"If it is any consolation you are a very pretty woman. Much better looking than as a man...even if you need to fix your hair. What is your name now? Aius isn't a woman's, is it?"
"Aia. My real name is Aia." she smiled a little, running her hands through her damp hair to smooth it down. It was ironic in a way that she was now for the first time living under her own name, and Erea had to live under another. Romans liked to give new, Roman-sounding names to their slaves instead of the ones they did not like (or could not pronounce). Especially for the ones they had close by all the time, like body slaves.
"No, he has Hector for that. He bought me to work in the kitchens but...I have about as much skill cooking as I do reading so I've managed to find work in the gardens which is ...bearable, at least."
Aia nodded. Erea looked out of sorts, and a lot more shy than she had been the last time they met, but there was still a glimmer of her former humor in the way she talked about her situation. She was working in the gardens instead of the kitchens. It could have been worse. Then again, it could also have been better.
"What do you do? You're not a slave...are you? And you haven't seen my brother or sister on your travels have you? My husband is long dead I suspect but Turi and Ardra weren't at home when it happened...I'm...trying to find them in Rome."
"I'm not a slave" Aia shook her head "I am a tutor to a rich woman's children. I teach them languages." It was a decent place, for a woman on her own. She sighed as Erea asked about her siblings and her husband.
"No, I haven't seen them since I left... I could try to find out what I can, if you want. But if their names were changed too... I'm sorry. I'm sorry this happened to you."
"It's not your fault."
It really wasn't, but Aia still felt bad. She remembered the jokes and banter they used to have about freedom and provinces and the Romans. Back then she was still mourning the loss of the Briton kingdoms, and Aia was making light of the whole thing. Romans treated their provinces well. As long as they did not revolt. But they did not necessarily treat the people well...
"I wouldn't have chosen Charis if I was a free woman. I arrived here in March I think and went to market and was sold. I...don't know what happened, to Turi and my sister after I left."
There was a spark of her old spirit there. She was a slave then, bought and sold, taken from her family and her husband. Aia did not know what to say to that. She had been a lot of things in her life, but she had always been free.
"You...were a very adept liar, Aius. Why could you not be a woman in Gaul I don't understand?"
"I could not be a woman on the road, and could not be a woman alone. My father dressed me as a boy first when I started traveling with him." she shrugged. It was a means of survival, and she was not half bad at it either. It was a part of her. For now, she was more interested in what Charis was doing in Rome, and where she lived.
"A hill, I don't know. The man who...bought me, he's a senator. Tertius Q...Quin-ctilius Varus."
A senator. Aia's eyebrows rose up. Well, at least she was not in a brothel or anything... not that some masters were so much better.
"A senator?... Are you a body slave then?"
"That's not helpful, I need to practice my Latin."
Her Latin sounded a lot better now than it was the last time they met. Aius did not get a lot of time to teach her, but she was clever, and she knew she would improve if she had more time to practice. It was still broken, her Latin, but no one could say she was not having enough practice here in Rome...
"I think you know what happened. A few months after I last saw you they took my mother and killed my brother. Not Turi...my eldest brother. I think they feared we were arming people, an uprising. I don't know."
Aia's look darkened. Of course one always heard about rebellions that had to be put down, and peace that needed to be kept, but it was a whole different thing if you were talking to a person who paid the price for all that. And Erea had been so confident and free-spirited, not at all shy as she was now.
"I'm sorry, Erea." it felt weak to say it, but she said it anyway.
"And then they came for Immin and I a few months later and here I am."
"You're a slave, then?" it was only half a question. Aia doubted the proud Briton woman would have ever come to Rome of her own free will.
"And you? The Gods decided you weren't worthy of being a man? Or...you were a very good lier...?"
"I was always a woman" Aia admitted "I just lived as a man for safety. It was not something... that I could share with anyone. I live here now, in a lady's household, so I get to dress as a woman again." she paused "Where do you live?"
The woman looked away from Aia. She had the same reaction some women did in the baths when they were not yet used to the Roman custom of bathing together and not covering up. She did not seem comfortable in her surroundings.
"You seen me at market maybe, mistress."
Aia almost walked on with a shrug when the woman looked up again. No, she definitely knew her. From another place, another life...
"You woman now?"
There it was. The masculine name, the surprise, the face she couldn't place a moment before, but now it felt stupid that she did not recognize her immediately.
"Erea... But...Charis now."
For a moment, Aia stared at her, stunned. How on earth did the Briton woman end up here, in a Roman bath house? And what did she mean, Charis...
"Charis?..." Aia sat back down, pulling her towel up to cover herself, and switching to the Briton dialect they used to speak "What are you doing in Rome?"
She suspected the answer, but she did not want it to be true.
Aia was still not quite used to going around naked in front of others. For years of her adult life she had to hide her body, and pretend it was something completely different; even when there was a chance to visit the baths every once in a while, she had to make an excuse to make sure her secret was safe. Now that she lived in Rome as a woman, the whole world turned upside down: she was not only allowed to visit the baths, but even required to keep herself clean and healthy. It was a perk of her position as a tutor to have free time to go out and spend as she saw fit, as long as she kept things decent.
Having a bath was definitely decent.
Aia walked into the apodyterium with a towel loosely wrapped around her hips. Her hair, having grown out a little bit, was still mostly sticking up in a red mess while damp. She was going to have to wrangle it and tie it down before she went out on the street again, but she was not sure yet if she was going to go back to the water or not.
She noticed the young woman plaiting her hair, and decided that company was not a bad thing to be had. Women in general were very friendly at the baths, and it was a good place to make new friends, now that she had nothing to hide (other than the true story of some of the scars on her body, like the long cut along her lower ribs). She headed over to take a seat at a comfortable distance, but close enough to strike up a conversation... but once she did, she got a better look at the young woman's face.
"Hey there, how..." she blinked and paused "Wait. I know you."
"It's my husband more than my brothers you'll have to worry about."
It was not a big surprise that she was married. Any man would have had to be crazy not to marry her, and besides, if she was a maiden, there was no way in Tartarus her family would have allowed her to go anywhere near the Romans to trade. Aius pictured her husband as one of the great, tall, bearded Briton warriors she'd seen, and somehow she was still more intimidating.
"All you'll gain out of it is practice. You sure that'll suffice? I don't have very many interesting secrets for you to try and coax out of me, unfortunately, so you'll have to genuinely just be content with practicing your Brittonic."
She was not easily fooled, this one. Aius smirked. She would meet with her just for the fun of it, honestly, and it was enough if her superiors thought that she was gathering information. Or trying to. And who knew, maybe she would give away things without noticing it? She probably was too smart for that, but even the smartest people had their blind spots.
"It works for me. Maybe you can teach me some better words for 'knife' and 'sword.'"
"I can't come here more than once every other week on business, but my siblings come with me when I do. I don't want them to know. Any suggested solutions, Gaul?"
Aius thought about that for a moment, then shrugged.
"Not really, no. But I'll be here two weeks from now, and the rest is up to you." she said with a grin "You seem like a clever woman. I'm sure you will figure it out."
"You're funny, you are, aren't you?"
"I deserved that" Aius admitted. It was easier to joke about things when you were on the winning side.
"I don't know, it might be useful. But they'll think I'm deranged. And that it's pointless. I'm...more practical."
Aius followed her glance at her brother. She did seem like the smarter one of the family. And Aius did not need to be a philosopher to imagine how it would go over if she proposed to take language lessons from someone in the legions. Practical? Yes. Plausible? Definitely not.
"But I can't pay. We barely have enough and winter's going to get worse soon. My company will have to suffice as payment... But not in that way. What do you say?"
Aius noted the blush. Oh, she did have some of her innocence left. Some soldiers would have taken advantage of that, enemy or not. Aius, on the other hand, was a practical person too.
"Well, maybe we can come to an agreement" she noted, folding her arms "I mean, your company is lovely - don't tell your brother I said that, please, we just got a handle on this peace thing over here - but I could also use the practice. With your language. And talking to the locals... it's a good thing. We can't be a ruling army forever."
"Noted. I'll ask my Gods tonight to transport me into the future, shall I?"
She took the joke as intended, and Aius chuckled at the idea. If the myths were real as told, asking something like that of the gods would be a double edged sword at best.
"Careful what you wish for. Maybe they will drop you in some future moment when, dunno, fire is raining from the sky or something."
In the here any now, at least, the province was officially settled, and merchants like her were trying to make the best of it.
"We're trying to expand where we sell but it's hard. They... Get nervous seeing us with knives and axes for sale and trade...and they think their steel is superior."
Aius could not argue with the first part - she too was nervous when she saw an armed Briton up close. Old habits tended to die harder than the Briton resistance. The second part, though? She clicked her tongue and shook her head.
"Yeah, well, honestly, can't say all of them are from the top of the Roman crop." she smirked, glancing in the direction of the soldiers. If the Britons knew anything well other than killing Romans, it was making weapons.
"I'm sure being able to speak their language would help as well. Perhaps you should offer lessons to us poor savages...try and educate us?"
"Teach you Latin?" Aius arched an eyebrow. What a novel idea. It was one thing to learn their language as an interprex, but it was a whole other thing to start giving out lessons. She chuckled at the idea. "I might work for the legions, but I don't torture people." the joke might have gone a tad too far, so she put on a sheepish face to mitigate it. "I'm sorry. Bad joke. You'd really want to learn?"
"And what does an...interprex do? Do you give us orders in our languages so we can understand them? Or do you just try and find things out?"
She was not wrong on either, even though she was clearly saying them our of sarcasm. Aius smirked at the suggestion. The girl was smart, and she was not about to trust someone who worked for the Romans. So much about gathering information. She was not going to say anything useful, but talking to her was fun anyway. It was rare to meet a Briton, especially a woman, sharp enough to have a conversation like this, and one willing to talk instead of getting straight to the stabbing part.
"I translate when your people negotiate with my people, mostly."
They moved on to the topic of provinces. Aius did not have to hide the truth there: growing up in Gaul did not feel like growing up in an occupied kingdom. And since merchants thrived on peace, because peace was good for trade - and Rome was good for trade - her parents never really complained about the Romans either.
"You didn't mind it? Not even when you heard stories of what it was like...before they came? Of the people that were lost in that fight? Your people?... I should ask you for tips, how to be a better citizen for our Roman friends."
Aius chuckled and shook her head at the spirit of the young woman. Some officers would have had her arrested already for this much talk against the empire. But what was the point? Punishing people for complaining would not make anyone like the Romans any more.
"Well, step one: Be born a hundred years after the Roman conquest." she said, matching the woman's sarcasm with her own, but with a good-natured smile "It helps if you have a family of merchants, because merchants like peace, and the Romans are good buyers. Usually."
The boy seemed more than confident in his mother's forgiving nature. Aia was not so sure about how far Flavia Juliana would allow her precious son to venture, especially accompanied by someone like her, but for now, there was a lot of learning to cover before horse-riding adventures were even an option. She was sure that in time Quintus would become a young man of enthusiasm and curiosity. If he managed to sit still for more than five seconds, and learn some languages, he would no doubt put them to good use.
"Do you have a boyfriend or a husband? Or are you like Sappho?"
Aia blinked, staring at the boy who was just full of surprises.
"You know Sappho?" that did not seem like something a child would be interested in... Aia shook her head with a chuckle. "No, I do not have a husband or a boyfriend. I have friends who are boys, if that's what you are asking. Do you have a girl friend?"