad you came," she admitted with a small smile, finally making steady eye contact. "What would you like to drink?" If he didn't order something, it wouldn't be long before the innkeeper would start to give them the stink eye. Serving slaves was all very well as long as you made the popina money, else you were just occupying valuable floor space.
As she listened to Helenus, Clio felt relieved to know he wouldn't get into trouble on her account. When they had first met, she might have even relished the thought, but she was not so mean anymore. His tale was an interesting one, but one thing stood out as quite odd. "Wait, you have worked there for ages and you managed to get into the wrong pool?" She couldn't help the disbelief in her voice or the way her eyes opened wide; the story sounded too improbable. He should know the thermae like the back of his hand... Could it be he had sneaked into the women's quarters to steal?!
Clio didn't know what to think. She wanted Helenus' story to be true, just a simple mistake caused by lack of sleep, but there was a chance that he was just testing her. To gain time, she took another sip of her drink and decided in that instant to give the capsarius the benefit of the doubt, but remain cautious. Or rather, more cautious than she had been since he had joined her.
"What happened afterwards? Did she order you whipped?" A patron of high enough rank would not find it impossible to have a public slave punished for some perceived slight. Clio twiddled her thumbs under the table, unable to keep still. Fortunately nobody could see them. "I do. But sometimes trouble finds you whether you want to or not."
It was a small consolation to hear that her intentions had not been misinterpreted. Heaving a tiny sigh of relief, Clio removed her hand from Nymphias' arm and let it droop by her side. "Still, I'm sorry." Their meeting was but a series of ups and downs, it seemed: first the blonde's stalker, then the hair ornaments, now fights... It may yet be salvageable, unlike her conversation with the new gladiator weeks before.
Britannia. Yet another Briton. To Clio it was nothing but a far away, barbaric place. Nymphias' descriptions only cemented that impression, and even without ever setting foot on the island, Clio immediately filed it away as a substandard place. If those tribes hadn't been so busy fighting each other, maybe they'd have done a better job of defending their lands against the Romans, but if they were so belligerent that even their women fought then it was a good thing they were being civilised now. Sagely, she saw fit not to share her opinion with her new friend, who clearly disagreed.
"Oh, my country is far to the east. It's called Bithynia," Clio explained, enunciating the name of the province slowly so that Nymphias would catch it; it wouldn't be the first time a Briton would struggle to pronounce it. "Women don't fight there, they mostly stay at home and take care of their children." There hadn't been large-scale disputes within its borders for over a hundred years, not since the Romans had taken over, and even if there had been, the medium-sized farm where she had been born was hardly a threat to any army. "But the men don't fight either, they're too busy working," she laughed. Common folk were more focused on putting bread on the table every day, and even those of less limited means like her first master preferred supervising their businesses closely rather than entrust them to somebody and indulge in idleness; Greeks were suspicious by nature.
Unable to restrain her curiosity, Clio scooted closer to the blonde. "When did you arrive in Rome? I can tell by the way you speak it hasn't been long." Clio knew that her own Latin accent bore signs of her native tongue, but anyone who grew up speaking Greek would be far from being considered a 'barbarinian', even if they were a slave.
The cup in her hand had more uses than just holding drink: namely, Clio could partially hide her flaming cheeks behind it as she raised it to take a sip of posca. Even if her dark skin kept her face from looking too brightly red, the heat almost had her feeling like she was at a caldarium. "Hello," she greeted back after swallowing, noticing the liquid had done nothing to relieve the dryness in her throat.
"Of course, it's for you," she gestured at the empty chair with her free hand, hoping the other slave would not see how her fingers trembled. She took in his appearance with furtive glances, looking at him for a split second and then at the table or at the other patrons behind him. Helenus looked eve more handsome all prim and proper like that, with his hair pulled back and clean clothes, and seemed to be as slightly uncomfortable as Clio herself. He had said he had never been asked out during their previous meeting, and going by his nervousness, it had been true.
She hid her hands under the table and gave him a tentative smile. "It was nice of you to come. I was starting to feel like I'd made a fool of myself." She probably was, but only time would tell. Another stubborn lock of hair came out from behind her other ear and she quickly put it back in place, not considering it could have been useful to hide her face is she felt particularly flustered.
"Was it difficult to come here? I mean... Will you get in trouble?" Since Helenus had shown up after all, Clio reckoned he had worked something out, but when you had been a slave your whole life, fear of punishment was like a second skin.
Clio curled her lips in an almost predatory grin. Now was her time to shine! "A nymph is a young woman, or a bride if you will, who is also a nature spirit. I think it suits you well!" she affirmed, for a second so overcome with excitement at getting to teach someone something that she put a hand on Nymphias' arm.
Her previous enthusiasm cooled down considerably at hearing how the other slave found fights disturbing. She had not meant to unsettle Nymphias so, and remorse made her give a light squeeze to the girl's arm to comfort her before murmuring an apology. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to upset you. I had no idea..." Nymphias' description had sounded like a snippet of first-hand experience with just how deadly some fights could be. Was the younger woman reliving the events that had lead to her capture in her head?
In light of this, how was Clio supposed to answer the girl's question? Truthfully, she liked to watch gladiators fighting; it was one of the few entertainment forms afforded to her, and a good match brought prestige and coin to her owners and the ludus. But if she were to say that, it would come across as disrespectful, and she didn't want Nymphias to think she was indifferent to what the blonde had shared. In the end, she saw no other option but a clement fib.
"Oh, only sometimes. It depends on who's fighting. I like to see the gladiators from our ludus." The last part was true; she was naturally more interested and invested in the outcome of their matches than those of other gladiators. Seeing an opportunity to change the topic ever so slightly to a hopefully less grim subject, Clio took it like a fish would swallow a hook.
"Women fight in your country? Where is that?" Gladiatrices were one thing, as they fought to entertain, but women attacking the enemy alongside men? Clio had only heard of such ferocious creatures in passing, and almost always connected with the outer provinces like Germania. Was Nymphias from there, perhaps?
October, 74 AD.
Clio fidgeted in her seat, casting nervous looks about her surroundings. In the early afternoon, the popina was far from at its busiest, but even from the relative safety of her corner table and stool, she didn't feel very comfortable being at this place alone. In front of her was a crude ceramic cup half-full with posca; at least while unaccompanied, she preferred to stay as sober as possible.
Had the other slave received and understood her message? What if he could not - or did not want to - come, and Clio sat there all by herself for hours like a fool? It had been hard enough to negotiate these few hours of relative freedom, and it had involved lying to her domina - something the black-haired slave usually tried to avoid and for good reason. She had risked a lot to be here, and even now, alone with only her thoughts for company, Clio still wasn't quite sure why she had done it. It would have been so easy to cast everything aside as a fortuitous meeting and small talk, but no, she had to go and follow up on her parting words.
Inhaling sharply through her nose, Clio tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and grabbed her cup to take another sip. Just as her glace swept through the entrance door, a familiar figure came through it, and she very nearly spilled her drink on the table. Why was her heart beating so fast all of a sudden?!
At hearing Helenus' answer, Clio beamed despite herself. It was always exciting to have company when out and about, and maybe interacting with Helenus outside his home turf would let her get a better idea of his true motives, and at no risk of letting her domina's valuables get stolen. She now realised how erratic she had been acting, but pride would not let her acknowledge it out loud, let alone apologise for it. But entering the baths expecting to face off a thief and leaving with something like the promise of a date wasn't an everyday occurrence for the body slave, so she could be forgiven for having her emotions all over the place.
"There's a first time for everything, even for a slave," she joked, giggling like a little girl with a secret. Following Helenus' example, Clio took a step back as well, putting a more definitive distance between them. She was not free to visit the baths at her own leisure, so failing that, she could try to send a message... perhaps a drawing of their future meeting place, as she had no clue whether Helenus was literate.
"Yeah, me too... See you around." She waved him goodbye with a smile, turned around and returned to the apodyterium, relieved to see her mistress's belongings did not appear to have been touched. It wasn't long before Annia Comna appeared, energised from the bathing, and the pair left the thermae, Clio sometimes biting the inside of her lip to keep herself from grinning unintentionally.
I think we can wrap it up like this! It'd be nice to continue by having them meet somewhere else : )
Was Helenus really that clueless? No, he couldn't be. He must be playing the fool just in case someone was listening in. That had to be it, Clio told herself, because the alternative was realising that maybe the other slave wasn't the sharpest tool in the box (it did not occur to her that it could be a ruse). As a rule of thumb, she saw no merit in associating with people dumber than her when she had a choice.
"Well..." She twirled a foot and stared at the floor, feeling extremely self-conscious all of a sudden. "We could meet outside some day," she mumbled. Clio could feel her cheeks getting hot as she spoke and could only imagine the reddish hue they'd turned. "Maybe grab a glass or a bite at a caupona...?"
If this went on any longer, she'd burn a hole into the floor with her eyes. It had been a stupid idea anyway, a very foolish thing to do. What was she thinking?! If her domina found out about this and decided to punish her, for once Clio would agree with her.