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.
She might not be the only one in pain, but that was a small consolation compared to the cook's wrath if they found out that not only had Safinia been gallivanting with one of the stable boys and neglecting her work, she had even let him get away with apple theft.
In the end, she had just made up her mind to go back to the kitchens, figurative tail between her legs, and pretend this whole adventure had never happened when the boy gestured an apology and came closer to examine the damage done. Safinia studied him back: would he be sporting a twin bump in a few hours? Probably. He did not seem to be in visible pain, unlike her with her watery eyes, but between the accidental headbutt and being hit with the rolling pin, he had to be smarting somewhere.
Realising he wanted to check her hands too, Safinia tucked the pin under her arm and held them out, palms up. It was just a few scrapes; bits of raw flesh could be seen here and there, but the blood had for the most part stopped running. It would definitely sting like crazy when she touched salt, garum or vinegar, but other than wait for the skin to repair itself, there wasn't much that could be done.
"Don't blame me if there's blood on your food all of a sudden," she warned, a little less monotone than usual. An attempt at a light joke. "Maybe I should ask for leather gloves made of that horse's hide."
The older woman's reply seemed perfectly polite and ordinary, but had Safinia been less attuned to what was said and more to how it was said, she might have been able to make out an edge to the other's tone, as if the woman had taken offence at something and was doubling down on good manners in order not to let it show. Such as things stood, she took in only the words, as was her wont.
Safinia gave a simple noncommittal grunt that could mean anything when Brysias commented on her mistress. She didn't know said mistress, and therefore it made no sense to her to join the slave in singing her praises or, on the contrary, refute her claims. "Oh, Carthage." Even a pleb such as her had heard of the wars with Hannibal and Scipio Africanus and elephants crossing the Alps; it was both the stuff of legend and the very fabric of Rome. As far as she knew, it had risen from the ashes of the Carthaginian defeat to become an important city in the empire... which meant it definitely had baths. Probably lots of them. So there was something fishy about Brysias' story.
She cocked her head to the side, dark hair moving about in the water as she did, and studied the other woman. "Are you from there? You don't sound like it. You sound like you're from Rome." Then again, Brysias had said 'moved back', so perhaps she had only been there a short time, accompanying her mistress. The thought that the slave might have interpreted her question as relating to her features didn't even cross Safinia's mind: denizens of the empire came in all shapes, sizes and colours, from fair-haired and blue-eyed like her mother had been to dark-skinned with hair as black as a moonless night, and none of it had anything to do with rank or station. "I'm from Lusitania, but I've spent almost my whole life in Rome." Any traces she might have had of her childhood accent were long gone, much like her memories of the times when her parents had been alive; her Latin was the rough, direct sociolect spoken by fishwives and prostitutes all over the Subura.
She failed, also as usual, to notice any hidden meanings in Brysias' last question, the sarcasm rolling off her like the oil she'd cleaned herself with earlier. "Well, I don't make my own hours," Safinia started, looking thoughtfully at some invisible point on the wall behind Brysias and to her left. "But it's mostly busy from dawn until the late afternoon, and it depends on how much there is to do. Today I got to leave a bit before sunset. And next week I have a whole day off." She had not yet decided how to spend it: soaking in the thermae all day could be a possibility.
It exasperated Safinia how people were given one loaf of bread and immediately wanted the whole bakery. Her only reason for having asked the woman if she was new to the baths was to find a reason for her lack of observance of bathing etiquette, she had not asked the woman for her name, much less her life story. And now she was obliged to share her moniker at the very least, because that was how socialising and interaction went, even if she had had no desire to do so in the first place. Why was it seemingly so hard for most people to simply stick to what they had been told?
She couldn't possibly coat the introduction with a 'nice to meet you', because it hadn't been nice. Getting to know someone by having them splash hot water into your open mouth was extremely low on the list of appropriate ways to make acquaintances. "Safinia," she said simply, continuing to look at the woman. This Brysias, from what she had said, was probably someone's personal slave, and probably new at her duties too - she seemed half-embarrassed at their shared state of nakedness, which would not have been the case if she had been a prostitute or even a more seasoned servant. Safinia didn't understand why: did they not have the same parts, both below and above the waist? Had Brysias never bathed in the presence of another before? Or had she caught a glimpse of the burn scars on Safinia's back and was uncomfortable because of them? It was nothing contagious - no need to worry about that.
"Nice of her to give you a day off." Even slaves deserved one every now and then, she reckoned. "Where are you from?"
What she really wanted to ask was 'what backwater village do you come from that you have never been to the thermae before'.
At least the clueless bather had the decency of sounding apologetic enough, and the admittance of guilt made Safinia calm down a bit. It was very steamy, after all: if she extended her arm in front of her, her fingers would poke in and out of the fog like ghostly miniature trees. Still, she felt the need to educate the other patron, just in case she was one of those provincials on their first tour to the big city and no clue as to appropriate bathing etiquette, like Safinia herself had been as a child.
"Splashing is better suited for the cooler pools," she stated coolly, but not unkindly. Getting piping hot water in your open eyes or mouth was anything but pleasant. She seized the opportunity to steal a clinical look at the careless woman, noting belatedly that her accent hadn't sounded out of place. She appeared to be a deal older than Safinia, maybe close to twice her age, but her dark skin was silky smooth and unblemished as far as Safinia could tell; she didn't look saggy or wrinkly, just more experienced and mature than Safinia could ever dream of being. The woman could be many things: someone's beloved plaything, as well-treated as a favourite dog; a rich provincial with a Latin education; the wife of a well-off merchant; an exotic body slave... The possibilities were nearly endless.
Safinia leaned back against the edge of the pool, eyeing the woman attentively in case more splashing came her way. Her own skin was simply red and splotchy owing to the hot water, nothing like the woman's. "I haven't seen you here before. Is this your first time?"
From his cross cry Safinia understood the stable boy had been too slow to remove his hand from the pin's trajectory. Served him right for being so stubborn! It registered with her for a split second that it was rather curious he did not speak but could produce sound, but she was prevented by dwelling on it any further by furious scampering to reach the apple first. Why wouldn't he give up already?!
"Ow!" The hard blow to her head had her seeing stars, and the world flashed in and out of darkness for a second. It was enough to mess with her balance and send her tumbling to the ground, the apple rolling off a few feet to rest against a bale of hay. Her palms were scraped off where she'd used them to steady herself and her eyes grew watery from the pain. She'd let go of the rolling pin with the force of the collision, but it had landed by her side and she rushed to grab a hold of it again.
"What's wrong with you?" Safinia glared daggers at the stable boy with the meanest look she could muster - under normal conditions it would have been plenty mean, but with red-rimmed eyes and what felt like a quickly-forming, throbbing bump on the side of her head, she didn't look so menacing.
She clambered to her feet and dusted off her dirty hands on her clothes, staining them with a few small specks of red. The pin was dirty too, but seemingly whole. Now one decision had to be made: fight for the apple, or concede and get back to work, leaving the boy victorious in the stable?
"It's cool now, but it gets really hot when we actually start cooking." With few windows and only a few tubes to draw out smoke and heat, the building was like a reverse greenhouse. On a hot summer day right before a meal would be served, it was like being inside a brazier, but Safinia had not experienced that yet since she had only joined the Whites in autumn. In winter, if only a few fires were going, it could be bitterly cold.
Huh. Safinia never would have thought that an unimposing figure such as Bassus would have friends in high places and be rubbing his skinny shoulders with the elite of Rome. His explanation about the quote from earlier piqued her curiosity - she knew next to nothing about Jews, only that they had a reputation for being troublemakers. "They only have one god?" she asked with a slight hint of interest. He had said 'their god', not 'one of their gods'. "He must be very busy all the time if he has to do the work of all gods. What an odd people," she commented offhandedly as she exited the kitchen, holding the basin awkwardly in front of her. She'd seen some of the assistants carry them on their hands in a fantastic display of balance, but Safinia wasn't at that level yet, and she wasn't going to start practising with an object that big.
Unsure if the charioteer was following her, Safinia raised her voice in case he was trailing behind by a few feet. "Do you know a lot about Jews, Bassus?"
The distance to the fountain was covered in a matter of seconds. Safinia shoved the basin under one of the spouts and waited for it to fill with water. At least there were no thirsty horses to share the water supply with, not for the moment. A quick glance to the side told her Bassus had come with, possibly delighted to have an excuse to keep listening to the sound of his own voice. Sweeping an errant lock of her from her forehead with the back of her head, Safinia thought about his offer. It couldn't hurt to know who to steer clear of.
She looked up at him, squinting because of the sun. "Have you been here long? Do people come and go all the time or is it steady employment? Who are the sorest losers?" The questions were fired off one after another like arrows with nary a pause for air between them.
She still was not interested in what had transpired in the charioteer's life, but since he was trailing after her and there was nothing else to do, Safinia resolved to listen to his story. All his grinning was a bit bemusing, but maybe he just was one of those people who enjoyed smiling for no particular reason or simply to celebrate the fact that they were alive. So he came from a family of farmer scribes? That was original, yet not completely idiotic since they could make money by writing letters when whatever they planted wasn't bearing fruit. "Important people? Like Caesar?" It didn't occur to her pleb self that plenty of people all over the empire could be considered important without having to go quite as high as the Imperial family.
Safinia keenly considered the quote Bassus had shared, racking her brains as she walked in an attempt to figure out if she had heard it before. It had sounded unfamiliar, and her memory wasn't helping to change that impression. In the end, she simply shook her head no. "Never. Where is it from?"
As they entered the kitchen goosebumps appeared all over Safinia's arms. The cool building whose walls were darkened by smoke was a welcome change from the glaring sun outside, much hotter than any autumn day had the right to be. She dumped the leeks unceremoniously on a big table and glanced behind her, suggesting that Bassus do the same. Now she would have to fill a basin with water so the leeks could soak. As she picked up the big earthenware container, she wondered if Bassus would continue to follow her to the fountain right round the corner. If so, then she truly was stuck with him.
This stable boy should have been an actor instead with how adept he was at miming and gesturing. Safinia hadn't been exposed to it long enough to effortlessly understand what he meant, and she wasn't exactly communicative in the first place. She got the gist of it, though: horse, chariot, work hard, apple. But why single out this one horse? Was it the top star in the faction, like Menelaus? Or did the boy just have an unreasonable attachment to it?
And he'd laughed at her after the horse had scared her. Which it had done only because he was so stubborn and wouldn't leave the bloody apples alone. Regretting ever having settled for compromise, Safinia steeled her jaw and thwacked the whole apple off the boy's hand with the rolling pin before the horse could get it.
"That's enough." For the horse and for her. And if his hand hurt after the blow, too bad.
She hurried to pick up the apple she'd sent flying before he got to it. They could move on to another more deserving horse or, failing that, get back to the kitchens (where she really should have been peeling those onions...).
The vendor was a deft one, handling the other customer's drink as he waited for Safinia to make up her mind. She didn't quite like the excess familiarity, but as long as he didn't insist on calling her 'love', she would let it go and do business with him. "One pork, then." As she dug into her purse to fish out some coin, the man from the row below turned around and joined in on their little conversation, if it could be called that.
He was brawny like the men in the arena and handsome in a rugged kind of way. Safinia gave the seller his money and gave the man's offer some consideration. From this little sample, he might be the flirty type. He also had coin, enough to buy the largest mug of wine. Combining the two observations, he might just buy her a drink if she joined him, which would save her money.
Smirking compalcently, Safinia rose from her seat and pulled her skirt up to her knees, hopping down without much difficulty onto the vacant spot next to the bulky man. She let the skirt drop to her ankles and lowered herself into a sitting position. It was a snug fit between the man and the spectator on her other side, but not so tight that she couldn't have her arms at her sides. With what had to be Rome's most fake smile plastered on her lips, Safinia turned to her new neighbour. "Don't mind me, then," she chuckled as she reached across his (admittedly broad) chest to grab the pork roll the vendor was holding out to her.