"Brace yourself, then," Marcus said, offering his hand and pulling her carefully to her feet. Once she was settled on the stone edge of the fountain, he stepped back a little to give her some space, as propriety demanded.
"I have been involved in racing in one form or another all my life," he said. "I was fifteen when I trained my first horses to race - a pair, in the bigae races - the two-horse chariots, though I didn't race them myself that year. I have raced, though, but I gave it up to concentrate on training - the horses have to learn how to run together, and the charioteers have to learn how to drive them to get the best from them."
Every step of his chosen career path had involved a steep learning curve, but it was a way of life that he had been born into, and he could not imagine doing anything else.
His own career might be glamorous, to an outsider at least, but he would not spend the entire time talking about himself at her expense. "But what about you? What do you like doing, other than decorating fountains for Fontinalia?"
Marcus clapped Azarion on the shoulder. "I will have a word with Varica for you to train these horses for the bigae. He'll probably set you up with one of the others - most likely Tarbus or Theseus."
Azarion's lack of speech might hinder him, but he was a clever young lad and had ways of making himself understood.
"We will have to see about whether you can actually race, of course - you don't have much weight to you, and that would help, but there are ways around that."
Marcus glanced down. "If you spread your feet a little wider apart, it will help with your balance," he said, shifting his own feet to give the boy room. He was more used to being in a chariot than Azarion was, naturally. "Especially when you have your hands full and can't hold on to the chariot."
So far, he was pleased with what he had seen. Yes, there were wobbles, yes it was awkward the first time, but he thought Azarion showed promise. It might be a while before he was confident and skilled enough to actually drive in a race, but the potential was there.
He met the boy's eyes in that momentary glance back. It was a very speaking glance - the kid was expressive, probably as a way to overcome his main communication problem.
"How do people drive four horses? Practise, mainly. I won't say that it doesn't take hard work and skill. There are some thing that can't be taught, though, that come from inside - the very best drivers have a connection to the horses."
Marcus could see from the set of the boy's shoulders that he was not about to give up, although he was obviously finding it challenging - which was why Marcus had started him off with the far less rigorous bigae for now. Well, it was partly the challenge and partly the boy's size - or lack of it.
He hid a smile as the boy slipped the reins over his head and round his back, able to use the new position to make better use of his slender frame.
"They're still horses, and they still respond to the same pressure as they do when riding," he pointed out as the chariot turned around the spina at the curved end of the Circus. "The excitement doesn't change that." He could not aid the horses with his legs as he could when riding, but they were responsive enough even through the reins.
Marcus had dismissed more than one charioteer who had been so forceful on the reins as to injure the horses' mouths - it was a waste, and made it so much harder to control them in the heat of a seven-lap race, with all Rome watching from the stands.
"You're doing very well. Perhaps a little more speed, if you're up for it?"
"Would you like a hand up - you would be more comfortable sitting on the edge of the fountain than on the ground, I think," Marcus said, once it was clear that Major had not hurt herself anywhere else other than her ankle.
"Difficult? There are a lot of different things to oversee, of course - more than a lanista has to deal with, because there are all the horses as well as the charioteers, and all the equipment, so there are the people who make and mend all of that. It can be challenging, but being organised helps, and if you have reliable people to oversee each of those areas, it means that you don't have to think of every single thing." Delegation and good supervisors were the key to running a successful venture like a chariot faction, in Marcus' experience. "I have all sorts of people who can supervise each area, of course, so I know what's going on, and what I have to think about when it comes to making decisions, and that makes it easier for me to see the picture as a whole. A bit like looking at a mosaic floor being laid, with workers doing their own bit of the picture and me helping them work together to make sure they're all making the same big picture in the end."
Which explanation might or might not make sense, of course; Marcus had little experience of describing his job to young ladies!
Marcus was trying to keep from interfering with the boy too much, letting him find his own stance and handling, aware that yes, it would be very different from riding, and it would be different again if Azarion was on his own in the chariot.
"You can still connect with the horses, though naturally it isn't the same as when you're closer to them," he said, and wondered if the boy's disability would affect him too much, or if he would find ways to compensate for it in this role. He wanted the very best to represent his team, of course - that way would give them the best chances of winning, and charioteers could become extraordinarily famous and raise the visibility of their faction.Despite his inability to speak, Azarion had a way with the horses and Marcus wanted to know if that would translate into a capability to handle them on the track.
"If you prefer to hold the reins some other way, to make it easier for you, by all means," he said, making allowances for the fact that the boy was smaller than every other driver as well as not being able to speak to the horses. Marcus had brought a falx with him, the wickedly sharp blade able to cut the reins, but it was an emergency precaution only (as it would be in a race). He had no wish to use it unnecessarily, especially in a simple canter around the Circus in training.
The motion under his feet as the chariot began to move was a familiar feeling to Marcus; he had not personally raced in years but still liked to take a chariot out now and then on days like today, especially when trying new combinations of horses to see which animals would work best together - the charioteers were the ones whose names the crowds chanted, but half the race was in selecting the right horses to run together.
The boy had a light touch on the reins, light but sure. If it weren't for the boy's being rendered mute, Marcus would have questioned him as to his origins - about all that could be certain was that he was not a native Italian. He reminded Marcus of his own family, something about his looks, but he could not tell more than that.
The two horses were well-chosen, he thought. They were unfamiliar with each other, but were well matched for size and stride and temperament, confirming what Marcus knew: the boy knew horses, and in a far deeper way than most of the other stable-hands.
"Keep your knees soft, like your hands," he said, his own grip on the chariot light. "You want a firm stance - you'll see how it's different from riding, and yet there are similarities, too."
"Yes, if you don't mind leaving your sister while you do so," Marcus said. If their first thought was a carrying chair or litter, then money was likely not a worry and hopefully they would have a slave who would be able to help the injured girl into the house.
"Have you hurt yourself anywhere else?" he asked Major, now that they had ascertained that her ankle was almost certainly not broken. He had not seen the whole accident but if she had bumped her hip, say, on the way down, there could easily be additional bruising on top of the sprain.
He noted that neither of them had said if they had ever gone to the races. Perhaps their father - or grandfather, if he was the paterfamilias - would allow them to come, as his guests? He might get a new sponsor out of it... And that was as far as he let that chain of thought go; one did not do very well in Marcus'position if one dwelt on 'perhaps' and 'maybe' and 'if this, then that'.
He wondered instead how easy, or hard, it would be for Minor to find a chair; he had never noted how common or otherwise they were around here, beyond berating the carriers when they got in the way of teams heading between the stables and the Circus.
It wasn't long before Theseus was fastening the last of the straps on the leather armour - it was probably a bit big, really, but that was neither here nor there, it was something between him and the ground should anything untoward happen. Marcus relinquished the horses' bridles back to him and stepped into the chariot. It had been a while since he had been in this position himself (he was the head of the faction, the races were far too dangerous to be worth risking driving in any race) but some things simply could not be forgotten.
"Come on," he said to Azarion. The chariots weren't really built for two, but this was a training one (and therefore a bit bigger than the actual racing chariots) and Azarion was only small - and it wasn't as though Marcus was fat. They'd fit.
"In an actual race, the drivers wind the reins around their bodies, but there's no point in doing that today," Marcus said, taking the reins and expertly separating them, the two left in his left hand and the two right in his right hand, before offering them to the boy. "Just a walk to start with, until you've got the feel of it, it isn't like riding."
Were Marcus anyone else, he might have smiled at the astounded look on the boy's face, but he wasn't. "I've heard you can ride, and you certainly seem to know how treat horses, so here's your chance," he said, and stepped across to the chariot - even if Azarion was the world's best horseman, he was still a slave, and the horses were valuable beasts; if he'd never driven a chariot before, it would be safest to show him rather than let him try to figure it out on his own. "You can have the protection if you like, but we're not going to be galloping today."
Quite apart from its being the boy's first time in a chariot, there were several other charioteers, trainers and slaves around. Shipwrecks were all well and good in front of a packed circus, but they were expensive things and Marcus had no intention of allowing one today. Especially with the added risk to life and limb for horses and driver.
He took the horses' heads as Theseus sorted the leather armour out and held it up. "Better safe than sorry," the stablehand said, with a glance at his master. "I'll give you a hand, if you want."