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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

Edited by Liv
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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

 

Edited by Liv
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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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