"No. You need to let go of that,"
Azarion recoiled at Safinia's even tone. She had never been really tactful or emotional, but then again, he had never really shown this side of him to her... or anyone, either.
How the fuck exactly was he supposed to let go of that?
"Home is where you belong now. And right now you belong in the Whites' stables. Yesterday's gone. Tomorrow's not come yet. It's the here and now that matters, and in the here and now you're a charioteer apprentice. Not a hunter or bowyer or whatever. So let go. It's not who you are anymore."
For a moment, pain was evident in Azarion's face, as if he had been slapped. He had been defiant and cocky back at the ludus, having a moment where he could take up a bow and remind himself who he was. And now here he was, being reminded that was all in the past. Likely he wold never be that person again. Son of a chief, hunter, rider. Sarmatian. Free. All that was left was to do his best, learn the foreign skills of driving a chariot, and hope the Roman public took a liking to him, and the gods did not want to see him die trampled in the Circus. That was pretty much the extent of it.
"Let's go. We still haven't done our shopping."
Azarion hung his head. Wherever Safinia had come from, she did not understand. It was not her fault. It was not like he could explain. He fell into step next to her, making a calmer gesture. I'm sorry. About the money.
Punching a wall was never a great idea, but then again people who punched walls were generally not in their most logical mindset. Azarion grunted as he shook his hand, hoping he did not end up breaking any bones. The last thing he needed was to miss out on his training because he couldn't use his hand. The anger was beginning to clear, giving space to disappointment.
"Stop doing that,"
Safinia placed a hand on his shoulder, and he turned to look at her, half expecting to get punched in the face. She probably did not expect to run for her life this morning when they left for the market. But as annoyed as she might have been, she did not look like she was about to beat him up.
"What was all that about? The bow?"
Azarion sighed and hung his head. Yeah, the bow. She'd seen him handle the weapon. Did she understand what all that meant? No one knew where Azarion had come from, not yet. No one had cared to ask. He made a few gestures. He'd handled bows before, just like he'd handled horses, in another life. He tapped his chest, wondering if she'd understand. Home.
They ran until it felt like they were safe from any wrathful gladiators pursuing them, and until they ran out of breath. Finally they stopped in an alley and Safinia pulled herself free, leaning against a wall. Azarion stopped too, catching his breath as he leaned on his knees. It had been a close call, all of it, and he was not exactly innocent in inciting the gladiator's anger. Safinia looked equally furious now. And just as dangerous.
"I'm definitely telling cook about this. And maybe the boss too. What the fuck were you thinking?!"
What was he? Azarion huffed, straightening up. What could he possibly say? That seeing a bow made him homesick? That shooting arrows made him feel free for a fleeting moment? That the whole thing just made him aware of how utterly fucked he was, as a slave to Romans? He bit the inside of his cheek, looking away. His eyes stung. Oh, sure, go ahead, cry like a baby, that will help. Azarion shook his head, turning away from Safinia, and punched the wall, because he had nothing else to do.
It was not a smart idea. He yelped as his fist connected with a brick.
"Quitting now? Then it's my win,"
Safinia ran for it. She had always been smarter than Azarion. Azarion knew this was where things were headed, and it still took him another moment to convince himself he would not survive picking a fight with the gladiator. He could have his precious win. It hurt Azarion's pride, after humiliating him in a fair contest of archery, but it did not hurt worse than getting his tongue cut out. Or being branded.
He ran too, following her as she wove through the crowd. People shouted after them but if they pursued it did not last long. There was laughter too. And some jokes. And cursing. Azarion's cheeks burned by the time he left the ludus, catching up with Safinia as she stopped to breath at the entrance. Without slowing down, he grabbed her by the arm to pull her along. They wouldn't be quite safe until at least a couple of alleys down.
The gladiator was on the edge of his patience. Azarion could tell, but there was no way to back out of this now. And it felt too good, having a bow in his hands again. Just... too. Good. Like freedom.
The gladiator, being a complete moron, obviously did not get any of that. He did pick up the arrows, seething, and did a poor imitation of what Azarion had done. It was a technique Sarmatians used a lot; easier to shoot fast from horseback than always having to pull from the quiver. The gladiator did not have the same experience, but he did his level best. His shots were slower that Azarion's, and one went wide. There was no applause this time. There was, on the other hand, clear murderous intent.
Azarion stared back defiantly.
"We should go now."
Azarion was gritting his teeth without realizing it. He'd lost either way. Even though he was the better archer, he was still a slave, and it was time for him to leave before he got into way more trouble. He gripped the bow. For a moment it felt impossible to let it go again. He glanced at Safinia, who looked genuinely scared now. Letting out a sigh, he lowered the bow and unstrung it, before placing it on the table.
There was some applause as Azarion hit the target, and a murmur of surprise. Before, he was just some lad who walked into the ludus and decided to pick a fight with a gladiator; but now people could see him handling a bow. It was a part of him. He'd grow up learning it, from the time he could walk, and then ride. And even more than the applause, the feeling of shooting again was absolutely worth all the shit he was about to get for this after.
The gladiator hit the target too, an inch or so away from his own arrow, and spat at his feet.
"Still think you're all that now?"
Azarion's grin widened.
Turning back to look at the target, Azarion adjusted his fingers around the three arrows he was still holding in his left, against the handle of the bow. He took a deep breath, aiming with his eyes (and maybe, just maybe, enjoying the tension), then raised the bow and fired off all three arrows one by one, within a heartbeat from each other. The fingers of his left hand moved them into place with amazing speed, and all three hit the center of the target one after the other. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
Azarion looked at the gladiator, then down at the arrows at his feet.
Walked into that one, you moron.
“Me? Well, no. My family owned an orchard and my father, brothers and myself were scribes as well. For a time, while in Rome, I acted as a tutor or accountant.”
Azarion blinked, actually surprised at the answer. Bassus, the daredevil charioteer with all the swagger, used to be a scribe? How did one even go from one to the other? Did he get bored with numbers and decided to risk his lives in the Circus?
“If I wasn’t a charioteer, I would have liked to follow my family’s footsteps but being a charioteer pays quite well.”
Oh. Sure. Azarion forgot sometimes that Bassus wasn't a slave like him. He got to make a whole lot of money from winning for the Whites, and the additional benefits of people being all crazy about him. No wonder he was so confident. No wonder he also forgot sometimes that Azarion was not free.
Bassus, the accountant. Now there was an image to remember. Would women still fall all over him if he still was?
“We should keep our eyes on the prize, hm, Azarion? There lies our Garden of Eden. Our forbidden fruit. Remember, you see a woman, you smile widely. Let’s see your smile.”
A what in the what now? Azarion looked at the tavern, then back at Bassus. What garden? What forbidden fruit?... More importantly, screw the smiling. Azarion smirked at Bassus instead. He was not going to walk into a tavern with him grinning like an idiot.
The woman looked confused at his gestures, and Azarion let out a frustrated huff. Sure, he was a slave and she was a noblewoman, but he was not her slave, and she was being difficult. She could put up with the sass, or try her luck outside of the brothel. Azarion repeated his gestures anyway. Just to make clear he was not a prostitute.
"You ride them, or tend to them?"
Oh, for the god's sake.
Azarion held up a hand. The first one. Sure, he was still in training, but he was a charioteer and not just a stable boy anymore. He loved the horses, though, and he would probably keep tending to his own team even after he was officially a charioteer for the Whites. But that was a thing she did not need to know. Instead, Azarion gestured at her, and her freedmen. What was she doing here, in a brothel?
It appeared that Bassus had taken it upon himself to mentor him in the ways of being a charioteer. Which, in this case, had nothing to do with horses or racing. Charioteers were known for their popularity as much as their skill, and in that regard, Azarion still had a lot to learn.
“That’s right. Eye contact, a great big smile, and your body oozes sex, if not then confidence. It’s like acting.”
I don't really want my body to ooze anything. Azarion rolled his eyes. Also. Slave, remember?
“Oh, that. Pfft. Here, allow me.... See, no harm, hm? Let’s get going.”
Azarion stared at Bassus as he removed his tablet. Now that was definitely not allowed. In fact, Azarion would get his ass whipped into oblivion if they found out he took it off. But Bassus did not seem bothered at all. Azarion made a mental note to blame it all on the other charioteer if it came to that.
“Have you always wanted to be a charioteer, Azarion?”
No, I wanted to be a war chief of the Saii, you moron.
Azarion shook his head with a frown. Sure, being a charioteer was a career in Rome, much better than mucking out stables, but in the end, who the hell wanted to do this all their life for entertainment? He tilted his head at Bassus. Did he?
The lady winced as it dawned on her that she was talking to a slave with a questionable past, and it was a little satisfying to see the regret in her face. Of course Azarion couldn't know a nice person or a bitch, but he rarely ever came face to face with Roman nobility, and he was not going to sugarcoat things for her.
"I'm sorry. I hope...I hope you're in a better place now?"
I'm still a slave, lady.
"What...what were you doing here before the riot? You live here, perhaps?"
Azarion scoffed. It was one thing to be looked at with pity, and it was quite another to be mistaken for a prostitute. Funny, really. That was one of the few things that the Romans had not done to him yet. He gave her an amused look, then made some gestures, drawing a C in the air and miming driving a chariot. She might or might not know what he meant, but he tapped his tunic anyway, that used to be white before the whole street riot thing started.