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Charis

Years Apart

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Late May, 74AD

Charis glanced around nervously. Since she had been in Rome she had yet to get used to the way these people seemed to relish nudity, and the public experience of bathing. At home, she'd steal away to one of the rivers near her home to bathe in peace and alone. This, right now in Rome, was deeply uncomfortable for her. Still, it was at least time outside of the domus and away from her domine and the other slaves. A time for peace. Even if she resented that most of the meagre coins she was sometimes given, were frittered away on washing. 

Seated in the apodyterium, her tunica thrown over her lap and chest to shield what modesty she had left, she avoided the glances of curious Romans. It was quieter now, but not without a smattering of people. She had learnt, in her months here, that early evening was a suitable time to visit. Most citizens were dining and their slaves serving and preparing their food. Given her work was now in the gardens, and required light, she could venture out largely unobstructed. 

Deftly, her fingers worked through the knots in her hair, having pulled it over her shoulder. It was damp from the tepidarium, and she was braiding it. Here the Romans seemed to wish for their women to have these great elaborate styles that she could never recreate, or else loosely tied up off the neck. She missed the braids she had worn at home, and the action of plaiting it was soothing to her.

Glancing to the left and debating another dip into one of the baths, a voice caught her off guard and she glanced up. 

 

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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."

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Charis flinched at the voice. Something in her, since her arrival here, had made her more fearful of people speaking to her directly. She had grown (begrudgingly) accustomed to moving through life unnoticed as a slave. The rare times people did speak to her, it made her almost confused. Glancing up she couldn't help the flush that coloured her cheeks at the other woman's nudity. She was still unused to it. Tactfully averting her eyes both for modesty's sake, and respectfully given she had no idea if this person was free or enslaved, she frowned at the voice.

It was familiar, but as the woman suggested she knew her, Charis shrugged, fingers still working through her hair. "You seen me at market maybe, mistress." She offered in accented, broken Latin. 

But there was lingering doubt. The woman's voice was familiar, and few people had paid her attention before Tertius when she had been at the market. Cautiously, she glanced up again and set her eyes on her company. The features were familiar and as it dawned on her, confusion filled her head. "Ai...Aius?" She managed. Completely tactlessly, she cast a confused glance between the woman's face and chest, trying to square away the scrawny albeit very masculine man she had known in Britannia. "You woman now?" She managed a small laugh of genuine confusion before she glanced away again. 

Offering to help she added weakly, in case she had not been as memorable to this man...woman, as the red-head had been to Charis. "Erea..." She gestured to herself, "But...Charis now."

 

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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...

"Ai...Aius?"

Oh shit

"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?!"

"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...

Oh, shit

"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.

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She smiled genuinely as the woman habitually slipped to Briton and used it herself. "That's not helpful, I need to practice my Latin." She offered as a weak joke, wanting to delay the inevitable conversation. 

Awkwardly, she pulled her hair behind her ears and fiddled with the loose half-braid she had been plaiting, a nervous habit. "I think you know what happened." She cast a curious glance at her company with an arched brow. She tried to sound nonchalant, but the weariness ate away at her words. "A few months after I last saw you they took my mother and killed my brother," She shook her head, "Not Turi...my eldest brother. I think they feared we were arming people, an uprising," She waved a hand, "I don't know." 

She didn't want to spread her misery and so instead, avoiding looking up at her company she said quietly in a muffled voice; "And then they came for Immin and I a few months later and here I am." How different she felt, must have seemed. The once proud Briton woman, confident, witty...reduced to averting her eyes, alone in a bathhouse in Rome. 

Arching a brow at Aia she managed to smile, wanly, "And you? The Gods decided you weren't worthy of being a man? Or...you were a very good liar...?"

 

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"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?"

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"It's not your fault." She shrugged, but eyed the woman. For a brief few moments after her brothers death and her mothers disappearance she had wondered if this flame-haired woman had led her down the garden path, whether Charis had said anything she shouldn't have to her and that was why it happened. But she had certainly not said anything that would warrant what happened to Calpornus. 

She smiled a little, ruefully, feeling bolder than she had done in quite some time. "I wouldn't have chosen Charis if I was a free woman." Before she nodded, "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." She harboured a vain hope that they hadn't suffered a similar fate to herself, but knew it was unlikely. Feeling embarrassed, of having to admit she had fallen so low, she moved to place her towel around her shoulders to shield the lash mark that was slowly fading to a silvery-white from its previous angry red. 

Charis blinked up at her though, genuinely surprised and...impressed. "You...were a very adept liar, Aius." She almost laughed but it sounded hoarse in her throat. "Why could you not be a woman in Gaul I don't understand?" Perhaps this young woman's fate was as complex as her own. 

"A hill, I don't know." She waved a hand flippantly, "The man who...bought me, he's a senator. Tertius Q...Quin-ctilius Varus." she managed to stutter. His name and its correct pronunciation often escaped her, as she was so used to just calling him domine.

 

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"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?"

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Charis nodded sympathetically. Her life had its dangers, but she could always count on the protection of her menfolk. She did not want to imagine herself, alone. If their situations had been reversed, she was sure she would have done similarly, even if she was sure she would have made a very unconvincing man. 

"If it is any consolation you are a very pretty woman.She offered, "Much better looking than as a man...even if you need to fix your hair." She joked, hoping Aia wouldn't take offence. Her barometer for humour had been severely warped as of late; the Romans never seemed to want to jest. Not that she had really been in the mood for humour lately. "What is your name now? Aius isn't a woman's, is it?" In the company of somebody she had once called almost a friend, she had lost some of the meekness she had picked up. She missed being forward and bold.

Shaking her head, she resumed the braiding of her hair. "No, he has Hector for that." She wrinkled her nose, as if the thought of the man was distateful. Still, her lips twitched in a smile. "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." She did not say that it was on bearable because she hoped it would not last, but her chance of freedom seemed to be rapidly diminishing as she realised that the Romans simply didn't care to hear her story. 

Casting a curious look up at Aia she narrowed her gaze. "What do you do? You're not a slave...are you?" She didn't know how it worked...whether Aius' lies had deprived her of her freedom. "And you haven't seen my brother or sister on your travels have you?" She added, half jesting, but her voice sounded hollow. "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."

 

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"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."

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"Aia." Charis repeated, as if trying it out for size, mouthing it to herself silently again. Occasionally she stole a glance at the other woman, now with her modesty preserved the young Briton felt less awkward, and she still couldn't quite believe that the scrawny young man was now here...sat in front of her...and decidedly feminine. Nonetheless, she listened with patience and couldn't help the shadow of a smile that crossed her lips. "You were never a very good teacher...if you were I would have been able to speak Latin and would have been sold for a lot more...poor children." She joked, feeling a bit of her lost vigour return. 

"But that sounds nice." She added almost wistfully, before glancing at her companion with a frown. "But what made you leave the legions? You just...left...did you come back here after?" Charis was too proud to admit she had been hurt by the sudden absence of somebody she had considered a friend. Or at least an amusing acquaintance. 

Shrugging thin shoulders, a flush coloured her cheeks, as if embarrassed by her newfound circumstance. Self consciously, she wrapped the towel further around her shoulders. "Again...you don't need to be sorry, I don't need your pity..." She said stiffly, because she knew if she let the emotion in it would drown her. Awkwardly, she continued, but kept her gaze away from Aia. "When they first put me in the cage...even when I was here, and sold I thought that they'd listen to what happened and release me, send me back." she swallowed and cast a cautious look up at the older woman. "But that's not very likely...is it?" She needed somebody to be honest, for once.

 

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"Aia... You were never a very good teacher...if you were I would have been able to speak Latin and would have been sold for a lot more...poor children." 

Aia looked up in surprise, then a slow grin appeared on her face. There was the feisty Briton woman she thought had been lost. They only had a few lessons of Latin together, during which they mostly focused on phrases useful for trade. But the fact that Erea found the humor to tease her about it was a good sign that she was not completely broken. 

"But that sounds nice. But what made you leave the legions? You just...left...did you come back here after?" 

"They found out I was a woman." Aia noted shortly, looking away. The whole thing was a mess and the scandal that was only mitigated by the sheer distance between Britannia and Rome. The rest explained itself: she had to leave because she could not be in the legions anymore. She still got lucky. And a lot luckier than Erea.

"Again...you don't need to be sorry, I don't need your pity... When they first put me in the cage...even when I was here, and sold I thought that they'd listen to what happened and release me, send me back. But that's not very likely...is it?" 

"No." Aia said honestly, shaking her head. Romans were not famous for allowing people to talk themselves out of slavery. "The only way you get out of slavery is if your master gives you your freedom, or you buy yourself. Most Romans don't just let slaves go free once they bought them for a lot of money."

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Charis didn't press her company, only added with narrowed eyes; "You say it like being a woman is such a curse." Maybe it was. Men in war were simply dispatched to the afterlife, it was their women who were enslaved and sold; raped and beaten. Maybe it was a punishment from the Gods to be born female. It was evidently a sore point for the young woman, and Charis didn't want to pry but she had not been oblivious to the marks that littered the other woman's body that she had glimpsed. She only added, quietly; "I hope they didn't treat you too poorly. When...they found out." Aia was beautiful, and men humiliated were capable of terrible things. 

Swallowing, she averted her eyes to the floor and listened. She had needed to hear it - resolutely, that her daydreams of freedom were naive, futile. It had been dawning on her for weeks now, but she had harboured a hope that they would be merciful upon realising their mistake. It hurt, but it was necessary, to have that final flame of hope extingushed. 

Nodding slowly she blinked errant tears from her eyes and swatted a few away with the back of her hand; "Ugh Erea you stupid woman." She chided herself sternly. She was not a woman often moved to tears. No, she was far too practical for that and it brought a flush of humiliation to her cheeks now. With a deep breath she glanced back up at Aia, "A pity you weren't in the market for a slave a few months ago, you could have spared me this bother." She was trying to joke but the words sounded hollow in her throat.

Stiffly, she moved to quickly dress herself again but the towel across her shoulders shielded most of her modesty and she turned her back to Aia for extra measure as she spoke. "Then I will just have to...get on with it. He's not so bad, my master." She was talking more to herself than her company but when she finally sat back down and faced the redhead she offered a thin smile. "He doesn't touch me, leaves me well enough alone so that's...something. I would have made a terrible prostitute or body slave." And she wasn't being modest. She had often thought her husband would have preferred a hardier, more curvaceous and...worldly woman, rather than the virginal slip of a thing he was legally to bed. After a few moments she added; "Why did they not put you in slavery? When...they found out?" 

 

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"You say it like being a woman is such a curse. I hope they didn't treat you too poorly. When...they found out."

"I was lucky." Aia shrugged. It could have been a lot worse. She got beaten up, yes, but then she got smuggled out of Britannia and into Rome without anyone finding out that she had done something that had no precedent, but likely should have come with a death sentence. She still landed on her feet, a lot luckier than Erea did. They lost their families in different ways, and the Briton woman's story was a lot more painful. Aia looked at her with empathy as she blinked tears away.

"Ugh Erea you stupid woman... A pity you weren't in the market for a slave a few months ago, you could have spared me this bother." 

Aia chuckled, showing a kinder smile as she watched Erea starting to get dressed. She would not have been able to afford a slave, but she could have talked her mistress into purchasing Erea. Although buying a Briton barbarian might have pushed Juliana's good will to its limits and beyond, after already taking Aia on...

"Then I will just have to...get on with it. He's not so bad, my master. He doesn't touch me, leaves me well enough alone so that's...something. I would have made a terrible prostitute or body slave. Why did they not put you in slavery? When...they found out?" 

"You would have made a terrible prostitute. Stabbing people is not usually a part of the job." Aia joked, reaching for her own clothes as she considered the question "They wanted to make me disappear with the least scandal possible, otherwise all the officers would have had to explain how they did not notice a woman in their ranks for a whole decade." she chuckled "I don't know, maybe one of the gods was watching out for me. Or maybe I just seemed useful." she considered that last part for a moment "Which is actually as good a security as anything, for slaves. Can you write yet?"

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Charis tried to smile; "I never stabbed you...I even let you hold the knives!" She laughed weakly. She did, however, know how fortunate she was. Few wealthy masters would take a risk on a chalk-footed slave, especially one that barely spoke Latin. She could easily have ended up in a brothel or the arena. No. Despite the discomfort she felt in her current domus, it was at least, probably the best of a bad situation. 

She listened patiently as Aia spoke, feeling better now she was clothed. She couldn't help the little smile, shaking her head; "Men are fools...all of them." They could be so oblivious to the machinations of women. She had thought it was just her people, but it had become apparent that the men in Rome were much the same. Her Dominus, for example, considered her a smiling, docile young slave. He didn't hear how she mocked him under her breath and grimaced as he looked at her. 

Charis envied the other woman. Having a skill, so in demand, that she could skirt the fate that she was probably owed. She could't help but laugh though, at the question. "Write?" She laughed genuinely, "I can barely speak Latin, let alone read it or write it...apparently my vocabulary is good but my grammar is shocking. If only I had a better teacher." She mused with a sly little grin before shrugging her shoulders, "Why, are you offering to restart our lessons?" She arched a brow at Aia. "Or will you just abandon me again." Her eyes narrowed. "You just...stopped coming. I thought something had happened to you." She said, chiding lightly. 

 

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"Men are fools...all of them." 

"Not arguing with that point" Aia chuckled. Men really were oblivious, many times, to things right in front of them.

"Write? I can barely speak Latin, let alone read it or write it...apparently my vocabulary is good but my grammar is shocking. If only I had a better teacher."

"Hey!" Aia pouted, relieved that they were finding their way back to the banter they used to have. "It is up to the student to absorb the wisdom of the teacher..."

"Why, are you offering to restart our lessons? Or will you just abandon me again. You just...stopped coming. I thought something had happened to you."

The banter was back, but it was more serious this time. Erea's words carried weight, even if there was no accusation in them. Aia sighed, shaking her head.

"Someone picked up on our meetings, and they thought I was fraternizing with the enemy." she frowned "I was told that visiting prostitutes was one thing, but flirting with free Briton women was bound to stir up trouble that was not needed. And I did not want to get you into trouble... or get questioned. I'm sorry, I would have sent a message, but... you don't read."

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Charis listened with a narrowed gaze, absorbing her story. "I thought the Britons and Romans were supposed to be friends now...or did that not extend to teaching us your words?" She added as an afterthought but sighed. She had suspected that Aius...or Aia, now, had simply been moved elsewhere or hurt. Until she had seen the small red-head a few months later, on a visit to the Fort.

Glancing across to the other woman she arched a brow, "I saw you once, afterwards - after you stopped coming. I was this," She held her fingers together so there was the smallest gap, "Close to throwing a knife at you I was that angry...Turi actually had to wrestle it out of my hand." She grinned at the memory. Her little brother, giant as he may be physically, had the softest soul. Much kinder than Erea. 

To distract herself from the growing realisation that she'd have to leave soon - as her time was no longer her own, unlike Aia's - she worked on folding her towel neatly, eyes down on it. "They'll be wondering where I am." She cast a quick glance up at the other woman, but something turned in her mind and a little smile formed on her face. "I try and come here, around this time, when I can...do you think a Roman bath is a better place for Latin lessons than a field in Britannia?" She arched a brow and dropped the folded square of linen onto her lap. "There's less chance of the legions intervening at any rate...and you could consider it your public service to Rome...teaching a useless Briton slave Latin so she can better understand her Dominus' barked orders." She grinned a little but it was hollow at the realisation that was all her Latin would probably be good for - understanding and replying 'Yes, Domine' to whatever Tertius wanted. "Although...I can't pay you...I don't get very much and spend some coming in here..."

 

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Aia felt a pang of guilt about having abandoned their lessons, back in Britannia. Sure, she had been warned not to fraternize with the Britons any more than necessary, but then again, even she had kept sneaking out in secret, it would not have been her worst offense against the rules of the legions. She could have cared less. Or cared more. 

 "I thought the Britons and Romans were supposed to be friends now...or did that not extend to teaching us your words?... I saw you once, afterwards - after you stopped coming. I was this close to throwing a knife at you I was that angry...Turi actually had to wrestle it out of my hand." 

Aia chuckled. She could picture the scene, the feisty small woman about to throw a knife, and probably hit her square in the back. "Sounds like I owe him my life..."

"They'll be wondering where I am. I try and come here, around this time, when I can...do you think a Roman bath is a better place for Latin lessons than a field in Britannia? There's less chance of the legions intervening at any rate...and you could consider it your public service to Rome...teaching a useless Briton slave Latin so she can better understand her Dominus' barked orders."

Aia winced and frowned a little. When she put it like that, even as a joke, it sounded a lot more serious than light-hearted. Erea spoke Latin fairly well, well enough for a household slave anyway. The rest was... for other things.

"Although...I can't pay you...I don't get very much and spend some coming in here..."

"You don't need to pay me." Aia said gently but with conviction "And I'll be here at the same time when I can. I live outside the city, but my domina comes here often, to visit at the palace... I'll see if we can pick up where we left off. With the lessons, I mean." she put a hand on Erea's shoulder "And I won't disappear this time."

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Charis breathed a little, relieved that Aia didn't seem completely put off by the idea. It would be a nice distraction - something just for her. She hadn't anticipated just how hard it would be, to have to lose all one's interests and passions to the service of a master. There were so many things she wished she could do, but simply didn't have the time or freedoms to, but this would be something she could look forward to at least. 

"Thank you." She said in Latin, smiling a little. Despite the enjoyment she got from slipping back into her native tongue with Cynane and now with Aia, it wasn't good for her. She'd often been caught muttering in her own words at the domus, much to Rhoda or Hector's consternation. 

She moved to stand, picking up her meagre belongings together in her hands. She offered a smile to the redhead, a genuine and warm smile as she spoke in somewhat broken, accented Latin; "I glad I see you Aiu...Aia. You made my day." And she meant it. She had little to make her life happy anymore, but this interaction had brightened her spirits more than the little redhead probably knew. She reached down gently and kissed the other woman's cheek quickly, in a way she would with her sisters and brothers and friends back home (she wondered if Aia had ever experience Briton hospitality like that before? Probably not). Moving back to stand she offered a wan grin, "Domine calls...But I see you again soon."

And with that, she hurriedly moved away from her once-teacher, hoping nobody had missed her at the domus. 

 

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