She opened the palm of her hand, showcasing a number of coins and the way a dog waits for treats, she waited for him to indicate what coin or coins she had to use. She handed the shopkeeper the coins and happily took the loaves of bread before following Rufus away from the stall, the glorious Roman sun bearing down on them. As wet, windy and unpredictable as Britannia’s weather was, she much preferred it, simply because it was a part of home.
She turned her head left and right before pressing a forefinger to her lips. “Shhh,” she said dramatically. She had heard slaves got their tongues ripped out for even uttering their names. But one of the slaves at her master’s home had told her that merely breathing was an insult to Rome and therefore, a slave shouldn’t be caught dead breathing. Nymphias knew that wasn’t true but had been too anxious to even laugh. “Can I say my name?” Her voice was lowered, practically asking permission. Her eyes surveyed the area before leaning forwards to whisper in his ear. “My name is… was Ardra.”
This was every bit the way she had imagined a romance, courting, whatever one wished to name it, to be like. Handsome men being kind, gentle and caring. Being who she was, she looked at it all with rose-tinted spectacles. There was Erea and Immin for reference; however, Nymphias had been quite young when Immin and Erea met, she had been around twelve, only seeing what a child would see. There were a few older girls and women who she’d seen marry and have children but she didn’t see what happened behind closed doors, only what she saw in the public. She was quite young and just entering womanhood, her experience in such matters of love and sex was, as a result, lacking.
Nymphias stood up, albeit reluctantly, and remembered that she had things to do, places to be, but such was the life of a slave. Even one’s time belonged to someone else. She trusted he would safely see her to her destination. She played with her hands nervously, it was a habit that didn’t seem to go away.
“Yes, please,” she said with a nod, smiling from ear to ear and cheeks as red as roses. “I want you to walk me home to Domi Qu-quirinalis.” She was much too frightened of walking on her own, at least, for the time being. She hadn’t realised how long she had been out for but considering she’d become lost, time was being eaten and the slaves in her master’s kitchens would likely scold her for her tardiness.
“When do we… met again, Helios?” she said quickly, sounding like quite the eager beaver.
She had been to this area of Rome before, seeking safety within the Temple of Cymbele when trying to escape a “monster” of a man who’d been following her, the way a bear might when tracking its prey. That was when she met Clio, who’d brought her to a nearby shop with pretty hair ornaments. This time, however, she was a lot more cautious, not just making sure that she wouldn’t be stalked, apparently because she had “I’m an easy target” air about her, but from not becoming lost.
Running errands led her in the area again. She’d seen the Circus Maximus before but this time, as she had time to spare, her curiosity got the better of her. Nymphias had been in the spectator stands but wandered down to a door at the walls, leading into the race course, to simply linger and observe. It proved to be a daring, almost stupid idea once a horse came in her direction. Behind the animal was a boy about her age, an inch shorter. How adorable, she could just pinch his cheeks!
Nymphias panicked, retreating into the doorway until the horse slowed down and it was only then that she rushed to try and catch the reigns to help the boy.
“Here,” she said shyly to the boy, handing him the reigns. Her attention returned to the horse and wanted to stroke it but wasn’t sure if she was allowed. “He is very beautiful. You are lucky, you work here with animals. Not people.” She didn’t hate people, they just scared her. She pointed at the horse. “What is his name?”
As long as it was simple to count, Nymphias knew it was a good price. The larger the numbers, the more coins to count and the more counting she had to do, the worse. Nymphias never wanted to use the money that was given to her to buy things when running errands, she was much too fearful to spend what wasn’t hers. What would they do then, cut off her hand? Brand her as she’d seen someone of the slaves had happen to them? With such slaves, Nymphias would simply stare at their modifications to their bodies. In part, it was curiosity but it was also fear.
Nymphias’ mouth opened and then closed. She probably looked like a drowning man gasping for air.
“My domina gives me money to eat when I go outside home,” she explained, though the money was a rather small amount when compared to what was given to her specifically for errands. “But she say I should eat so that she take my hair.” The woman would laugh but somehow, Nymphias didn’t feel like the woman was joking at all. She feared that her domina would chop off her hair and make it into a wig for the Roman woman to wear. If they took her from her homeland, they’d take her hair too. Regardless, she never used the money her domina gave her, let alone ate.
“If I don’t buy for you,” she said. “I never use the money and if I don’t use money, maybe domina insulted.”
Her head snapped from Rufus to the shopkeeper before returning to Rufus. She held up a finger, just the way he did. “Two,” she said, showing two fingers. Things were much easier when she could see them, she wasn’t quite good with numbers but there was also the element of panic, which only aided in clouding her judgement. Imagine if she hadn’t met Rufus, she thought. She would have been doomed, left navigating the confusing waters of Rome all alone.
She turned to him cheerfully, a stark difference to how she’d been to when she’d first met him, a wreck on the verge of tears. “I never good with money,” she admitted. She helped out at home with anything she could, mostly cooking and cleaning, things she knew she was skilled at, but her gods knew she had tried learning how to handle money.
“My sister good at book-keep—book-keeping,” she said, her expression turning pensive and a little sad. “She was very smart. Is very smart, I mean.” Erea couldn’t be dead. Nymphias refused to believe it. “Were you book-keeping where you from?”
It took her a while to understand what “energy” was before it kicked in. How difficult could it be to take care of a young child? But she nodded her head and then nodded her head once again as he began laying down rules. She was on the same boat as him, she didn’t quite trust herself not to get lost outside the home but wanted to learn the streets and back roads of Rome like the back of her hand, especially because everyone and everything was so unfamiliar.
Her eyes widened as he spoke in her language, it felt almost surreal to hear her own language spoken to her after months of non-stop Latin. She’d heard one Roman speak to her in her language, though her master’s grasp of the language was a little more polished, perhaps due to his time in Britannia as a man of the military, and she was impressed but didn’t voice it.
“Rome bigger than my city,” she said honestly. “My city small… I know lots of people at my city and I help lots of wives with babies because...” She assumed a wife and a midwife was the same thing, her hands swayed awkwardly and her brows furrowed as she tried to explain her past life. She felt like she was being tested and considering the man was giving his youngest child to her, she believed his concern justified. If she had children of her own, she would have done the same. “I like to help people, not for learning but to be nice person and for happy society. I did not look after siblings because… I am youngest child like domine’s Valeriana. I learned from doing same as mothers.”
The kiss was soft, gentle and not quite as she had imagined it to be. It was better, causing her stomach to leap and dance. Her heart was beating fast, she couldn’t tell if it was the fear she usually felt or something else. When it was finished, she opened her eyes and smiled widely. His hands slid around her and she was pulled towards him , which elicited a shocked response from her before she settled down. He said he wouldn’t hurt her or tell anyone. She believed him and given the story he’d told her about the girl he liked being sent away, she didn’t want to get into any trouble either.
She nodded her head, indicating that she did want to kiss him again. She was lacking in experience, she knew this, she didn’t know what to do with her hands but feared giving a lifeless kiss. Everyone made kissing seem so simple. If they were destined to be together, as Nymphias now believed, the kiss had to be one that spoke of love that surpassed the heavens. Carefully, she cupped his cheeks with both hands and leaned forwards to press her lips against his. She mirrored how he had let it linger before pulling away. Her hands remained before falling.
She breathed in. “Was that good?” she asked, feeling a little self-conscious and then quickly added: “I won’t tell anyone also.”
Ardra was dissatisfied with her brother’s response and expected a love story of the ages, instead she was met with him changing the subject. But within moments, her attention was on the child’s names again and she nodded to the suggestion of “Moira”, which sounded quite beautiful, and Turi’s compliment did indeed distract her further. Not before rolling her eyes at the fact that Immin thought the child was a boy, Ardra was sure it was a girl and wanted it to be. But if the child was a boy, she’d love him all the same and was content with “Calum” or “Cal”.
As her siblings spoke some more, she began to eat away at her meal, enjoying every bit of it because Immin wouldn’t be. Ardra had been quite young when Erea met her husband and the marriage had been something that tickled the girl’s imagination, hoping for the exact same thing one day.
“You heard Turi, he doesn’t need a wife because I apparently feed him so well,” said Ardra. She herself hoped to be married, she liked a good number of people, every boy and man was a potential husband, but with her family’s predicament, she wanted to help as much as she could before being whisked away. She didn’t mind waiting. “As for myself, I want to wait a year or two before getting married. I think seventeen would be the right age for a marriage. Not too old and not too young.” It was probably for the best too but as she continued to speak, she began to turn bright red and smile a little too much. “But there is one boy…” More like several. “And I think he is handsome and smart. Maybe you both could put a good word about me. I’m too shy to talk to him.”
He was right, Rome was like no other. But Nymphias hadn’t really seen anything like it before. She was used to the much simpler, smaller settlements of Britannia. Rome was very large in comparison with greater buildings and strange ways of living. Everything was a lot more green in Britannia, it was why it was so wet and windy all the time. Could she ever come to prefer Rome to her home? As it stood now, she didn’t think so.
Nymphias beamed, believing the chance to work with her master’s youngest child was an honour. It meant she was working her way up, or so she believed. She wanted to become a free woman, free to do whatever she pleased and, perhaps, if lucky, find her siblings and mother, if they were still alive.
“Lots of experience,” she said confidently. She was the youngest of four and not yet a mother but she’d spent a good amount of time with children. When her sister was with child, Nymphias had been excited about being an aunt and helping to take care of something so small and helpless. She’d never have her own children as long as she was slave, she believed, but would take care of Valeriana like a mother bear. “I like children so I help mothers and women in Britannia. When baby cry, I know how to stop crying. When baby wants to play, I can play too. When baby needs new cloths, I sew new ones for them to wear. I very good at sewing. I am very grateful for minding, I will do my best.”
She hated the way Romans owned slaves like they were beasts, restricting them from being able to do anything as they pleased. It made her feel trapped but dreaming made her able to imagine a far better life than she was currently living. And yet, the more she was in Rome, it became harder to imagine a better life. It could have been worse, things could have always been worse, but she was still displeased with life thus far.
His tragic love story shocked her, or rather it hadn’t had the chance to develop into a love story, and it made her sad for him too. She frowned, perhaps taking on his past issue as her own. She wondered if her master would do the same. But he seemed kind, though he intimidated her. His wife was even more confusing. Her thoughts were distracted with his question, her eyes shot up to look at him. They’d just met but Nymphias was sure he was the one. Surely, fate or the gods had led him to her.
“No,” said Nymphias embarrassed, tensing once again and heart racing. An unwanted reaction but clearly born from her time of being captured. In spite of her physical reactions, she closed her eyes, anticipating that a kiss might have been what he wanted.