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The shrine of Cybele by the Circus Maximus offered a much more intimate experience than the main temple on the Palatine. At this time of day, it was practically empty, and even slaves like Clio were welcome to go in and pay their respects to the Magna Mater, as the Romans called the mother goddess. As usual, inside the shrine stood an empty throne, flanked by figures of lions and the goddess's consort, Attis. Clio joined her hands in prayer before the throne and murmured a short hymn in her native Greek. "Metera moi panton te theon..."

She was done after a few minutes, and exchanged a nod with the attending gallus as she exited the shrine. However small the shrine may be, the priest kept it proper for the goddess with dignity and devotion; he took surely pride in his sacred duties.

Outside, the feeble winter sun managed to produce an unexpected glare, causing Clio to almost bump into another person; thankfully, she took a step to the side quickly enough to avoid collision. "Apologies," she offered in a contrite tone, examining the would-be victim with a quick once-over. It was a young woman, fair of hair and skin and dressed unassumingly - a foreigner, possibly a slave -, but what caught Clio off guard was the look of distress on her face. "Are you all right? I didn't hurt you, did I?" Clio was quite sure she hadn't, but maybe their arms had brushed after all... but something as trifling as that should not cause this kind of reaction. They were in Rome, the largest city to ever exist and home to a million souls - of course people were going to bump into each other!

@Beauty

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Nymphias had been innocently gazing at everything around her, taking in the many sights and sounds. For as much as she thought she hated Rome, she did find it very beautiful and filled with many things to gaze at in wonder. She wasn’t a believer, no, but she had heard about the shrine of Cymbele and it had sounded quite peaceful. Of course, she hadn’t realised the man following her every footsteps. At least, not at first. He was bald with a long nose and teeth that pointed in all directions imaginable. She hadn’t noticed at all, not until he seemed to appear everywhere. She tried to convince herself it was nothing but it was something when her stomach began to knot and induce intense nausea in her, more than any time when she was bleeding and felt bloated because of it. Her footsteps quickened and then so did his. She turned one way and then another, only for him to do the same.

Her body tensed and her face grew into one of utmost distress. Not thinking clearly, she tried to throw herself into the shrine but someone was just coming out. The woman had managed to get out of Nymphias’ way and their arms had only brushed. She was about to open her mouth to apologise, if only because Nymphias liked to be agreeable, but the woman had beat her to it.

“Yes, I’m all right,” said Nymphias breathlessly. Her eyes darted beyond the shrine, searching for the man before returning to the woman. He must have veered off for the time being, and who knew why, but was likely not far if he was as determined as he seemed. She’d been captured before, it was why she was in Rome. But there was certainty in her current life and her days were predictable.

“No, I-I’m fine,” she said next, offering a small smile. “I’m just tired, I loss track of my footing.” Nymphias was about to turn away in embarrassment but then turned to the woman again, breathing out a heavy exhale. “Actually… Can I stay with you?”

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The girl said she was all right, but Clio didn't quite believe it - the breathlessness, the eyes wide like a trapped animal's, the whole uneasy vibe she gave off. Was this some sort of new pickpocketing technique? Or could she be running away from someone? Worse yet, a fugitive slave? That would be a disastrous thing to be involved in. Hesitant, Clio took a step back, and was about to turn around and get out of there when the fair young woman spoke up again.

Clio thought she'd heard wrong.

"Huh? Stay... with me?" Her eyebrows furrowed in surprise. There was definitely something going on, and Clio wanted to know what it was. But being out in the open in the middle of the street would not get the girl spilling the beans; it felt too unsafe. But there were ways around that.

"I suppose so, why not?" she shrugged, returning the smile with a strained one of her own. She moved to stand at the other's side, seizing the opportunity to check their surroundings for anyone blatantly following the girl and failing to detect them. They should go somewhere a bit more secluded, but still busy, and Clio knew just the place.

"There's a tent under the arcades over there that sells nice hair ornaments, and they're usually not very expensive. Would you like to take a look?" Clio asked as she pointed northwest, and then let her voice drop to a whisper. "You can tell me what this is all about on the way there."

@Beauty

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“Huh? Stay… with me?” Nymphias nodded her head and it seemed later the woman didn’t mind Nymphias’ company so the girl let out a sigh of relief. Her eyes followed the woman’s finger in curiosity. The sound of hair ornaments sounded nice, though Nymphias didn’t care for pretty things anymore. More accurately, she still did care but felt guilty enjoying such things when she didn’t know where her family was, fearful they might be dead or suffering. But she had hope they were alive. But every day was a terrible waiting game. Just like this moment, every second a game of chance. Would the man appear again? What would he do?

Admittedly, Nymphias was scared of involving the woman in her plight but perhaps more bodies and heads to think was needed. Surely, a single man couldn’t attack, harm or capture two women at once? Nymphias nodded her head again, giving a weak smile again, and played with her fingers nervously.

“I would like to take a look at nice hair orna…ments,” she said, trying to copy every single word the woman had just said but likely butchering the last word. It did help with learning and the faster she learned, the better. Still quite new to Rome and how the place worked, Nymphias was trying to learn everything as quickly as she could to ensure her own survival and in hopes of one day finding her family. But then she whispered. “We should be careful. He looks like monster.” Nymphias didn’t know if there was more than one of them out there but it appeared as though there was only one. Nymphias moved to stand behind the woman for protection.

“When you see him, you will know.”

@Liv

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Clio was still not entirely convinced of the girl's intentions, but the relief the other female expressed seemed genuine. She accepted Clio's proposal readily and appeared eager to get out of their current spot; this was corroborated by her words, though she stumbled a bit on the most complicated one. The accent and hesitation meant the girl only recently had begun to communicate in Latin, but Clio did not hazard a guess on how much time had passed since - some achieved fluency but maintained their original accent for the rest of their lives, others managed to speak it like it was their mother tongue, and some less fortunate bastards neither. For the girl's sake, Clio hoped she would eventually fall into one of the first two categories.

"Monster?! Who?" She whispered back, whipping her head round at once to try and spot this person the girl spoke of. Again, she could not see anyone who looked like they were after the girl, but it wouldn't be wise to stick around and wait to be caught.

Clio squared her shoulders with determination and reached behind, grabbed the girl's wrist into her own and tugged on it as she began to move. "Come, let's go. We'll be safe in the tent, I know the owner," she explained as she walked towards their destination with a sure stride. She occasionally bought hairpins from the old man, and he never seemed to mind when she came in just to browse. Besides, there were several other tents nearby, so anyone kicking up a fuss would be noticed in no time.

"What's the story here? Are you being followed? Do you owe money to someone?" It was crucial that she get to the bottom of things quickly, lest she became involved in unsavoury dealings. 

@Beauty

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Nymphias let the woman take her by the wrist. She allowed the woman to guide her towards where the tent was, believing that she was in safe hands now, even if fear still remained. Her heart was still racing and the feeling of uncertainty still rested in her belly. Terrible things had happened to her family before Rome but she’d had expected then for her older siblings to take care of and protect her. Without them now, Nymphias placed her trust wherever she could, to whoever seemed the kindest, gentlest, and smartest. Right now, that was the woman who’d noticed she was distressed.

As they headed out of the shrine, Nymphias’s eyes shot left and right, looking for any obvious signs of threat but the man she’d seen didn’t pop up. It was like he’d never existed at all, except Nymphias knew he did. Turning her attention to the woman again, she nodded her head.

“Yes, being followed,” she said, trying her best to formulate what had been happening. It was difficult, she was flustered and her tone of voice was one of complete worry, though she was calmer now with the company. “I don’t owe money. I just walking, thinking, looking at things and he is everywhere. He disappear now in air, maybe to get more com-compartments to kidnap.” She waved her freehand to emphasise what she meant. She was terrified of abduction or anything to do with Roman men in general, her capture had made sure of that.

“Roman men are stupid,” she said suddenly, mostly out of frustration.

@Liv

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Truth be told, the girl was objectively very pretty, so it was no wonder she had attracted the attention of some loser that got off on following women around.  Maybe men were bolder wherever this beautiful stranger came from, and walked right up to the women they were interested in and stated their intentions... Or maybe they were all eunuchs, like the priests of Cybele. (Somehow, that last hypothesis didn't seem so probable.)

The blonde explained herself as they walked, and Clio couldn't help but roll her eyes in disbelief. How could anyone be so absent-minded, so careless, in Rome of all places? Clio couldn't quite tell if the girl was a bit daft, or just young and innocent. The latter was fixable, the former not so much. "Well, if you walk around looking distracted, you'll be an easy target. For perverts and pickpockets and politicians, at least," she chided gently. Kidnappings were not so common among the lower classes - who could afford the ransom? Then again, the girl could very well be a rich foreigner... but Clio's gut feeling told her that wasn't it.

"Hmm, people usually don't get kidnapped unless they're from a wealthy family. Is that your case?" Clio turned her head to give the girl an inquisitive look. There could be some previous bad experience at play, with how worried she had sounded. But now the tent was within sight, and they would be safe there. Clio was about to announce this good news when the girl's spontaneous outburst made her chuckle at first, and then burst out laughing. Here was something they could agree on!

"Yes, they are. And wait until you meet a Greek, they're a lot worse," the dark-haired slave commented, wiping a tear from the corner of her eye with the back of her free hand. The kohl that, as usual, lined her brown eyes must be fairly smudged now, but with some luck the merchant would have a mirror to lend her for a few seconds.

"Right, here we are!" With those words, Clio bent under the flap of a small beige tent and dragged the girl inside by the wrist. The owner, a scrawny Egyptian with a thin white beard, frowned at the pair before recognising Clio and smiling. It looked like it was just the three of them inside.

@Beauty

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Nymphias didn’t know how not to look distracted but supposed she would need to adjust her face expressions a bit or try to appear meaner. Perhaps the other woman could teach her how to do that. When asked if she came from a wealthy family, Nymphias shook her head.

Entering the tent, Nymphias was met with the face of an older man who was smiling. He was quite thin and looked friendly so Nymphias smiled back. Inside felt more comfortable and safe than outside somehow, perhaps because she felt shielded and everything was so compact rather than seemingly never-ending like the streets of Rome, which seemed like they just went on and on. Besides, who knew who was lurking in those streets, everyone looked big and frightening to Nymphias. Most of the time when walking, she spent it peering up with fear in her eyes.

Nymphias moved towards the old Egyptian man’s items that were laid out for buyers to look at.

“If Roman men are stupid? How Greek men are worse?” said Nymphias as she browsed the hair ornaments. If she was to learn to not be distracted and stupid, it started with asking the right questions. Apparnetly this was one of them. Though she didn’t care for pretty things like she used to, her love for them still got the better of her. Her eyes were practically glued to them. “These are so pretty.” Nymphias picked one of the hair ornaments up and observed it. It was a vibrant orange colour. “This one for you. It would make you look pretty, maybe handsome man that is not Greek fall in love with you.”

@Liv

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In the safety of the tent, the foreigner seemed to relax. The thick fabric around them shielded them from the sounds, sights and smells from the streets, and colourful combs, hairpins and headbands provided a welcome distraction that made it easy to forget for a moment that someone was possibly following them (although Clio only by association). 

Clio let go of the girl's wrist and went to greet the shopkeeper. Usually the two of them conversed in Greek, but this time, for the sake of her new acquaintance, she would stick to the local tongue. Going by what she had seen and heard so far, Clio didn't think the other female had any knowledge of the Hellenic language, and might suddenly assume the new setting was part of some far-fetched kidnapping plot. If she were to panic, the Egyptian's wares could end up suffering, and that would not be good.

"Salve, Mersis. " The old man returned her greeting with one of his own in heavily accented Latin. "I brought a new friend today." Though it was not the truth, for she and the girl had just met, Clio reckoned it would make the other two less suspicious of each other.

The girl asked an innocent enough question, but Clio's history did not allowed her to be unbiased in answering it. "Oh, they're pigs! They will tell you they love you, but betray you at the first opportunity! All they want is a warm body to keep them company in bed, and the gods forbid you actually have a mind of your own and use it! They think we women are as stupid as they are. Fools, the whole lot of them!" The outburst had come out a lot more emotional than originally intended, and in the middle of her rant Clio had absentmindedly picked up a wooden pin that was now on the verge of snapping under the pressure of her fingers. Catching herself, she let the pin drop back onto the rack as if it burned. Destroying merchandise was not the way to do business.

"Huh?" Clio was caught by surprise by the girl's gesture. Why would she do something like that? They were strangers to each other. Clio didn't feel she deserved this kindness, but was afraid that refusing the gift might offend the blonde. "Thank you, that's.... very kind of you." It was only after expressing her gratitude that the rest of the girl's comment it registered. So she didn't look pretty on her own?! She wasn't capable of attracting handsome men without the stupid object adorning her hair?! Her mood soured immediately, and it showed in her curt reply. "Yeah, maybe. Then he'd buy me and free me and marry me and we'd be happy forever."

She went up to the girl and carefully scrutinised the ornament from a short distance. It was beautiful, and the colour would contrast wonderfully with her black hair. Domina might like it, although she would ask about its provenience. Against her own advice, Clio grabbed a lock of her own hair and brought it down to stand against the ornament. The colour was really something...

"But why aren't you buying something for yourself, though? You know, to make you look pretty." Hmph. Take that.

@Beauty

 

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Nymphias made a mental note to distrust Greek men. If anyone knew anything about anything, it was likely the woman she was with. She had that air about her, someone who knew things, which made Nymphias cling to her more.

She hadn’t noticed the woman’s curt reply or that her mood had soured, instead taking the woman’s comment seriously. Nymphias’s language skills made it difficult for her to discern when people were being sarcastic or genuine. She was also the sort to innocently, or more accurately, stupidly believe that everyone meant well. And yet, she believed the worst in people too, particularly Roman men. Trying to navigate her own thoughts and feelings about the unknown territory of being a slave in Rome proved to be a confusing feat.

Nymphias’ hands lightly touched the hairpieces and eyed them all almost hungrily. “They very pretty,” she admitted with a nod. “But I don’t think I should buy…” She felt guilty making herself happy when her family was likely suffering or worse, dead. But the way the ornaments sat on the table tempting her, it was hard to say no.

She picked up a sea-blue one, simply because it reminded her of open summer water, and copied exactly the way the woman held an ornament against her hair.

“Maybe I will buy,” said Nymphias, breaking into a smile. “So that handsome man free me and marry me.” It was said as a joke but Nymphias being gullible half believed it too. “How much do they cost? I am not rich girl so low price better for me. I do not mind buying for you and me because we become friends now.”   

@Liv

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Even at this point, Clio still couldn't tell if the girl was incredibly innocent or downright dumb. She seemed, nevertheless, to be immune to sarcasm, which could strengthen either hypothesis. On the other hand, the girl's less-than-polished language skills might have something to do with it. Despite being more than a  little miffed, Clio resolved to be the bigger person and give the other female the benefit of the doubt.

Her eyes followed the blue ornament the girl picked up and displayed against her blonde hair. The colour was very catching against the wheat-coloured backdrop, and brought out the girl's light eyes. "It looks good on you," said Clio truthfully. Then the weight of the girl's words hit her: she too wanted to be freed by and married to a handsome man. A slave, then. The realisation brought on a wave of compassion that drowned out the peevishness Clio had been feeling. Here was yet another one who dreamt of freedom, although all signs pointed to her condition being rather recent. It was the second such slave Clio had come across in only a few weeks, and this time she would not let the conversation take the same detours. Even if the girl claimed they were friends now, it didn't mean instant sharing of their respective life stories.

"Mersis has reasonable prices. Rich and poor can shop here," she explained with a smile. Going by previous transactions, the ornaments they were looking at probably cost around one to two asses each, and Clio told the girl this. "Did your master give you money? Or do they allow you to keep some coin to yourself?" 

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As long as it was simple to count, Nymphias knew it was a good price. The larger the numbers, the more coins to count and the more counting she had to do, the worse. Nymphias never wanted to use the money that was given to her to buy things when running errands, she was much too fearful to spend what wasn’t hers. What would they do then, cut off her hand? Brand her as she’d seen someone of the slaves had happen to them? With such slaves, Nymphias would simply stare at their modifications to their bodies. In part, it was curiosity but it was also fear.

Nymphias’ mouth opened and then closed. She probably looked like a drowning man gasping for air.

“My domina gives me money to eat when I go outside home,” she explained, though the money was a rather small amount when compared to what was given to her specifically for errands. “But she say I should eat so that she take my hair.” The woman would laugh but somehow, Nymphias didn’t feel like the woman was joking at all. She feared that her domina would chop off her hair and make it into a wig for the Roman woman to wear. If they took her from her homeland, they’d take her hair too. Regardless, she never used the money her domina gave her, let alone ate.

“If I don’t buy for you,” she said.  “I never use the money and if I don’t use money, maybe domina insulted.”

@Liv

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So the girl, too, obeyed a mistress, and by all appearances a well-to-do one, since she gave her slave pocket money to spend as she wanted. That didn't sound so terrible to Clio, who considered herself fortunate in terms of servitude. She was also allowed to keep a little bit of coin, which was usually spent on food or accessories;it was such a small amount that even years of saving every quadrans would not have allowed her to buy her own freedom - although that was not a goal of hers.

The hair fixation was not uncommon among Roman matrons, but the blonde seemed not to have realised that yet. "Fair hair like yours is rare in Rome," Clio clarified. Some Romans might sport such a hair colour during childhood, but as they grew, so did their hair almost invariably darken substantially. "Roman ladies usually have brown hair, or black like mine," she tugged at one of her locks for emphasis. "So they have wigs made of slaves' hair if they want a lighter colour." If the girl was afraid of that happening, Clio couldn't fault her: her long golden hair was thick and shiny and perfect for a wig. "If you're healthy, so is your hair," the dark-haired slave shrugged. It that was indeed the end goal of the girl's domina, it was only natural she'd want her slave well-fed.

"Yeah, you should try and use some of it." On me is fine. "Because if your domina sees you don't spend it, she may stop giving you money, and then you won't be able to buy treats or hairpins such as these." Clio took the sea-blue ornament from the girl's hand and carefully placed it on the other slave's head, pinning a broad lock of blonde hair in place away and from the youthful face. The colour did go very well with her eyes. 

"You look so pretty!" Clio beamed, bringing her hands together with a clap. "Almost like a nereid. The colour suits you." The shopkeeper, ever quick on the uptake, brought out a small mirror and held it in front of the blonde girl at face height, so she could see how the accessory looked on her.

"You should definitely buy this for yourself! Although it may make your domina more jealous of your hair..." Only the girl knew if she was willing to take that risk.

@Beauty

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Nymphias made a noise that sounded like she was being choked to death. The idea of wigs sounded horrific and it only caused more fear where her hair being chopped off was concerned. Then she’d look like a sad, ugly little boy, Nymphias thought. And that’d be worst of all, simply because she’d be crying to the point that her face was scrunched up and she looked unrecognisable because of it. She didn’t understand the point of wigs if someone had hair already. But thankfully her worries were all forgotten the more they spoke.

With a hairpin put onto her hair and a mirror put in front of her to see, it was hard to argue with what the woman was saying, let alone not want to buy the ornamnent. Looking into the mirror, Nymphias felt she could hardly recognise herself, perhaps it was a touch of dissociation born from what traumas she’d faced. But the ornament was very pretty, the colour stunning and Nymphias decided she wanted it. “Thank you,” she mumbled to the shopkeeper, who had been kind enough to hold out the mirror for her.

And then the hair again. Nymphias frowned. “I will buy it,” said Nymphias, who loved the colour a little too much. “And then I hide it from domina so then she not more jealous.” It sounded like a great plan to her. Her domina wouldn’t want to be going through slave things, right? Nymphias could also wear it whenever she was outside of the house, not inside.

Nymphias’s eyes searched for the orange one she’d pointed out to the woman and pointed at it. “Will you definitely buy it? I will definitely buy it for you,” she said cheerfully. “Do you also have domina who you work for and family?”

@Liv

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Was that a good idea? If the girl's domina was anything like Clio's, she'd sniff out the new accessory in no time and demand to know its provenience. In time, Clio had learnt that the best course of action was to inform Annia Comna of such purchases as quickly and honestly as possible. "Are you sure it's a good idea to hide it?" There was concern in her voice, but also hope that it would be unfounded. "She might think someone gave it to you... But of course, I don't know how strict she is with such things," she smiled sheepishly.

Feeling unexpectedly self-conscious, Clio picked up the orange ornament and tried it on - the old shopkeeper, never missing an opportunity, turned the mirror he was holding towards her. "It's so lovely," she admitted. Her mistress would probably like it too, she seemed to appreciate the contrast of warm colours against Clio's dark complexion. She shot the blonde girl an expectant look. "Will you truly? Buy it for me, I mean." If this was her reward for leading the girl away from a presumed  stalker, it was a rather good one.

"Shall we keep them on?" she pointed at both ornaments in turn. "They sort of match, don't they? Like yours is the sea and mine is the earth," Clio giggled. Then she figured she could tell the girl a little about her household; she couldn't sense anything but curiosity from the younger woman.

"I do. My domina is strict, but very good to me. I'm lucky to be at her service," she proudly stated. They had a good understanding and a strong relationship, and Clio had it as good as she felt it could get. "My family is in charge of one of the ludi. Do you know what a ludus is?" Gladiator fights were so popular in Rome that the girl was bound to have come to know of them, but she might not know of the schools where they trained. Asking was better than assuming.

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Nymphias did not know how strict her domina was on such things either but she was certain she could hide it and was fairly confident that her domina would never come to know about it. Nymphias merely shrugged in answer because she didn’t know the answer to the woman’s questions. It was then that she realised that there was a lot that she didn’t know about her new household despite having been there for a while.

Nymphias nodded her head, she would buy it. “Of course, we are friends now,” said Nymphias but they didn’t even know each other’s name yet. But the woman was beautiful, clearly intelligent, mature and many other goods things that Nymphias looked up to, which made the girl cling to her, the woman saving her aside. Nymphias tended to gravitate towards stronger people, people who weren’t like her.  

She would have taken the hairpin off, tucked it away after paying for it and take it out at a later time but the woman suggested they keep it on. Nymphias smiled widely, it sounded like a very good idea and she eagerly nodded, this time stated that they should wear them.

“Yes, let’s keep them on,” she said, repeating the woman’s words. It often helped to learn by repeating what someone else said.

Not before long, the woman spoke to her about her household and then shook her head. “I think I know,” said Nymphias, taking out her coin purse and shifting through it before merely taking out a good number of coins and laying them out onto her palm for the man to take whatever was the price. “I have heard it spoken before. Warriors fight inside them. I have not seen a ludus, have you seen a ludus?” But she wasn’t sure if she wanted to. She saw enough blood once a month and preferred to keep it at that.

@Liv

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Clio cheerfully nodded at the girl's assent, although a voice inside her head pointed out the strangeness of declaring friendship with one whose name was still unknown. It was a fair point, but unfortunately subdued by the prospect of getting a shiny new ornament without having to dip into her own funds.

Mersis the Egyptian took the appropriate coins from his blonde patron's hand and quickly produced some change, which he returned to her open palm. One of few honest shopkeepers, he preferred to keep his income steady and reputation good by charging moderate and accurate prices for his wares. He bowed to the two women and retreated to another corner of the tent to take notes on his wax tablet.

"I live in one," Clio replied with a laugh. It wasn't the exact truth as the family lived in an adjacent villa, but the buildings were in the same complex. "But I don't have anything to do with the gladiators, I just serve domina and the rest of the family." And what a wonderful mercy that was! 

The girl might be now expecting an invitation to come visit the ludus, but no such thing would not be issued. Slaves weren't supposed to have friends over for social visits, and dominus might think the blonde a spy for another ludus, which was actually not impossible. Even if the girl were to ask to stop by, Clio would have to deny her request. It was simply too risky.

"It's a noisy and messy place, though. And the men are very crass sometimes," she added, wrinkling her nose. Even with whores to keep them satisfied, some openly lusted after the household slaves and seemed keen on letting the world know about it. "But you get to see the results of their hard training at the games!" Nevermind the fact that most slaves had no possibility to watch said games, unless they were accompanying their highbrow master or mistress.

Then the pressing matter from before decided it could not wait any longer: the dissonance was just too big to be ignored. "We are friends now, but we don't know each others' names yet," she started with a gentle smile. "I'm Clio. What are you called?" 

She purposely didn't ask the girl what her name was; whatever her parents had decided to call her at birth had likely been replaced by something else the Romans found more fitting or easier to pronounce. Clio had been spared of that by virtue of having been born in the Greek-speaking eastern part of the empire, and had only had to suffer a slight change in pronunciation.

Nonetheless, a slave's name was what their master decided it to be anyway. It was theoretically silly to get attached to one... But only natural, and a very human thing to do.

@Beauty

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At first, the way Nymphias understood it was that the woman lived inside the ludus but the more she listened, the more she came to learn that the woman served those who owned it and probably didn’t live inside it. Somehow, simply because of what Nymphias had come to know of gladiators, and perhaps it was her own ignorance, she supposed the ludus was likely a place filled with violence, blood and tall, lumbering and muscular men. The mere thought of that alone made Nymphias uncomfortable.

“Clio,” Nymphias repeated so that she would remember her new friend’s name. But she was embarrassed at not having realised that they didn’t yet know each other’s names. Nymphias had been too troubled before and recently too excited over the colourful hairpins to realise. “I am Nymphias,” she said finally, grinning from ear to ear.

It was the only name she dared to speak in Rome, too fearful that if she said the other too loud, she’d get her tongue cut out.  

“And what does crass mean?” said Nymphias. She could guess since it came after “noisy” and “messy”, believing it meant something similar to either of those but the more words she knew, the better she would speak the language of the Romans. “Your house… I mean, domus seems… frightening.” She was judging by the idea of a group of gladiator men being loud and hectic together, the kitchens with Betua seemed a lot safer. “And why do they call it game if people die? And they think we the barbarinians.”

But every dead non-Roman male was her brother in her eyes. She hadn’t seen her eldest brother’s body but she imagined it and with that in mind, she found it hard to displace the concept of the gladiatorial games from what was slaying of her brother.

@Liv

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The girl's name was fitting enough in terms of appearance, but would she ever be able to become a bride? From looks alone, she should be able to charm a Roman into freedom and marriage, but only if her mistress did not mind parting with her in the first place. "That's a very pretty name," Clio complimented with a smile. "Do you know what it means?" She had little doubt her new friend was not proficient in the language of Homer.

It was smart of Nymphias to want to learn new words, though, and Clio loved playing tutor in the rare opportunities to do so. "Crass means stupid, dense. Like a very unintelligent and unrefined person. You know, the kind of man that looks at you like you're a piece of meat and tells you what they would like to do to you." She made a face in disgust, wrinkling her nose as if she were in a pigsty. Most if not all women were sadly familiar with that type of cur.

Clio had never viewed the ludus as frightening, but that was because she had always had blind faith in her domina's protection. She felt safe knowing she was untouchable to gladiators and fellow slaves - and even dominus -, and her position and duties spared her from too much interaction with the men. Still, she conceded the point with a shrug. "I can see why you think so, but I'm safer there from unwanted attention than in the streets of Rome." Hades hath no fury like an Annia Comna enraged.

'The barbarinians' made her want to laugh, but a good tutor should not laugh at their pupil's mistakes, however hilarious.  But the Bithynian did not understand Nymphias' confusion at the lethal nature of the games: since the dawn of time, rulers had taken their place by killing their predecessors, and there had always been appreciation for those who fought well. What foreign land was the blonde from that they did not have such a concept there? Clio put a finger on her chin and tapped it a few times, contemplating the best way to enlighten Nymphias.

"Well, it's a game because most people find it entertaining." That bit was obvious, or it should have been. "Fights are interesting, people want to see who will win. And they don't all have the same weapons, so that makes things more exciting. You wouldn't think a man with only a net and a trident could beat another armed to his teeth, but retiarii often win against secutores." The expected and the unexpected were equally popular, and spectators would bet on the victory of household names with the same ardour as they would shout the name of underdog gladiators. As long as the public was entertained and eager to part with coin, everything was as it should be.

"They don't always fight to the death, you know. If they did, nobody would want to run a ludus since they wouldn't make any money," Clio chuckled, imagining the huge complex of the Dacicus bereft of life. "Many men enjoy their careers. They like showing people how much faster or stronger they are than the other fighters. And if they do well, they can even win their freedom! Even if they are a barbarian."

Was Nymphias simply queasy at the prospect of blood and death, or were theree other reasons for her reluctance? Clio knew that criminals and runaway slaves were sometimes sent to the arena or thrown to the beasts to serve the double purposes of entertainment and deterrence - could there be something in there? "Do you not like fights?"

@Beauty

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Did she know what her new name meant? She didn’t and so she shook her head. All Roman names sounded strange to her. The naming conventions were even strange, Romans had multiple names and it took a while for Nymphias to remember all three or more of them. How could one person be called three or five different things? When her sister was trying to think of baby names, it would have come in handy to give the child all the names that Turi and herself had come up with, rather than trying to find one.

“Crass,” Nymphias repeated, now having a name for that type of behaviour. Crass were the men she’d been seized by. Crass was what the man following her but she had long since forgotten about him. Besides, she had Clio to help protect her. After all, she didn’t even trust herself to do the protecting. Nymphias felt safer in her master’s home than on the streets of Rome where everyone seemed a threat one way or another.

“Men always like to show off,” said Nymphias. Men liked to show off no matter who or where they were, or so she thought, always wanting to be the man who could “out man” other men. When on her way to Rome, it seemed like the captors all wanted to seem like the stronger man, each seeming like they were trying to be worse than the last. “And no, I not like fights. They are bloody and maybe people die. It reminds me of bad things… when I think it. I feel right here…” She placed a hand on her chest. “And wonder if the person will die or get hurt. I don’t like to see it. Person in pain.”

Nymphias turned to Clio. “Some women fight in my country,” she said. It seemed bizarre to Romans with the exception of gladiator women. “But I didn’t. I like feeling when everyone safe and in one place. I don’t like not know. Do you like fights?”

@Liv

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Clio curled her lips in an almost predatory grin. Now was her time to shine! "A nymph is a young woman, or a bride if you will, who is also a nature spirit. I think it suits you well!" she affirmed, for a second so overcome with excitement at getting to teach someone something that she put a hand on Nymphias' arm. 

Her previous enthusiasm cooled down considerably at hearing how the other slave found fights disturbing. She had not meant to unsettle Nymphias so, and remorse made her give a light squeeze to the girl's arm to comfort her before murmuring an apology. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to upset you. I had no idea..." Nymphias' description had sounded like a snippet of first-hand experience with just how deadly some fights could be. Was the younger woman reliving the events that had lead to her capture in her head? 

In light of this, how was Clio supposed to answer the girl's question? Truthfully, she liked to watch gladiators fighting; it was one of the few entertainment forms afforded to her, and a good match brought prestige and coin to her owners and the ludus. But if she were to say that, it would come across as disrespectful, and she didn't want Nymphias to think she was indifferent to what the blonde had shared. In the end, she saw no other option but a clement fib.

"Oh, only sometimes. It depends on who's fighting. I like to see the gladiators from our ludus." The last part was true; she was naturally more interested and invested in the outcome of their matches than those of other gladiators. Seeing an opportunity to change the topic ever so slightly to a hopefully less grim subject, Clio took it like a fish would swallow a hook.

"Women fight in your country? Where is that?" Gladiatrices were one thing, as they fought to entertain, but women attacking the enemy alongside men? Clio had only heard of such ferocious creatures in passing, and almost always connected with the outer provinces like Germania. Was Nymphias from there, perhaps?

 

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A young bride? Nymphias liked the sound of that! To her, love was one of the purest emotions and the strongest. The Romans could kill her family, tear them apart but she’d always love them. That was the one thing they couldn’t take. But it was one of the reasons why violence disgusted her, reminding her of the terrible time in her life and Clio’s squeeze was much appreciated.

“You did not meant to upset me,” said Nymphias, trying to reassure Clio that she hadn’t upset her at all. She knew gladiatorial games weren’t what happened to her or many other Britons. It was for entertainment, even if Nymphias didn’t find it so enjoyable. Besides, Clio didn’t seem at all dismissive of how Nymphias felt over such things. Nymphias would have tried to show more interest, asking questions, but she liked to focus on things that didn’t include so much blood and potential death. At least, in detail.

“My country Britannia and they have women from other tribe who fight,” said Nymphias, she hadn’t really seen any women from her tribe fight and if they had, she hadn’t seen it, never was Nymphias in the midst of battle. “There was tribe but…” If she said the name would Clio even understand? Clio looked like she was from somewhere very far away from Britannia. “They enemy of mine… Well, my tribe. Some women fight the Romans. But I think Romans worse now.” Her eyes darted around, hoping no Roman overheard what she was saying because one never knew.

But she couldn’t dampen their time together so she quickly added: “And what about your country?” said Nymphias. “What about the women there?”

@Liv

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It was a small consolation to hear that her intentions had not been misinterpreted. Heaving a tiny sigh of relief, Clio removed her hand from Nymphias' arm and let it droop by her side.  "Still, I'm sorry." Their meeting was but a series of ups and downs, it seemed: first the blonde's stalker, then the hair ornaments, now fights... It may yet be salvageable, unlike her conversation with the new gladiator weeks before.

Britannia. Yet another Briton. To Clio it was nothing but a far away, barbaric place. Nymphias' descriptions only cemented that impression, and even without ever setting foot on the island, Clio immediately filed it away as a substandard place. If those tribes hadn't been so busy fighting each other, maybe they'd have done a better job of defending their lands against the Romans, but if they were so belligerent that even their women fought then it was a good thing they were being civilised now. Sagely, she saw fit not to share her opinion with her new friend, who clearly disagreed.

"Oh, my country is far to the east. It's called Bithynia," Clio explained, enunciating the name of the province slowly so that Nymphias would catch it; it wouldn't be the first time a Briton would struggle to pronounce it. "Women don't fight there, they mostly stay at home and take care of their children." There hadn't been large-scale disputes within its borders for over a hundred years, not since the Romans had taken over, and even if there had been, the medium-sized farm where she had been born was hardly a threat to any army. "But the men don't fight either, they're too busy working," she laughed. Common folk were more focused on putting bread on the table every day, and even those of less limited means like her first master preferred supervising their businesses closely rather than entrust them to somebody and indulge in idleness; Greeks were suspicious by nature.

Unable to restrain her curiosity, Clio scooted closer to the blonde. "When did you arrive in Rome? I can tell by the way you speak it hasn't been long." Clio knew that her own Latin accent bore signs of her native tongue, but anyone who grew up speaking Greek would be far from being considered a 'barbarinian', even if they were a slave. 

@Beauty

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There was no means for Nymphias to imagine Bithynia, she’d never been much farther than Rome. She’d been in Britannia her entire life, which wasn’t very long, and was only familiar with its green, flowing hills, grey skies, drizzles, enchanting forests and rabbits that dashed into thickets. She wasn’t that knowledge in what lay East except that the people, just like the Romans, looked different than her own. Their way of dressing, life and religion, all completely foreign. Becoming a slave had opened her eyes to horrors and other peoples in ways that being free back home hadn’t.

It was strange to think of it that way. But listening to Clio, only caused Nymphias’ brows to furrow in confusion. A society where neither men nor women fought? Was there ever-lasting peace? Had the Romans not touched those lands? And yet, how then did Clio become a slave like her? But Clio laughed. Was it a joke? Anyone looking at the girl would have caught her confusion.

“I come in the summer,” explained Nymphias. Subconsiously, she raised her hand to her mouth. Clio could tell? Her pronounciations weren’t the best, the way she strung sentences together was troublesome. Nymphias’ turned to Clio. “How long you been in Rome? You sound exactly like a Roman.” To Nymphias, Clio sounded flawless. “I try to be better when I talk in Roman, I try to listen.” Nymphias pointed to her ear. “And then I copy and learn new words. Like crass.” Nymphias offered the other woman a somewhat devious smile.

She then pointed at all the men her eyes laid on in that moment. “He is crass, him, him too, and him,” said Nymphias. “But not like Greek men, they are worst.”

@Liv

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It seemed like Nymphias was having a difficult time conciliating Clio's description of her homeland with whatever her experience was, from the way her brows knitted and her pale face took on a puzzled expression. Having never been to Britannia, Clio could only guess how its landscape was, but since it was far to the northwest, she imagined it to be cold and desolate, as that would explain why its inhabitants seemed be to be someone's throat all the time. In her mind, it contrasted heavily with the land of her childhood, hilly and abundantly green thanks to its fertile soil. In spring big patches of white and light pink broke up the verdant terrain where fruit trees blossomed, and every year as a young girl she had looked forward to the natural spectacle as the farm became blanketed in  a million flower petals. But Rome had its own sights and shows, most even more interesting to observe. And plenty of interesting characters too, like her new friend and the man, now long forgotten, who had apparently been following the blonde.

Unable to control the gesture, Clio's eyebrows shot up in a 'Aha!' way when Nymphias confirmed her suspicions. "For someone who's been here for such a short time, you learn very quickly! I bet your mistress is pleased with you," she remarked excitedly, clapping her hands once in front of her chest. "I'm sure you'll keep improving. You're doing the right thing, learning new words and listening to people speak." Many different accents could be heard about the city and some sounded decidedly more foreign than others, but with the capital being the melting pot it was, the most important thing was to understand and be understood.

Her elation died down a bit when the Briton asked her how long she had been in Rome, but Clio answered as nonchalantly as possible. "Oh, it's been some four or five years. To a newcomer like you I may sound like a native, but actual Romans know I'm not as soon as I start speaking. There are still many words I don't know." Most of those words would pertain to specialised milieus and activities like glassblowing or tanning - excepting textiles, but she had no use or need for those in her daily life anymore -, but Clio didn't elaborate; she didn't want Nymphias to feel like her efforts weren't enough.

'Crass' seemed to have found favour with Nymphias' expanding vocabulary. The girl was almost like a child with a new toy, and as she pointed out all the 'crass' men around, poor Mersis included, Clio could only follow with her eyes and produce hearty peals of laughter. Oh, it was too funny! And the finishing touch about Greeks made Clio laugh until her eyes teared up and her belly hurt, and she couldn't remember the last time she'd laughed like that, so freely and genuinely. Nymphias was a keeper, no question. "The absolute worst," Clio agreed, wiping the corners of her eyes with the back of her hand before the tears ruined her kohl and left dark tracks down her cheeks.

"What about Briton men, how crass are they?"

@Beauty

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