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October 74AD

Work in the Whites' kitchens was menial and repetitive, but Safinia found herself quite satisfied with it. Her tasks were simple and her orders clear, her social interactions were few and mostly revolved around cook and the other assistants, and the pay was enough to buy bread every day. If she had been cut from a different cloth, Safinia might even have whistled a merry tune as she stumbled comically into the kitchen, her thin arms straining to carry an enormous wicker basket filled to the brim with onions.

She caught sight of a human figure moving stealthily in the shadows of the dimly-lit room. Non-cooking personnel were not normally allowed into the kitchens and pantry, so this person could only be an intruder. But there were better foodstuffs to steal than apples and pears, which were what the thief seemed to be headed toward.

Safinia ignored the train of thought of the thief's possible motives and preferences and put the basket down on a sturdy oak table with a loud'thud'. The noise would definitely alert the other person to her presence, if her footsteps hadn't already.

Grabbing a rolling pin conveniently left on the table, Safinia went in the intruder's direction. On a personal level, she could not care less if some measly apples were taken; professionally, cook would have her flayed and tanned if it came to light that she'd spotted a food thief and done nothing.

"Hey!" She shouted at the figure, gripping the rolling pin tightly and keeping it on her side at waist level. "What do you think you're doing?"

@Chevi

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Azarion liked working for the Whites. Being owned by them aside, it was a job he did willingly and did well, and the other people of the team were... alright to be around. It was strange of the Romans to race their horses in teams, making them pull chariots rather than riding them like the warriors of the steppes used to, but Azarion had to admit it took a lot of skill to be a chariot driver.

Not all of them treated the horses well, though.

Nothing bought the good will of a fussy horse quite as well as a fresh apple. Azarion had the habit of carrying quite a few of them, and after a few months, all the White horses knew him from the scent of treats, and behaved accordingly. Apples were not part of the official fare for the horses, but Azarion knew when and how to sneak into the kitchens to get some, and so far, he had been lucky.

So far.

He was on his way out of the kitchen with a bunch of apples folded into his cloak, when he heard the thud from the table. He froze, trying to melt into  darker corner.

"Hey! What do you think you're doing?"

Shit.

Azarion couldn't very well hold up his hands without dropping the apples, and he couldn't exactly say anything either. The girl looked about the same age as him, but she definitely had a fierce look on her face. And a... was that a rolling pin?

Why was she so upset about a few apples anyway?

Azarion's eyes widened as he stared back at the girl, frozen and wondering what to do. He finally wiggled his shoulder, throwing part of the cloak back to show the white tunic he was wearing. It marked him as someone belonging to the Whites, at least.

@Liv

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When the figure met her gaze, Safinia had a flash of recognition: his face was familiar, but she couldn't immediately place it. He was also with the Whites, she was quite sure of it, and and his showing clothes confirmed the fact. She narrowed her blue eyes, finally placing him as a stable boy - probably. There had been so many new names and faces for the past few days that she had had a hard time keeping up, but she thought she'd spotted this one hanging round the horses once or twice before.

So he was no longer a stranger, but he was still a thief. And he seemed scared, or maybe just surprised? Safinia had never been good at telling emotions apart. The signs and expressions were just too similar.

"Put those back." She lowered the rolling pin to let it rest at her side, but didn't loosen her hold on it. "You have to wait until lunch like everybody else." If he was so hungry that he would risk stealing from the kitchens, he should have just asked for seconds during breakfast, or start buying his own snacks in the city.

@Chevi

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Alright, so she was not going to cry thief or robbery just yet. Good. Azarion did not like her glare, or the brandished rolling pin.

"Put those back. You have to wait until lunch like everybody else."

The boy rolled his eyes, shifting the cloak-wrapped bundle of apples until he managed to hold it with one arm, having the other one free. He shook his head slightly and made a gesture, as if holding an apple out to someone taller than him. It wasn't for him. It was for the horses. Which, frankly, should have been self-explanatory in the racing stables.

@Liv

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Eye rolling usually meant annoyance. But why was he rolling his eyes at her, when he was the one who got caught doing something he shouldn't have? It simultaneously baffled and annoyed Safinia. Even she knew to show repentance in such situations, regardless of how fake it may be. But this boy was almost acting as if it was she who was in the wrong!

So he did not want to put them back. He wanted to feed them to... something? someone? of great height. Safinia assumed he meant to give the apples to the horses, since he was a stable boy. Still, cook's orders had been very explicit: nobody that didn't work in the kitchens was allowed in, except their boss Parthenicus. There had been no mention of treats for the horses, either.

"You can't. If you want to take some you have to ask cook first. Put them back." She was not about to risk her superior's wrath so some silly horses could enjoy their snacks.

@Chevi

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Azarion was not sure she understood what he was trying to convey. She worked in the kitchen, so she had to have an understanding of how food worked around here, right? But how could someone work in the kitchen of the Whites and not know horses needed apples?

"You can't. If you want to take some you have to ask cook first. Put them back."

Azarion huffed, hauling the bundle of apples in one arm as he took a step closer. As annoyed as he was, he tried to convey a request with his look, underscored with a gesture with his free hand. What, she really wanted him to ask nicely or something?

Here, I'm asking you. Happy?

@Liv

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Why was the boy being so pigheaded? He was not even free but an ordinary slave, and here he was, arguing with her without saying a word as if he was in charge. Safinia made a mental note to check with somebody else about his status later, just to make sure he wasn't supreme commander of stable boys and had free reign over the pantry.

As if he could read her thoughts, the boy gestured with his hand, but the plea in his gaze went completely unnoticed by Safinia. Rather than immune, she was completely oblivious to it, like an illiterate child that only saw drawings where others read letters.

"It's not up to me to decide. I'll get in trouble if I let you leave with those apples."

@Chevi

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"It's not up to me to decide. I'll get in trouble if I let you leave with those apples."

Oh for all the gods' balls...

She was really not going to let this one go. All other kitchen staff had looked the other way about him stealing a few apples for the horses so far. Why was she so strict about this one thing? And what was she going to do, beat him with the rolling pin?...

She would, wouldn't she.

Azarion walked around her, dumping the apples on the large table next to the onion basket. With both hands free now he turned, giving her a less than amused look, and a few gestures she might or might not understand.

We are a racing stables, and we don't get to give apples to the horses?!

@Liv

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At last he backed down, although he did not seem pleased. A more sensitive person might have been provoked by the unceremonious way he dumped the apples onto the table, but not Safinia - she just saw the act as him finally doing as she had been telling him. 

His gestures were fluid and not entirely difficult to figure out, but as she got the gist of his complaint, Safinia was rattled by indecision. The boy did have a point, but cook had been very clear. On the other hand, if the boy was a valued worker, he might tell on her and cause even more trouble, even though she was only doing as she had been told.

As the cogs in her brain whirred and turned, Safinia put the pin down on the table and eventually came to a compromise she hoped would be satisfactory.

"You may take one." If the cook complained, she could lie and say it was rotten on the inside when she cut it in two. Just how many horses would have to share one single apple did not cross her mind.

@Chevi

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Azarion put down the apples, and the girl put town the pin. At least he was not about to get bludgeoned by the crazy woman. She followed his gestures and seemed to get the gist of what he was trying to say. Apparently it was not her he was supposed to convince, but he didn't really care. He was going to go and do the rounds in the stables, and the horses would not be pleased if he showed without the usual treat.

"You may take one."

Azarion arched an eyebrow. One apple? For all the horses? Was she for real?

Oh well. At least they were haggling now. Azarion raised a hand, holding up his five fingers.

@Liv

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Safinia couldn't for the life of her understand why the boy was being so stubborn about the apples. The horses were fed plenty and well, often even better than the humans, so they shouldn't need extras. Unless the apples released some miraculous force within the horses that made them go faster, but if that had been the case, surely somebody would have told her.

At the arching of the boy's eyebrow, she responded with one of her own and a blank stare. Five apples was way too many, but she still couldn't comprehend why he felt he was in a position to negotiate. If he continued being difficult, maybe she would tell on him. Time spent arguing with this stable boy was time not spent peeling and chopping onions, and that was what she had been hired to do.

Safinia shook her head no. "One. I can explain away one missing apple, but not five." If he really needed to feed apples to so many horses, he could simply slice and dice them. Then each horse would get its apple cube, problem solved.

@Chevi

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The woman drove a hard bargain. What was the big deal with the apples anyway? It wasn't like the cook counted them. Or maybe he did? Food was not bad at the Whites', but t wasn't as lavish as Roman feasts usually were either. 

"One. I can explain away one missing apple, but not five."

Azarion sighed, then deliberately reached over the table, and picked up two apples, one in each hand, holding her gaze. Was she really going to beat him with the rolling pin? Holding the two apples up, he nodded to her with his head, motioning her to follow. If she didn't believe him about the apple situation, he was going to have to show her.

@Liv

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They wouldn't be going anywhere at this rate. Neither of them wanted to back down, and between the stable boy's obstinacy and Safinia's legionary-like interpretation of cook's orders, they could be there all day, neither bucking an inch. Only they really couldn't, because the onions in the basket were not going to peel and dice themselves and thanks to this little stand-off, Safinia was beginning to run dangerously behind in prepping ingredients for the next meal.

She watched with suspicion as her current obstacle in human form picked up two apples and in response she grabbed the rolling pin again. If he tried to make a run for it he would have to risk a whacking. Fortunately he did not dash off right away, but instead motioned for her to follow him as he held up the apples.

Intrigued, Safinia thought on it for an instant. If he was trying to fool her, being chased across the compound by a pin-wielding cook's assistant should clear up any doubts eventual bystanders might have about what was happening and who started it. But if she went with him she would take even longer to get started on the onions, and other kitchen staff might spot her shirking her duties. On the other hand, if there were really that many greedy horses, she could ask cook to set some apples aside for them so there would be no more unauthorised pantry raiding.

She returned his resolute gaze with a nod and picked the rolling pin up off the table.

"Fine. Two apples and I'll go with you. But make it quick."

@Chevi

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Azarion was having less and less doubt that the girl was willing to whack him upside the head with the rolling pin if she had to. He had been lashed and beaten before, usually by his masters, but this was a whole different situation. She might have been a free woman, but she was not his mistress. Picking up the two apples, Azarion smirked at her as he invited her along. Maybe she just didn't know better.

"Fine. Two apples and I'll go with you. But make it quick."

She did bring the rolling pin along. Go figure.

Azarion walked out of the kitchen, trusting the girl to follow (and not hit him on the back of the head). He took the shortest route from the kitchen to the stables. It was about time for him to do his rounds and check on all the horses. He approached the first tall, the one that had Borena in it. At his approach the mare poked her elegant head out and sniffed the air, letting out a whinny. Azarion hid his two hands with the apples behind his back, letting the mare prod him with her nose, snuffling and making impatient noises, as he glanced back at the girl with a grin. See?

@Liv

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Mind made up, Safinia followed the slave out of the kitchens and to, she presumed, the stables. He did not try to run away with the apples nor did he take a path that would lead to unnecessary delays, so it seemed like he could be trusted - at least to a degree. 

As they approached one of the stalls, the smell of hay and horse sweat grew stronger and stronger, entering her nose unceremoniously. How anyone could choose to work alongside the smelly beasts every day beat her, but the same could be said about her, peeling and washing and cutting and stirring her days away. The horse in the first stall seemed to have noticed their presence: it stuck out its head and made horse sounds. Was it happy to see its caretaker? Did horses even recognise people? Safinia knew as much about horses as she did about Greek philosophers, which was nothing at all. They were big and drew the chariots... and apparently were apple fiends, all of them.

The boy gave Safinia a self-satisfied look as the horse inspected him as thoroughly as a horse could. It had smelled the apples, no doubt, and seemed to be eager to eat them. Her gaze flickered between the horse and the boy, intrigued by the beast's appetite. She nodded at him, acknowledging he was right, but there was still something that needed clarification.

"Why does it need to eat a whole apple? Can't you just give it half?"

@Chevi

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Borena did what Borena could be expected to do: she let him know, in no uncertain terms, that she was due one apple, and he'd better not hide it or else. Her soft nuzzle traveled all over Azarion's tunic, snorting in an increasingly impatient manner as he grinned back at the kitchen girl. She had to be blind to not see what was going on. She seemed to have gotten the gist.

"Why does it need to eat a whole apple? Can't you just give it half?"

Azarion snorted in unison with Borena, and tossed one of the apples at the girl (if she didn't catch, that was up to her). He pulled the small knife from his belt and cut the other apple in half. Borena observed the happenings with mild disapproval. Azarion offered her half an apple, which she sniffed and promptly devoured - then she immediately went for the other half, stretching her neck and whinnying as Azarion stepped out of reach. Borena shook her head, dancing within her stall, and made some very disapproving sounds. Azarion turned to give the kitchen girl a pointed look, then offered her the other half apple.

@Liv

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Safinia was caught unawares by the apple thrown in her direction, but after fumbling with it mid-air for a second or two, she managed to secure it in her hands. Why did the stable boy want her to hold on to it? Puzzled, she watched with some curiosity as he cut the other apple in two and gave one half to the horse. Said horse, in turn, practically inhaled the fruit and went sniffing for more straight away.

It seemed very displeased that the other half was now out of reach, and made a spectacle of letting them know. Of course it wanted more; it was a spoilt beast with no self-restraint.

"You know it's only doing that because it's grown used to a whole apple." Safinia pursed her lips and shook her head. "It can grow used to half, too." She took the half apple from the boy's hand and kept it in hers, hiding it behind her back. "We can give this half can go to another horse." The whims of this dissatisfied, particular horse had already been indulged: time to move on to the next greedy mount.

She took a few steps back, preparing to exit the stall, when the horse neighed and lunged towards her with its long neck. Safinia jumped in surprise, dropping the apples she had been holding. They didn't roll too far away, but were now covered in dirt and bits of straw. Her blue eyes stared daggers at the horse and then at its handler.

"See? You've spoiled the bloody horse so much it gets violent."

@Chevi

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One could always count on Borena to show her best high maintenance steed side when apples were involved. Azarion might not have been able to talk, but he knew how to make a point when horses were involved.

This girl was a tough sell, though.

"You know it's only doing that because it's grown used to a whole apple. It can grow used to half, too. We can give this half can go to another horse." 

He let her do it. He knew how it might end, but she still had the rolling pin and he was not about to argue if she could just discover the thing for herself. Which she did, and the apples went flying. Azarion bit back a laugh with little success.

"See? You've spoiled the bloody horse so much it gets violent."

Azarion rolled his eyes, making gestures at her she might or might not be able to follow. She is a racing horse. She is supposed to be violent. Have you ever even seen a chariot race? The least I can give her is a full apple, because we hitch her to a team and send her out there. He walked over to the apples, picked them up, dusted them off, then he gave the whole one to Borena. She'd earned it.

@Liv

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This stable boy should have been an actor instead with how adept he was at miming and gesturing. Safinia hadn't been exposed to it long enough to effortlessly understand what he meant, and she wasn't exactly communicative in the first place. She got the gist of it, though: horse, chariot, work hard, apple. But why single out this one horse? Was it the top star in the faction, like Menelaus? Or did the boy just have an unreasonable attachment to it?

And he'd laughed at her after the horse had scared her. Which it had done only because he was so stubborn and wouldn't leave the bloody apples alone. Regretting ever having settled for compromise, Safinia steeled her jaw and thwacked the whole apple off the boy's hand with the rolling pin before the horse could get it.

"That's enough." For the horse and for her. And if his hand hurt after the blow, too bad.

She hurried to pick up the apple she'd sent flying before he got to it. They could move on to another more deserving horse or, failing that, get back to the kitchens (where she really should have been peeling those onions...).

@Chevi

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Azarion held the apple out to Borena, but the kitchen girl was faster. The rolling pin swung out and whacked him on the hand, knocking the apple to the ground again and earning an indignant cry from the stable boy. She actually hit him with that thing! What was her damn problem?

"That's enough."

It really was. Azarion huffed, lunging for the apple at the same time. She might have hit his hand, but she sure was not going to win this fight. Unfortunately she went for the apple at the same time, and with both of them leaning down, Azarion's head collided with hers, sending him off balance...

@Liv

 

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From his cross cry Safinia understood the stable boy had been too slow to remove his hand from the pin's trajectory. Served him right for being so stubborn! It registered with her for a split second that it was rather curious he did not speak but could produce sound, but she was prevented by dwelling on it any further by furious scampering to reach the apple first. Why wouldn't he give up already?!

"Ow!" The hard blow to her head had her seeing stars, and the world flashed in and out of darkness for a second. It was enough to mess with her balance and send her tumbling to the ground, the apple rolling off a few feet to rest against a bale of hay. Her palms were scraped off where she'd used them to steady herself and her eyes grew watery from the pain. She'd let go of the rolling pin with the force of the collision, but it had landed by her side and she rushed to grab a hold of it again.

"What's wrong with you?" Safinia glared daggers at the stable boy with the meanest look she could muster - under normal conditions it would have been plenty mean, but with red-rimmed eyes and what felt like a quickly-forming, throbbing bump on the side of her head, she didn't look so menacing.

She clambered to her feet and dusted off her dirty hands on her clothes, staining them with a few small specks of red. The pin was dirty too, but seemingly whole. Now one decision had to be made: fight for the apple, or concede and get back to work, leaving the boy victorious in the stable?

@Chevi

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Their heads colliding was more unexpected than painful, but it did make some spots and sparks fly in Azarion's vision. They both lost their balance; he landed on his ass, and the girl on her hands and knees. Rolling pin and apple both went flying. Azarion made a pained sound. Sure, he had been an ass about the whole apple thing, but he did not mean to actually hurt the girl. Even if she'd whacked his hand with the damn rolling pin.

"Ow! What's wrong with you?"

She scrambled to her feet, eyes watering, wiping her palms and leaving traces on her dress. Azarion got up too, feeling a pang of guilt about the whole thing. He made a sheepish gesture. I'm sorry. It was partly your fault, but I'm sorry.

Stepping closer, he leaned in to examine the red mark on her forehead. It would leave a bump and a bruise. His own head hurt too, but he was used to pain like that. He huffed, reaching out for her hands. She must have scraped her palms when she fell.

@Liv

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She might not be the only one in pain, but that was a small consolation compared to the cook's wrath if they found out that not only had Safinia been gallivanting with one of the stable boys and neglecting her work, she had even let him get away with apple theft.

In the end, she had just made up her mind to go back to the kitchens, figurative tail between her legs, and pretend this whole adventure had never happened when the boy gestured an apology and came closer to examine the damage done. Safinia studied him back: would he be sporting a twin bump in a few hours? Probably. He did not seem to be in visible pain, unlike her with her watery eyes, but between the accidental headbutt and being hit with the rolling pin, he had to be smarting somewhere. 

Realising he wanted to check her hands too, Safinia tucked the pin under her arm and held them out, palms up. It was just a few scrapes; bits of raw flesh could be seen here and there, but the blood had for the most part stopped running. It would definitely sting like crazy when she touched salt, garum or vinegar, but other than wait for the skin to repair itself, there wasn't much that could be done.

"Don't blame me if there's blood on your food all of a sudden," she warned, a little less monotone than usual. An attempt at a light joke. "Maybe I should ask for leather gloves made of that horse's hide."

@Chevi

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Azarion was not entirely sure the girl was not going to hit him over the head with the rolling pin as he approached. Her eyes were still watering, and she had plenty of reasons to be angry at him, even without the bump on her head. He'd have a matching bump of his own, even if he was not really paying attention to the throbbing pain yet.

She didn't hit him. Azarion looked at her forehead, and saw no split skin, so he turned his attention to her palms. She allowed him.

"Don't blame me if there's blood on your food all of a sudden. Maybe I should ask for leather gloves made of that horse's hide."

Azarion scoffed, and as if on cue, Borena whinnied in the background. As if the Whites would let a kitchen girl punish one of their best horses. Chuckling, he took her by the hand and led her to one corner of the stables where they kept a pitcher of fresh water and a bowl, in case they needed to clean up for a visitor or an inspection. Azarion dipped a clean towel into the water, offering silently to clean her palms. With his other hand, he tapped the tablet around his neck which bore his name. He didn't even know what hers was.

@Liv

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Was this how you made friends? You argued, hit each other on purpose or accidentally and ceased hostilities after both parties were proportionally hurt? The bloody horse did not seem keen to be friends what with the way it was whinnying; it was just as well for Safinia, she did not want to be friends with a disrespectful glutton anyway. 

She let the boy lead her to the cleanup station, wondering if he was chuckling at her or at her hopefully-a-bit-funny words. If it was the latter, good; if it was the former, well, better luck next time. Safinia's blue eyes widened in surprise when the stable boy wet a towel, seemingly suggesting that he clean her scraped hands for her. It was kind of him to offer, and completely unexpected for her. She blinked down at her hands, then held them out under the towel, palms facing upwards like before. Her gaze flickered from her open hands up to the boy when he tapped on something hard - his name tag, which she had completely failed to notice until then.

"Aza... Azarion." The penmanship was worse than hers, but whether it was the boy's own or someone else's was unknown to her. "That's you, huh? Is that Greek?" In her years working with Paula, she had noticed how many of them had names that also ended like that: Ariston, Tychon, Heron... But now he would be waiting for her to offer her own name, as etiquette dictated. "I'm Safinia."

She trembled slightly as the cold water touched her torn skin. It didn't sting, but the temperature had caught her by surprise. She hoped they wouldn't get in trouble by using the towel, low-ranking helpers as they were.

@Chevi 

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