The boy made no sense at all. Safinia had just declared him the winner, and he brought up his hands in surrender? It made no sense. Maybe it was how it was done back wherever he was from, but they were in Rome now. So it made no sense. Or could the gesture be how his people gloated? Regardless of what it was, it was confusing.
She watched attentively as Azarion gestured some more in an effort to make out what he was attempting to communicate. Horses... four? Four horses? Did he seriously expect her to go with that? "Absolutely not," she declared stonily, impervious to his shy smile. "Even one is more than enough. There is no way I'm letting you steal enough apples for four horses." Safinia crossed her arms but kept the pin facing outwards. If Azarion was being so bold and cheeky as a result of their unintended collision, maybe another blow to the head would set him right.
"One apple every other day for this bottomless pit of a horse here and that's that. Take it or leave it."
Plenty of baths in Carthage according to Brysias, but either their etiquette was very different - perhaps still a remnant from their time as enemies of Rome -, or Brysias's household was wealthy enough that they would never have had to set foot in one of the public baths and instead had their own at home. The way she spoke of the province natives certainly made it sound like that; her speech came off as 'us' vs 'them', even to Safinia, who was far from an ardent patriot. Whether those words belied her own opinion or she was simply parroting her owners' beliefs, there was no way to tell.
"But aren't they Roman, though? It makes sense that they would want the same amenities we have here." It made sense to Safinia - wherever one went in the empire, common facilities like baths, temples and forums could be found in any oppidum worth its salt. And if you willingly made use of such facilities, then you were a Roman in her uncomplicated, black-and-white world view.
As expected, Brysias was impressed (or at least polite enough to act it, though Safinia had already branded her as not-polite a while ago) by her occupation, although she had the decency not to immediately ask for one-on-one introductions. Settling in the water so her back was straight, Safinia broke eye contact and brought a finger to her lip. "Our most famous ones are Menelaus and Flavius. Don't know if you've heard of them. I don't know much about racing but they win often." They were also successful outside the track, bringing in income through merchandise with their likenesses depicted on it. She had yet to talk to either of them, but they did their job and did it well and were therefore good in Safinia's mental books.
"I help out in the kitchens. Do menial tasks like collecting water or preparing foodstuffs before they can be cooked. I don't mind it at all, but others might get bored soon, I suppose." Worldly people like Brysias, probably. For Safinia, it was perfect: not too much interaction, no deadlines like when Paula had been alive and they'd sewn into the night, no working from home and no taking work home. It did not pay well, but it was enough for her, and she could always count on being provided a meal or two over a day's work. All in all, she thought it was a very nice job to have.
"So I'm not high up enough for any perks." Don't even bother asking.
Azarion didn't seem agree with her that that horse had a bottomless pit for a stomach. And yet it had gobbled up what it had been offered in the blink of an eye, and had the audacity of demanding more. If all horses were equally greedy, the Whites could very well plant an entire orchard and still not have enough apples to feed them.
Safinia followed the stable boy's nod with her gaze, landing on one of the charioteers. Azarion was right - that one man's appetite in particular could be compared to a horse's, or perhaps a cow's with their four stomachs. She pursed her thin, chapped lips and nodded, conceding the point.
As the slave went back to his beloved horse she stayed put, eyeing the creature with suspicion despite its friendliness towards its caretaker - who pat it with affection before hand-talking some more at Safinia. She wrinkled her nose trying to make sense of his gestures and eventually reached an interpretation. If he liked horses better than he liked her, it was no insult to her - she was used to not being liked, just tolerated. "That's fair," she shrugged, unperturbed. "You can't like everyone." And what was like, anyway? Being thankful to someone? Being infatuated with someone? She wasn't sure she grasped the concept entirely.
With an uncharacteristic sigh she looked down at her rolling pin, then at the horse (or rather, its head) and then at Azarion. All hope of retrieving those apples was now gone. At least the remaining bits would be all dirty and yucky after their tumbles on the ground.
"You win." This battle, but not the war.
Safinia noticed the boy's smirk, but did not know what it meant and so did not react to it. He could have been making fun of her - wouldn't have been the first either -, or it could be self-satisfaction from pretending to be shocked by the cold water just to mess with her. Either way and whatever the reason for Azarion's smirk, she didn't care.
Funny that he should wipe his wet hand on his clothes and not on the towel he had used on her, though. Maybe the cloth was too soaked through to be useful now, or maybe he had done it out of learnt convention that free people abode by one set of rules and slaves by another.
"I saw that when I read your name," Safinia deadpanned in response to Azarion's tapping on his tablet, not quite understanding what he meant. She knew he was a slave, why did he want to draw attention to it? Most slaves she had come across had wanted the exact opposite, if anything. She studied his face intensely in a vain attempt to read his thoughts, then gave a defeated shrug when she became none the wiser. That left it up to her brain to interpret his gesture, and it concluded that the boy could only be asking if she too had a tablet. "I don't have one. I'm free." The statement was as blasé as if she had said the sky was blue or that her hair was brown; it was how things were, something to neither gloat over nor be ashamed of. There was no pride or arrogance in her voice, just its usual matter-of-factly flatness.
She was running out of things to ask him. Not that she had been that interested in the first place - her original goal had been to retrieve the stolen apples -, but now she knew that amongst those who made up the Whites there was a slave stable boy named Azarion who came from the East, did not speak and was easily manipulated by at least one greedy horse like a puppet by its master. There was for nothing her to do with that knowledge but file it away in a section of the 'Facts about person' cabinet inside her head.
Time to discover how many more apples he might try to abscond with in the future, then.
"Do you care for all horses, or is it the same ones every time? Like that insatiable beast?"
So maybe shoving Azarion's hand into the pitcher had not been the brightest idea. He couldn't speak, but he certainly could yell. Unnerved by his reaction, Safinia removed her hand his his arm and left it up to him to decide what to do with his own cold wet one. "Sorry," she apologised genuinely, hoping her action hadn't made his injury worse.
He didn't seem to hold it too much against her, though, which she counted as a good thing. The last thing she needed was someone going to the boss and telling on her for hurting other workers. "One.. year?" That was way longer than-- no, wait, he had probably meant Rome in general as he gestured to the stables and held up more fingers. A few months, then; still her senior, but not by that much.
"Me? Since the beginning of the month." Still practically yesterday compared to him. "Or did you mean the city? In that case, over ten years ago. I barely remember my hometown." A flash here and a hint there, not enough to make her long for it. It belonged to a different life as far as Safinia was concerned.
It appeared Azarion too came from far away, though his reply required Safinia to exercise her admittedly poor imagination in order to get a decent grasp on what he was trying to tell her. The rising sun, very far away, horses... And hunters? She peered down at his tattoo, completely ignorant of it until he pointed it out. Deer hunters from the East who also kept horses. She had never heard of them and had no clue as to what foreign tribe the stable boy might have belonged to, or where beyond the borders of the empire they might hail from.
Her hands were now clean from muck, grime and blood, and she contemplated them appreciatively. He'd done a good enough job, possibly better than what she would have managed on her own. "Thank you," she said with sincerity, looking him in the eye. Was cleaning wounds a skill he had acquired in Rome, or with his tribesmen? She knew now he hadn't been born a slave, though, and by that tattoo, hadn't become one until somewhat recently. Safinia pulled back her hands and with one of them freed the rolling pin from its place tucked under her arm; this time round, she let it hang from her side as a simple extension of her arm.
"When did you come to Rome?" For once intrigued, it did not occur to her that this might be a touchy subject for Azarion. Carrying on as if she had simply asked about the weather, she grabbed Azarion's hand that had been struck by the pin with her free one and twisted and turned it round slowly, looking for signs of injury. He would probably sport a nice purplish blue bruise in a few hours thanks to her.
Not knowing what else to do but feeling she should repay the favour, Safinia unceremoniously dunked the boy's hand into the pitcher. The water was cold, so it should help with any swelling... right?
A pretty house slave, then. Possibly the personal attendant to the mistress she spoke so highly of. Safinia wasn't curious enough to ask what had taken the women to Carthage and what had brought them back - plenty of people travelled for plenty of reasons, and that sufficed for her.
The sounds of more bathers entering the room became clearer through the steam, and although Safinia paid them no heed, used as she was to the rowdiness of the stables and her own neighbourhood, they seemed to draw Brysias' attention, who looked about her as if she were only now taking in her surroundings. To be fair, it wasn't as though the steam allowed for a very clear view. It provided just the perfect opportunity for Safinia to dig a bit deeper into the other's lack of awareness. "Are the baths in Carthage very different from these? I imagine there are some just as big." And the Mercurian thermae weren't even the biggest or most luxurious in the whole of Rome; they were just the best she could afford from among those located somewhat near her home.
"Yeah. I was little when I came here," Safinia commented plainly, as if she were talking about the weather. There was not much more to say about the subject; she hardly remembered anything of those days, and therefore could not provide any comparisons between her native province and the capital that Brysias might have potentially found interesting. It occurred to her belatedly that the other woman might have been obliquely asking about her parentage, and since she did not see harm nor good in sharing the information, Safinia did just that. "I'm Roman, though. My father was, and his father, and his father too. I don't know about further back," she shrugged, making the hot water form small circles around her arms.
That was a more difficult question that it seemed at first glance. She did not enjoy the work per se, but she did like that there was method and routine to it. It was safe and predictable: fetch water, peel and dice vegetables, boil water, cut meat, scale fish, keep an eye on the gigantic pots so they don't spill over, keep an eye on the fires so they don't die out, restock the pantry... Menial tasks for sure, but with little variation and that was right up her alley. No surprises, no chaos.
"Well... I wouldn't say I enjoy it," she started, now looking unblinkingly at Brysias directly in the eye. What did she really enjoy, actually? Soaking in the thermae was one thing. Looking at her little collection of trinkets was another. Slipping into bed and not dreaming of anything was a good third one, and tasty food and drink were also nice, although she hardly ever went out of her way to obtain them. Games and festivals were often interesting, but not always enjoyable. Huh. She would have to ponder this question more attentively later, alone at home, so that she might be better prepared if it was asked again.
"But I don't dislike it either. They treat me well. I work for the Whites - the chariot team." Hopefully Brysias would have more sense than to ask her for tickets to the races or if Safinia could introduce her to the charioteers. She was only a lowly helper, and aside from Bassus, Azarion and fellow kitchen staff, she didn't think she had registered in anyone's mental map yet.
If the stable boy's reaction was anything to go by, he was most definitely not Greek. He even looked almost offended by her suggestion that he might be - or he had been spending so much time with that bloody horse that he had taken on its mannerisms (if a horse could have them, and before meeting that beast, Safinia would have said they couldn't.)
For all his indignation, however, Azarion was being surprisingly gentle as he cleaned her hands. Perhaps it was because he knew they were the tools for her work; if she couldn't use them, there would be delays in food prep, leading to delays in serving the day's meals, leading to very unhappy workers overall. Her job might only be a small peg in the engine, but it was not a superfluous one.
The blood was cleaned off quickly enough, and now her hands only looked slightly rougher than they normally did, with bits of skin threatening to peel off where they'd scraped hardest against the floor. She nodded her approval at his handiwork.
Azarion seemed to find her name as strange as she found his. It was not a remarkably obscure one, but it wasn't like there were thousands of them skipping about Rome either. In the circles she moved in Safinia was its only bearer that she knew of, which was why she never bothered with her praenomen and in practice ignored it all the time.
"I'm Roman. From Lusitania." Like her father and grandfather before her, and surely Azarion knew not all Romans were actually born in Rome. "I guess it is a bit far away, now that I think of it," she conceded, tilting her head to the side as if deep in thought. "Where are you from, then?"
As expected, the man had taken the opportunity to steal a glance at her legs. Let him look, if that increased Safinia's chances of having food or drink on him. And by the question he asked next, she reckoned they weren't all that bad. He might just be interested enough.
She took a bite out of her pork roll to keep the pretence of a demure young woman not wanting to answer right away, chewing thoroughly before swallowing. It was a bloody good roll, and fairly priced, too. Could have used a bit more meat, but the vendor had to make his profit too. On the other hand, whoever had made them had not been shy with the spices, and that alone was worth the coin the roll had cost. Like most of Rome's poor working class, the only seasonings available to Safinia were garum and the few herbs she grew on small flowerpots on her window sill.
Feeling the broad man's eyes on her, Safinia wiped her lips with the back of her hand and looked up at him. "Yeah," she nodded for emphasis. She had no male - or female - guardian left to tell her what she could or could not do, and thus every decision she made in her private life was solely her own. She very much liked it that way.
"Safinia," she offered simply in guise of introduction. As was her habit, she left out the platitudinous 'nice to meet you'; she found it a most peculiar and senseless thing to say when one had no idea how the acquaintance would turn out. "Anyone you're looking forward to seeing?" she asked, looking towards the arena to indicate she meant the gladiators.
Was this how you made friends? You argued, hit each other on purpose or accidentally and ceased hostilities after both parties were proportionally hurt? The bloody horse did not seem keen to be friends what with the way it was whinnying; it was just as well for Safinia, she did not want to be friends with a disrespectful glutton anyway.
She let the boy lead her to the cleanup station, wondering if he was chuckling at her or at her hopefully-a-bit-funny words. If it was the latter, good; if it was the former, well, better luck next time. Safinia's blue eyes widened in surprise when the stable boy wet a towel, seemingly suggesting that he clean her scraped hands for her. It was kind of him to offer, and completely unexpected for her. She blinked down at her hands, then held them out under the towel, palms facing upwards like before. Her gaze flickered from her open hands up to the boy when he tapped on something hard - his name tag, which she had completely failed to notice until then.
"Aza... Azarion." The penmanship was worse than hers, but whether it was the boy's own or someone else's was unknown to her. "That's you, huh? Is that Greek?" In her years working with Paula, she had noticed how many of them had names that also ended like that: Ariston, Tychon, Heron... But now he would be waiting for her to offer her own name, as etiquette dictated. "I'm Safinia."
She trembled slightly as the cold water touched her torn skin. It didn't sting, but the temperature had caught her by surprise. She hoped they wouldn't get in trouble by using the towel, low-ranking helpers as they were.