Face claimKatherine Jenkins
Aelia felt a little more comfortable, away from all the crowds. The interior hallways were still busy but there was less of a repressive bustle to them which gave her a feeling like she could breathe a little more easily. She was very keen to be on her way now, hurrying back to her apartment but thought it would be rude and perhaps impolitic to simply dump this man immediately and scurry off. She hoped she had not given him the wrong idea because she was certainly in no mood for that. She just wanted to go home, lie down and sleep deeply into the tomorrow.
Thinking about his question she wondered what would be the best answer. Somewhere close to her insula but not too close. She didn't like people knowing where she lived. However, she did not really fancy traipsing miles in the other direction when her key goal was simply to go home and rest. "There is a place on the foot of the road into the Aventine, hard off the main way, that is not too bad?" she suggested. The alternative was simply somewhere at the foot of the Arena - a quick drink, make her excuses and then go home. That was the plan.
She carried on walking, assuming that he would fall into step with her. If she lost him, then so be it.
"Aelia," she said as she set off, "the name's Aelia." She didn't follow it up with the usual items like "Aelia the Actress, you know, the famous one? The one with the Whites? The Proculus Players? The one from all the play bills? Yes, that one!" She wasn't in the mood to stand on that sort of "ceremony", as she termed it.
"And what about you then?"
Maybe it was the length of the day so far that was getting to her. She hadn’t been in the mood, really, from the start. Stuck in a seat for hours on end, surrounded by screaming crowds, without much food, no wonder she was feeling on edge. What she wanted was to get out of the Arena and just go home. The Games were clearly something better enjoyed when drunk. She would remember that for next time. The friends she had come with were in a world of their own now. She should have guessed that. Yes, yes, this was all her fault, she should just have stayed in bed.
The man she had been speaking to was getting up and offered a drink. She was not particularly keen on that. She was not repulsive but she had no desire to be hit on by him. More often that not she could let it go and just let a man buy her a drink and then smile sweetly whilst he talked about this or that. Yet after the day she had been having she wasn’t so keen on that. He was, however, offering her an opportunity to leave. Chances were that is she got up and started daintily making her way to the exit aisles she would be groped and pawed at within seconds – completely “accidentally”, of course – by a legion of wandering hands. She was definitely in no mood for that.
If, however, she appeared to have a chaperone or company then it was less likely that she would be subjected to more than just bawdy catcalls.
So, she decided, she would follow him out and then make polite excuses and, with what few coin she had left, see if she could pick up a passing public litter to take her back to the apartment. Well, she deserved a small indulgence after a wasted morning. She stood and – like a true Roman plebeian – made no apologies for stepping on toes or blocking views as she slipped her way out and onto the stairs of the aisle, leading up to the upper tier internal corridors that rang in a ring around the arena to the communal stairwells down to the ground floor.
Aelia put on a show of false modesty “oh, I wouldn’t use the term icon…” The truth is that she actually would. Many of these new-fangled religious nut-job sects proclaimed how vanity was a sin and would =damn you forever. If that was true, then Aelia was in a lot of trouble. Some mornings she would just sit there on the wonky stool in front of her bedroom dresser, holding her chipped polished bronze hand-mirror and just stare at the slightly blurry reflection she saw in it. The soft and subtle arching of her lips. Her smooth skin, unworried or marked my disease or the accumulation of years. Her flowing, bouncing, long golden blonde hair and icy blue eyes. Her full and pleasing figure. Yes, she was an icon. She was a living image of Aphrodite (sigh, how many times had people told her that whilst trying to get into her stolla?). She neglected the fact that people actually supported the Whites for a huge range of reasons and decided, in her own slightly childish mind, that she was surely the biggest draw. The reality was different but reality was a veil that could be pushed aside when people wanted to see something else.
Her role with the team always gave her a bubbling cauldron of seething, conflicting emotions. On the plus side, she felt such a sense of power, being able to hold all these men in thrall just for being herself. They would shower her with money, presents, favours. But the downside was that they were not doing this for her – or, rather, for her as a person. They were doing it for what she as a thing could do for them. That realisation was quite sickening and rather degrading. She had good and bad days.
She had forgotten that she was not speaking for someone from the world of “show business.” She was too used to being around performing folk that she littered her talk with theatre and entertainment business jargon and slang that really meant nothing to anyone outside that world. “Oh, how would I describe Proculus?” she said, pouting. “He’s like…like…he goes around and gets me and the other people in our troupe work. He books theatres were we put on shows. He sets up private shows. He sorts out public appearances and stuff. He collects all the money and then gives us a share after he takes a cut. Cos he’s a prick he takes a bigger cut than he should but, fair play to him, he’s good at what he does so I guess we all kind of turn a blind eye?”
Proculus was a thieving bastard and relied on his players having lost the social standing to bring a case in the law courts to yoke them with a ridiculously unfair contract with terms massively favourable to him – namely, his ability to pick and change the level of his own commission. That said, although he was a mincing, crazy, thieving bastard, he did get them plenty of work. Public shows, private performances, publicity appearances. The Proculus Players never wanted for money and did so well that, unlike most troupes, they never had to leave Rome these days because there was always work.
The thought of a bodyguard was not actually a new one. In light of recent events, which she shuddered to recall, it was something she had been thinking about a lot recently. In the past she had relied on the hulking presence of her room-mate and fellow player, Cleander, to deter besotted fans or unwanted physical attention. However, ultimately he was just an actor like her, albeit male and muscular and not a professional fighter or guard. She probably had enough money to buy or hire one. She had savings she had stashed away. She could invest some of that capital. She had been planning to use it for uncertain future purposes but what future would there be if…No, Aleia, don’t think like that. It was definitely something she needed and something she had stubbornly refused probably because she was only too aware of the dangers of her position.
“Yeh well you do get quite a few nutters, that’s true. Not sure who is worse really. You get the usual race-goer dole-collecting riff raff. They’re just likely to shout hurtful stuff at you and get a bit handsy. The worse are the rich folk – knights and senators and the like – who think they can take what they want and you’re obliging!”
She paused a little, reflecting her worries silently on the topic.
“I haven’t got one before cos I didn’t really think it necessary but I’ve changed my mind about that recently and I think I’ll have to look a guard out, at least for now anyway.”
Her companion had stumbled across a sure-fire means of getting Aelia to stop her line of questioning: she was hugely susceptible to talking about herself. Yes, it was to many people’s minds, a particularly bad a vain trait. Well, that didn’t change the facts. Immediately all thoughts of how acting as an interpreter meant requiring one to pass oneself off as a man necessarily were swept from her mind.
“Oh, not that big a deal, really,” she said, making it sound as though it actually was, in fact, a big deal.
Her position with the Whites wasn’t official. It was all thanks to the money making talent and self-publicity of her manager. What did the Roman mob love? Fast horses, free drink and pretty women. Excitement, sex and sin, it was a heady combination and helped encourage the vast urban mob to part with what little money they had on race days. People who ordinarily could barely pay rent on a one room, sixth storey flat would happily spend their paltry earnings on team-branded merchandise. Tacky collectible potteries, branded coloured tunics, collectible race bills. They would frequent bars and eateries catering solely to members of one or other of the factions. Ordinarily, come race days, the streets around the Circus were clogged with official (and unofficial) merchandise stalls selling a mind-boggling array of tat. Then there were the scandalous new-sheets and cheap, throw-away scrolls which peddled titillating gossip about sporting celebrities and persons of fame (not just high class but the stars of the city underworld too). A vast industry was built on simply “being a fan”.
When it came to spending money on unnecessary things, two items in particular helped men part with their money. One was drink (preferably lots of it) and the other was women (preferably one with lots to her, as it were). Men would happily spend money to come along and ogle her, whilst she was dressed in some revealing, highly inappropriate Whites uniform. She had her own fan base too and those would flock round the stalls as well. Sales would come up. Simple ‘moth to the flame’ economics, really.
On one level, yes, it was a little degrading to have to parade around like a piece of meat to be stared at and cat called. She had been required to stage several very public romances with leading White racers to help fuel the gossip mill. Most of them had ended up meeting messy and abrupt ends, wrapping themselves around a spina sooner or later. However, she knew at the same time that there was an element of empowerment too. She was using her gender to lead men by the nose and live a life free (or, rather, free-ish) from the patriarchal authority of a father or husband, in the liberating no-mans-land of being a social outcast.
“My manager has me put on a lot of public appearances for the Whites. This and that. Parties, fund-raisers, season events, sales and that sort of stuff. Just want someone to look pretty and dish out some bawdy banter to help flog merch to impressionable fans. Makes me familiar with a lot of folk but not much liked by those who don’t like the Whites. The money isn’t too bad, I suppose, and it’s nice to get invited to all their celebrity parties and things so I guess you’ve got to take the rough with the smooth, eh?”
“I suppose I probably wouldn’t and, if you can’t see much of what is going on down there, I guess it would make sense to stage your own games up here,” Aelia said. Well, if the man wanted and relished some violence then why was she to stop it. Who was she, the vigiles? If those two apes wanted to bash each other’s brains out why should she stop them. After all, hadn’t everyone here come today to see just that: violence? Why leave it up to the professionals? She could guarantee that no one would be likely to stop the two from going at it hammer and tongs. The man by her had a slightly disturbing look in his eye as she had thought already – an enjoyment of the primal nature of the games over and above what she would have considered normal. She had reached her own point of frustration where she honestly didn’t much care anymore. Why not invite a little madness?
His lament about his seat was almost comical. If she recalled correctly it had hardly been her fault that he was distracted. If he had had more care in the first place…
“Well, if you can go before the Censor and show your account books, maybe they’ll make you a knight and you can have one of the rows closer to the action?” she joked. “Until then, I guess you’re stuck with me and that prick over there!” She said the last bit intentionally loud, designed to catch the other guy’s attention. Why, she couldn’t exactly say. She was frustrated. She wasn’t drunk, she was being ignored by her friends, she was too on her guard, she wasn’t much enjoying the spectacles. All of this was thrown together and was feeding the imp of the perverse that possessed her sometimes. Cause a little madness. Besides, what sort of games would it be if the plebeian stands did not have to be raided at least once by the Guards to restore order? It was, in its own way, a kind of tradition.
“But, hey, what do I know about men and their dignity?”
Aelia ordered likewise. This was the sort of joint where a menu was a purely decorative item, not an actual invitation for choice. You had this soup or that soup. If you wanted something else, you could go elsewhere. Such concepts as “the customer is always right” were alien in such a place. Well, at least it had no airs and graces and you had to hand it to the owners: there was something to be said for just ruling your patrons with an iron fist. With a promptness borne of repetition, soon a chipped dish was plonked in front of her along with a slab of grainy, crudely milled bread. The soup did not bear close scrutiny. The floating chunks of meat where of a dubious and unknown provenance: perhaps chicken, perhaps lamb, perhaps a different four legged animal. These islands of substance were few and far between, idly bobbing in a watery background together with some chunks of roughly-hewn root vegetables. Well, it would do the trick and she wasn’t complaining. For too many nights in a row she had lived on little else other than skewers of grilled meat and flagons of cheap wine. At least there was greenery in this.
She ripped off a chunk of the bread and bit into it. Fortunately her teeth only just missed a chunk of millstone grit that had worked its way into it. She delicately spat the offending grit onto the floor.
“Well you don’t give much away do you?” she said. It did cross her mind that she had let herself be quite easily led off, considering that he only task had been to get water. It was not unknown for criminals or press gang pimps to lure women off by all manner of means and kidnap them into…well…thinks you didn’t want to think about. There’d be plenty who would pay for a go on the poster girl of the Whites.
What she had said was intriguing. Passing herself off as a man?
“Oh yeah? Surprised you decided to turn back if that’s the case,” she joked. “They have a better time of it than we do.”
“Better than a man pretending to be a woman, I’ve seen that. They’re a lot less convincing. What’d you do then? Enlist in the legions to go follow some lost love?”
Aelia was starting to wish that she had never decided to come at all today. This had turned into a total disaster. The games were making her feel claustrophobic and a little ill – too much emotion and wine. Now she found herself feeling like she was once about to be drawn again into violence against her will. The man had been talking with the sort of casual flippancy about public death which so many of the other spectators did, almost in the same way one might discuss family news or give directions to the forum. Some of the names he had mentioned rung a bell, others passed her by completely. One wonders what sort of mad brute you had to be to earn yourself the epithet “the bloody.”
She was saved – if you could call it that – from having to come up with a response to the increasingly worrying line of questioning by the interruption by another, probably drunk, reveller. The insult thrown at her washed over her as usual although it never got old completely – being called a whore. Yes, there were plenty of working girls up here but she was certainly not one of them, not that anyone particularly cared because in their eyes she and they were one and the same. Ordinarily she would have just turned or walked away, tried to avoid the conflict. You would never win in these circumstances. Most women in her profession knew that. If you tried to argue then it was more likely you would get hurt. Just ignore and walk away. Take the higher road, as she had once been told.
But she could not do that here. The press of people was such that her standing up would only draw more attention to her, particularly if she blocked views of the spectacle. Moreover, it wasn’t just her that was involved in this now. The person she had only just avoided arguing with herself was now the person involved. Men were like animals. Small disputes, unkind words and tiny spats could descend quickly into physical violence all for nothing. He, of course, did not care a jot for the slander to her but rather the insult that he had received himself. His body language, whilst outwardly somewhat calm, gave completely the opposite impression. It was like this guy actually wanted a fight. If that happened then Gods only knew what would happen. If there was bloodshed the vigiles or Urban Cohorts would be crawling over here in seconds and – of course – she would be arrested. The misogynistic pigs would assume it was all due to the harlot. She did not fancy another period of unfair detention by over familiar forces of policing – if for no other reason than she didn’t have enough coin on her to bribe her way out of molestation.
“Ignore him,” she said quietly but the other man didn’t seem to hear. The pair were now staring each other down, separated only by a few seats filled ith others, eyeing each other like two angry dogs.
Well, this one wasn’t giving anything away. She wasn’t going to let go of it that easily. Aelia was incorrigibly inquisitive – or nosy, depends on how you see it. There had to be more to it all than that. A woman, tutoring the children of a proconsul but sporting a black eye. She didn’t even know if this woman was free or not. Honestly, it made little difference to her but she assumed she wasn’t. “I know exactly how you feel but I’m paid to play my parts, one way or another.” She pressed on with her questioning. “You talking about how you ended up here? You might say ending up teaching posh children in a fancy house isn’t too bad. You ain’t sweeping the forum or in the mines or one of those cheap brothels so, yeah, it might not be the green forests of where you’re from but could be worse, right?” She meant it in a nice way. She saw lots of people of their class depressed in their situation. Whilst, yes, most of the time it was horrid it could always be worse. At least Aelia was free. A social outcast but her own boss. The choices for her were limited.
The popina she led them to was one Aelia had never been to before. That was the funny thing about Rome. They could barely have been two or three blocks away from her flat but she had never been down this little street before. You ended up living in your own bubble in the city: seeing the same faces, visiting the same places. You could live here ten years and still never have seen half the city. That said, it wasn’t a dive or the sort of place half hidden to avoid the forces of the law. The Urban Prefect’s health officials probably actually visited this one. The fact they hadn’t condemned it meant that the food probably wouldn’t kill you, although the vat of yesterday’s fish stew would probably have you clutching your spasming stomach for a day or two after eating it. The owner showed no discernible issue with her turning up. Well, not everyone recognises you, Aelia, she thought to herself. That said, some of the popinas closer to her flat had stopped serving her and her friends – apparently even some on the Aventine had strict social morality which prevented them from accepting her coin. They were in the minority though. It was nice to come somewhere where there was not crude graffiti scribbled across the outside walls concerning her.
Noon had shortly passed and now here, like other such establishments, was starting to fill up as the workshops and stores nearby shut up for lunch.
“Yeah, people have a way of turning up here and going one of two ways – up or down. Go on then, you going to tell me a bit more about you then or do you like being the mystery woman?”
There was something very chilling about the way the man spoke and Aelia instantly regretted ever having made a fuss in the first place. She knew perfectly well that the Games brought out the worst in people. They made perfectly normal people into animals, revelling in carnage like some sort of barbarian beserker. The poor unfortunates down on the sand most likely knew that there was little prospect of them escaping to fight another day. It was not impossible. But the authorities revelled in the ludicrous carnage by giving the poor unfortunates wooden swords with which to combat the beasts if they were criminals, or sometimes nothing at all. The professionals, of course, were the complete opposite. However, most people seemed to actually prefer the madness of the public executions – terrified and untrained people fleeing in terror from wild animals. It actually made some people laugh. Aelia did not number amongst them.
“Oh, well I have not been in such a while, those names I did know probably are with Hades now. But if there are new names I should know then do tell and I will keep an eye out. I wouldn’t want to be behind the curve!”
Truthfully, whilst she did know gladiators – several quite well, she had dated a few in the past – the main reason she did not do so at present was because they had a decidedly bad habit of dying. It was their lust for life that made them (or, rather, some of them) good company. However, you did not want to grow too attached. One slip, one stumble, one bad day and that was that. Either they would die outright or they would lose the love of the crowd and, when fallen prostrate, would expect no mercy from the mob. So, if you wanted to keep abreast of the latest celebrity fighters you really had to know your stuff and follow the Games religiously.
He leaned conspiratorially closer. “Oh, well, only in passing. I am here with my friends over there,” she said, indicating the men. They were just as bad as the others, busy gambling on men’s lives whilst drinking heavily on this public holiday.
That was quite an astute statement. Yeah, it was very easy to pass yourself off as Roman. How many people walking by them did just that? It was not as though they required you to pull out official documentation – well, at least not for the likes of her anyway. Maybe if you were a senator or someone important. But, setting that aside, you could just give yourself the correct sounding name and then act appropriately. Her father had done it. Well, she had not known him very well but she did remember that he stood on his ceremony as a Roman citizen very often – which was ridiculous really when, as an actor, he had rubbed any value that came with that in the dirt by doing an unclean profession. She was also pretty much 95% sure that it was a lie too. But her father hadn’t been a great one for religious adherence to the truth.
It was very easy. I mean, she looked Greek pretty clearly. Long blonde hair, pale white skin. Well that was more Macedonian than Greek really but still… Yet most of the men who followed her career and enjoyed her as a “pin up” were willing to completely overlook this glaring issue and buy in to the well-peddled lie that she was a good, honest Roman woman – or, rather, at least as good and honest as a woman who chose to be an actress could be.
She felt much more relaxed now. The conversation was actually something of a tonic for her sore head, she hadn’t thought about her headache until now. Ouch, yes, it was still there.
She looked at the woman again. There was clearly more to her than met the eye and Aelia found that intriguing.
“Are you pretending too then? Anything to do with that sore face?” she said, pointing towards the mark on it which clearly came from fighting.
The woman had stopped abruptly and mentioned food. She wasn’t sure she could really face any in the state she was in but, at the same time, she saw no reason to rush back to the flat. Cleander would still be snoring. The mess would still be there, waiting for her to clean it up. In all likelihood all she would do would be drag herself back to bed and try to sleep the hangover away. She really ought to try and make more of her time than that. The prospect of returning to the sordid mess did not appeal to her at all.
“Alright then, I think that’s a fine idea, your choice, though, my head’s too sore to be any good at making decisions today.”