Well, Rufus was generally pretty good at keeping out of trouble, although he knew as well as anyone that no slave could remain out of trouble for long if a free person were determined to get them into trouble. Still - thankfully - this did not seem to be the sort of household where that was normal, common or even expected. He wasn't the sort of person to go sticking his prick into anyone who took his fancy, either, so that should be easy enough. Although that thought brought another, more troubling question, to mind.
"Will the master require any... more personal services of me, sir? In bed?"
There were reasons that his old master hadn't, of course, but those reasons didn't exist here in this house. It wasn't as though he would mind (he certainly couldn't object) but if he was going to end up serving in that way too, he would at least like to have prior warning that it might be required.
He liked the household, what he'd seen of it; he certainly liked and appreciated Atticus' help and the fact the other man was letting him ask questions, and was even answering them. It remained to be seen whether he really had fallen on his feet in being purchased by this master, into this household, but he was feeling optimistic about his future here, and that couldn't be bad.
The sound of a sturdy stick against the bars of the cage made Rufus startle and he turned, getting to his feet.
"Yes, sir - I had just finished," he said, though that was perhaps stretching the truth a little.
"Really. Well, as you seem so keen to waste time chattering, perhaps you'd like to put your mouth to good use doing something else."
Rufus was not stupid and knew exactly what was meant by that - but right here, by the caged slaves who had no idea what servitude to a Roman could mean? Of course he meant right here, it would be a pretty little demonstration of just what their future lives might entail. Rufus was no stranger to the act - but it wasn't one that every slave ever had to do, and he was definitely too old to be the sort of pretty boy that most Romans thought of when they considered taking a male to their beds. He'd escaped that by being (probably) his old master's son, and now being older - but a slave dealer's hired muscle would take what he could get when he could get it, and Rufus wasn't ancient.
"Wouldn't you like somewhere a little more private, sir?"
The other man laughed. "Squeamish, are you? Come on, we don't have all night."
Rufus shrugged and shifted position, stepping a little so that the other's own body would hide precisely what was going on - he didn't know why, he just wanted to shield Erea from the realities of this life as much as he could, though it probably wouldn't help her in the long run.
The floor was hard under his knees, despite the strewn straw, but it didn't take long - he though the overseer might have found a corner to give himself a quiet moment with his hand, if he hadn't spotted Rufus. It was a stark contrast with the last time he'd done this - and the memory of his master's winter visitor was, overall, a much nicer thing to think about than this place. It was over quick enough and he was allowed to get to his feet to retrieve the water bucket, giving Erea a smile before he returned the bucket to its place, taking a mouthful of water for himself, and finding his own assigned spot. He just hoped he caught the eye of a decent master who preferred his other skills!
"Letinie, Erea's mother," Rufus said, wandering along the beach in his mind and placing the names at specific spots on the walk. "Brother Turi, sister Ardra. Come from Britannia, tribe Parisi." He kept his Latin simple, to help her understand, even as he committed the details to memory, using one of the tricks he'd learned as a child.
"A happy memory?" He had to think. "Ah. Do you know Saturnalia, at all - it's our midwinter festival, and in most households, the master and slaves swap roles for a day. It was a few years ago, now, and I just remember Mama reclining in the triclinium, like any high-born lady would, laughing at a joke, with her wreath all askew over her ear." He didn't recall the joke, which probably hadn't even been that funny, but he remembered the atmosphere of fun and laughter.
Gods, he missed that!
Rufus folded his hands over hers where they clasped the bars of the cage. "Yes - her name is Bretta. She has dark red hair, the same colour as mine but long, like yours." He indicated his hair and then the length of hers with one hand before putting it over hers again. Small, delicate hands, but used to work.
"She's older than me... twenty-two." Again, he used his hands to signal her age. "Do you have family here, anyone you want me help you find?"
He might not be able to, of course - he might not even be able to find Erea again! - but it would be worth looking, worth asking, and if there were family and he came across them, he could at least let them know Erea was in Rome, somewhere. He rubbed her knuckles with a thumb, a tiny, minuscule comfort in a place where comfort was as rare as hens' teeth.
"I..." He stopped as she took his work-hardened hand in hers and traced the lines of his palm. "A bit sad, perhaps, at leaving home. But no family, nobody to be sad for me." He smiled. "I might find my sister here, maybe? And lost, because I'm going to be sold to a new owner, someone I don't know and don't know how to serve." There was a shrug there. "I've never been sold, before - like you haven't."
He'd seen slaves sold, though, in the market, with the placards around their necks, and felt a little sick that he was going to end up in that situation himself in the next day or so. He might be lucky and get to keep his tunic on, but he wasn't about to bet a bent as on it.
"It's good," Rufus said. If she hadn't understood that exchange, good. He hoped she'd find a good buyer, it seemed she needed a little luck to go her way for a change. "O Fortuna, smile on Erea!"
He carefully pulled the loop of cord tight around the end of the plait before wrapping the rest of the cord around it and tying the two ends together - it wasn't the very best hairdressing ever - the most skilled ornatrices could completely hide the thread fastening their work! - but it was secure and wouldn't come out until Erea took it out.
"I'm not sad, but I think you are? If you move back, a little," he gave a tiny tug to show what he meant, "I can help with your shoulders. If you want. I don't have long, though."
He muttered something uncomplimentary in Greek about the overseer.
"Ornatrix, really," Rufus told her. "Um. You know hair?" He held a strand of her own hair over her shoulder, so she could see what he meant. "An ornatrix is a slave-girl who makes ladies' hair pretty."
If she had skills with any sort of hair-styling, she could do that. The more skills a slave had, the more likely they were to go for a good price... and that meant they were surely likely to be better treated because who'd spend money on a slave and then mistreat them so that they couldn't work? Only a damned fool.
"Even a barbarian can look pretty, sir," Rufus said, looking up at the man who'd approached. "She might fetch a better price, this way - I won't be long."
Appeal to their greed, it usually worked. And it wouldn't take Rufus long, anyway. Depending on whether the citizen moved on or not, he might be able to give her a quick shoulder-rub through the cage bars - he had no oil and was not going to ask her to undress (he'd gone through that ordeal enough himself since arriving here and wasn't going to ask a girl to do it - she might be far more squeamish about nudity than Rufus or anyone else used to the Roman way of doing things, after all). But she looked as though she were stiff and perhaps had a bit of a back-ache, which were totally understandable.
Concentrating on Erea was helping dispel Rufus' own sense of homesickness and trepidation about his future, too - but the help he was offering was far more overt. But it was helping, a little; he couldn't sink into his own thoughts when he was trying to talk to someone whose Latin was not strong!
He tipped a little more water over the rag and offered it to her.
"Clean your face?" he suggested. It would help her feel better, more human, he hoped.
He shrugged. Some masters would whip if something wasn't to their standard, or taste, but most - in Rufus' experience - would not. "More like, if you are rude or insolent," he told her, though who knew if she'd understand the word 'insolent'. "Don't talk first, don't ask too many questions. You'll be all right."
He didn't have a comb with him, but once he'd untied the cord hold her plait together, it was easy enough to run his fingers through her hair and tease out the worst knots.
"I don't know when he wants to sell me. My feet hurt - I walked all the way from Campania," he told her. "It's a long way, all one road - the Via Appia."
Not that she'd know that - but then, he had only the faintest idea where Britannia lay, so they were just as ignorant as each other. He tied a slip-knot in the thin cord she'd tied her hair with, and lay it across his lap as he divided her hair into three sections to begin the plait.
"Do you think I could tell them I'm an ornator?" he said, carefully beginning to plait. He was not as skilled as some, but knew enough to make a simple braid. And it would have to be only a simple braid because he had none of the tools to do anything else, not even a bun.
Even the word sounded silly - the female ornatrix was the proper word for a hair-stylist, and he knew some female slaves trained for a long time to perfect the complex styles that the highest ranking ladies wore.
"I am - was - a house slave," Rufus said, also speaking quietly. "Sh - ssh," he added, as she winced again. "Nearly finished, very nearly. It's not bad. Depends on the master, though. Clean the house, serve at dinner, run errands, go shopping for food. Not bad."
She was pretty enough to go to a ludus or a brothel, though perhaps the whip-welt would put them off. He might end up in a brothel himself, but hopefully his literacy and Greek would be enough to secure him a place in someone's house. He knew how to be a good house slave. A prostitute, though? He could perform the basics, but not well, and could certainly not bring himself to flatter half-drunk men who just wanted to paw at him.
"Apologies," he added. "But you're here, now, you can't change the past. Only the future. And there, all done." He wrung the rag out over the straw-scattered floor, and paused.
"I can... plait your hair, tidier, if you want?" he offered, thinking it might be painful for her to raise her arm to do so herself, if she even cared enough to bother. The place hadn't completely broken her spirit, but if she were here for too long, hopelessness would surely settle in.
"Apologies." He paused as she flinched away, out of his reach. "Ssh, easy, Little Bird," he said, quietly, soothingly. "Yes. My master died and the mistress sold me to a trader and so I'm here now."
He supposed Erea was here because she'd ended up as a prisoner in yet another of the interminable skirmishes between the Britons and the Roman invaders. It felt very strange being this close to someone from his mother's country, even if not from the same part of it.
It looked a nasty weal - he'd never understand slave traders who used their whips. Surely Erea hadn't caused any trouble - she didn't look the sort who would, and neither did she look cowed or broken in the way that a former trouble-maker would, once they'd been dealt with. And whipping someone just because you could was the epitome of cowardice, and meant , if nothing else, that you'd get less for them at the end of the day. If nothing else at all, that should stop the worst louts from lashing out.
He began to hum, very quietly, a half-remembered lullaby his mother had used to sing when he was very young, when she eventually settled back to allow him to continue. "You're very brave," he said, quietly, before resuming his humming.