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January, 75 AD

A visit to the thermae was the highlight of Safinia's day, one of the small, simple pleasures in life afforded to poor people. After hours of standing on her feet and smelling like horse, food and smoke all at once, intermingled in a travesty of perfume that was the White faction's very own fragrance, nothing was more appealing than washing off the sweat and dirt. The baths of Mercury with their moderate fee and relative proximity to her abode were the natural choice, and as the sun began to dip below the horizon, so did she too disappear through the women's entrance and into the thermae building.

Getting ready was an easy, quick affair. Her plain clothes were easy to take off and her belongings uninteresting to capsariae on the lookout; all the coin she'd had on her had been spent in admittance to the complex. Whilst nearly all the woman bathers preferred to bask in the hot air of the tepidarium, Safinia pointedly ignored it and went directly to the hot bath, wooden sandals clacking on the heated stone floor.

Amidst the thick all-encompassing steam that filled the room it was difficult to tell if she had company besides the workers. A wrinkled slave stood by in case a customer wanted a massage and cast a hopeful glance at Safinia, who rejected the offer with a shake of her head. Instead she grabbed a strigil hanging from a hook on the wall and helped herself to the low-quality olive oil from a pot, applying it liberally to her sweaty body with slow, languorous movements. The naked skin glistened under the oil despite the poor lighting made worse by steam, and once she was appropriately coated in oil like the pieces of chicken she prepared nearly every day, Safinia slid the strigil up and down repeatedly until only a very thin layer of oil remained, taking special care with the uneven skin on her back. 

She put the strigil back on its hook, discarded her sandals and went to test the waters, sticking her foot carefully into the pool. It was hot, as expected, but not unbearably so; not all places in her body had the same sensitivity to heat, but if her feet managed it, then so should the rest without sustaining injury. She lowered herself into the pool, sighing softly in pleasure until she was in a kneeling position and the water covered her shoulders. She reached up into her hair with both hands and quickly untied her updo, letting a mass of dark curls fall freely over her shoulders. Today Safinia wouldn't be washing it properly - she had done it only a few days before, and there was enough oil residue in the pool water that it would be enough to moisturise it. Still, she closed her eyes tightly and went fully underwater for several seconds, resurfacing only when the familiar sensation of her lungs demanding more oxygen became too much.

Just as she came up again and opened her mouth to inhale deeply, a great splash came from her right and filled her mouth with water instead of much needed air. Spluttering and coughing, Safinia swivelled round to glare daggers at the careless patron, though much of the threatening look was lost to the steam veil. 

"You should be more careful," she reprimanded in a harsh tone.

@open!

Edited by Liv
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Why Sestia frequented the Baths of Mercury she wasn’t even herself necessarily sure of. They weren’t her local spot. If you wanted grander, well, there were very many more places. If you wanted privacy you could not get more private than the rudimentary but in house facilities that her late husband’s house had on site. As she let Brysias undress her she reflected on this little conundrum, occasioned by the sense of disapproval she sensed radiating from her attendant. Although they had brought along one of the dogsbody slaves from home to stand watch over the locker cubicles, she decided on a whim to punish Brysias for deigning to disapprove of her decisions by telling her to remain with the slave. She would have let her accompany her – and clearly Brysias expected that – but not today. She joked that her items were so precious that they clearly required two pairs of eyes guarding them. Slipping her feet into cheap, wooden bath slippers brought for the purpose, she left the changing room in only a light shift.

 

Brysias was a snob. In her experience, ex-slaves were the worst for that. It was as though freedom automatically gave them the right to cast aspersions on others now they had a rung on the hierarchy. Sestia could be a snob too, she wouldn’t lie. As she padded her way through the complex she realised why it was that she had started coming here since her return to the capital. It was the anonymity it gave her.

 

Bath-houses were the great equaliser of society. It may be frowned upon by the censorious grey-beards, but everyday across the city senators would sit in the same baths as slaves; knights with butchers; soldiers with officers; street sweepers with treasury officials. It was the one place for open forum discussions in the congenial surroundings of warm water and soothing aesthetics. Yes, they were also complexes for causal sin – sex for sale, thievery, shady dealings and all manner of other nefarious outlets for people’s time. That, however, happened everywhere so it was unfair to blame such establishments for that.

 

There were, that said, specific establishments which catered to particular groups. Gladiators would frequent one set of baths. Senators another. And so on. She could not yet really tell to which group the Mercury claimed preference for. To her, there seemed to be a whole range of women in these rooms and – more importantly for her – none that knew her. She was just another face in the crowd. She would not run in to the mother of one of her sons’ friends and have to make tedious chit chat. She would not have to listen to the girlish, giggling nonsense of young senatorial daughters, whispering about men, clothes and marriage. She would not have to feel compelled to talk with the other widows and act “properly.” She could also freely avoid running into anyone who may know her family and – more importantly still – may know her father. That heavy-drinking bore was, in his own way, a fastidious traditionalist. If he heard that his daughter (even if she were an adult) was frequenting bath houses he would, she was sure, start sending lectures by letter as to how the only sort of women who attended such places were prostitutes. She tutted at the stupidity of the outdated and, frankly, wrong notion as she reached the warm pool.

 

A cloud of heavy steam hung heavily in the air, as if the water itself were breathing steam into the painted canopy of the room. She looked about but couldn’t see anyone else. There were no tell-tale piles of undergarments or slippers to show that others may be here. She gave a surprised grunt to herself. She actually had the pool to herself! How rare! She knew she shouldn’t feel any shame about it (not that it stopped her from feeling so anyway) but she was able to untie the knots holding her shift up without any hesitation, letting it fall in a puddle at her feet. She playfully kicked it into the corner, flinging her shoes after it.

 

She strode, naked, down the stairs, giving a light, pleasant sigh as she felt the warm water give a gentle sting to her bare legs. She eased herself further into it until the pool embraced her in its warm waters up to her chest. Gods, that felt good. She ducked her head under the water and brought it back up. The waters automatically straightened the tight packed curls of hers so now her obsidian hair hung down perfectly straight, fanning out behind her in the pool. She smiled as she rubbed the water out of her eyes, making them sting a little. Back in Carthage she had loved to slip away, when staying at her father’s country villa, and hurrying off to the secluded private beaches alone and bathing in the sea, free from everyone and all the world. Whilst this establishment, rough and a little faded round the edges lacked the majestic natural beauty of the former, here and now she felt a fraction of that freedom from being Sestia, daughter of Gnaeus Sestius, widow of Lucius Afinius, etc.

 

Fancying herself alone she giggled playfully like a little girl and splashed left and right just because she could.

 

When she heard someone angrily tell her to watch out in an angry voice and saw a person emerge out of the water the colour drained from her face. She felt stupid. “I..I…sorry…I didn’t think there was someone here…” she stuttered.

@Liv

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At least the clueless bather had the decency of sounding apologetic enough, and the admittance of guilt made Safinia calm down a bit. It was very steamy, after all: if she extended her arm in front of her, her fingers would poke in and out of the fog like ghostly miniature trees. Still, she felt the need to educate the other patron, just in case she was one of those provincials on their first tour to the big city and no clue as to appropriate bathing etiquette, like Safinia herself had been as a child.

"Splashing is better suited for the cooler pools," she stated coolly, but not unkindly. Getting piping hot water in your open eyes or mouth was anything but pleasant. She seized the opportunity to steal a clinical look at the careless woman, noting belatedly that her accent hadn't sounded out of place. She appeared to be a deal older than Safinia, maybe close to twice her age, but her dark skin was silky smooth and unblemished as far as Safinia could tell; she didn't look saggy or wrinkly, just more experienced and mature than Safinia could ever dream of being. The woman could be many things: someone's beloved plaything, as well-treated as a favourite dog; a rich provincial with a Latin education; the wife of a well-off merchant; an exotic body slave... The possibilities were nearly endless.

Safinia leaned back against the edge of the pool, eyeing the woman attentively in case more splashing came her way. Her own skin was simply red and splotchy owing to the hot water, nothing like the woman's. "I haven't seen you here before. Is this your first time?"

@Lauren

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Why did Sestia feel embarrassed? The other bather gave her a gentle rebuke about splashing. Not incorrectly either, there was etiquette to be observed in these places. She had gotten too used to the private facilities at home. As a member of the senatorial class she should have stood on the dignity of her position, told the young girl that she could splash if she wished and she shouldn't talk to her like like unless she wanted a whipping. Many of her peers would have done just that. Maybe it was because Sestia was so used to having people tell her off and find fault in her for so many years that it was almost her natural instinct to apologise. 

The other woman was younger than her. Not wizened or broken in looks like a hard-worked slave but she seemed possessed of the sort of no-nonsense toughness that was bred into the city's plebs. The sort of women who knocked skulls together, raised huge families on only the basic free grain dole and still somehow carried on without wastrel, absentee husbands. Her confidence was pretty powerful. She leaned back against the edge of the pool, giving Sestia a look like a man analysing a horse at a market. She seemed to have no hang-ups about her body, not caring that her upper half was fully on show, despite the shimmering heat haze rising off the pleasantly warm waters. Again, a strange sense of misplaced instinct and bashfulness made Sestia slowly rise a hand up to cover her breasts, although she tried to make it look natural, like she was only washing a spot on her back.

What was she supposed to say? Oh, hello there, I'm a daughter of a Proconsul. Why am I here? Oh, I just fancied slumming it to see what it was like? Of course not, how could she explain to a stranger that the claustrophobic nature of her existence made her crave anonymity and relish some escapism? 

Before she knew what she was doing she blurted out, "My name is Brysias. I'm sorry I am new here I...I...I have the day off from m-m-my mistress."

@Liv

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It exasperated Safinia how people were given one loaf of bread and immediately wanted the whole bakery. Her only reason for having asked the woman if she was new to the baths was to find a reason for her lack of observance of bathing etiquette, she had not asked the woman for her name, much less her life story. And now she was obliged to share her moniker at the very least, because that was how socialising and interaction went, even if she had had no desire to do so in the first place. Why was it seemingly so hard for most people to simply stick to what they had been told?

She couldn't possibly coat the introduction with a 'nice to meet you', because it hadn't been nice. Getting to know someone by having them splash hot water into your open mouth was extremely low on the list of appropriate ways to make acquaintances. "Safinia," she said simply, continuing to look at the woman. This Brysias, from what she had said, was probably someone's personal slave, and probably new at her duties too - she seemed half-embarrassed at their shared state of nakedness, which would not have been the case if she had been a prostitute or even a more seasoned servant. Safinia didn't understand why: did they not have the same parts, both below and above the waist? Had Brysias never bathed in the presence of another before? Or had she caught a glimpse of the burn scars on Safinia's back and was uncomfortable because of them? It was nothing contagious - no need to worry about that.

"Nice of her to give you a day off." Even slaves deserved one every now and then, she reckoned. "Where are you from?"

What she really wanted to ask was 'what backwater village do you come from that you have never been to the thermae before'.

@Lauren

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For all her foregoing emotions, Sestia now felt her hackles rising slightly in the way they really ought to have done sooner. This Safinia had seemingly not taken her apology – which she had no requirement to have given in the first place, she felt – with any form of grace but instead a sort of lumpen sullenness. If it has been the real Brysias talking to Sestia in this sort of manner she would have boxed her ears for her presumption. Then flung several items at her for good measure as she ran for cover. She appreciated that those of the lower classes had different codes of behaviour, morals and etiquette but she had not thought they were wildly different from those of the senatorial class. They were all Roman after all, weren’t they?

 

Safinia’s question was not much of a question. It was blunt and curt, the verbal equivalent of being hit with a bat. Where are you from could be read in a myriad of different ways but it was probably not the sort of social pleasantry that she might otherwise have expected if this encounter were perhaps being replayed at a dinner party. Her skin colour marked her out as being certainly not from the capital. However, there were so many faces of different colours in Rome that it was not as though she were some sort of oddity. African had reached high positions in the senate and the equestrian order since their incorporation as provinces from the days of Scipio Africanus through until Augustus. Besides, whereas she and her kind has the dusky hue of the ancient Phoenicians mark on them, it was not as though she were an arresting jet black like the numerous Nubian and Axumite slaves one saw ten-a-penny these days as fashion symbols.

 

Yet to proper Romans of Rome their circle of “proper” people ended at the limit of the city. Beyond the pomerium everyone was just a different sort of barbarian and existed either to be laughed at, exploited or condescended to.

 

She was about to get on her figurative high horse and say that, most recently, she had come fresh from the Proconsular Palace of Carthage and that if dear Safinia were a slave she ought to be more polite because she would find her owner, buy her herself, and then make her life miserable. She was about to say something along these lines when she realised that it would only likely make her sound like she was deranged, given as she had just held herself out as being her own lady’s maid – in, it should be pointed out, a misplaced bid to be nice.

 

Well, there were ways of getting around it, she supposed. “Yes, she can be quite nice when she wants to be,” she said with a smile. “We have just moved back from Carthage…that is in Africa,” she added. The other woman probably knew it perfectly well so it was a silly and pathetic barb but she was now feeling stroppy so she said it anyway. “Have you been given the same luxury or are you lucky enough to make your own hours?”

@Liv

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The older woman's reply seemed perfectly polite and ordinary, but had Safinia been less attuned to what was said and more to how it was said, she might have been able to make out an edge to the other's tone, as if the woman had taken offence at something and was doubling down on good manners in order not to let it show. Such as things stood, she took in only the words, as was her wont.

Safinia gave a simple noncommittal grunt that could mean anything when Brysias commented on her mistress. She didn't know said mistress, and therefore it made no sense to her to join the slave in singing her praises or, on the contrary, refute her claims. "Oh, Carthage." Even a pleb such as her had heard of the wars with Hannibal and Scipio Africanus and elephants crossing the Alps; it was both the stuff of legend and the very fabric of Rome. As far as she knew, it had risen from the ashes of the Carthaginian defeat to become an important city in the empire... which meant it definitely had baths. Probably lots of them. So there was something fishy about Brysias' story.

She cocked her head to the side, dark hair moving about in the water as she did, and studied the other woman. "Are you from there? You don't sound like it. You sound like you're from Rome." Then again, Brysias had said 'moved back', so perhaps she had only been there a short time, accompanying her mistress. The thought that the slave might have interpreted her question as relating to her features didn't even cross Safinia's mind: denizens of the empire came in all shapes, sizes and colours, from fair-haired and blue-eyed like her mother had been to dark-skinned with hair as black as a moonless night, and none of it had anything to do with rank or station. "I'm from Lusitania, but I've spent almost my whole life in Rome." Any traces she might have had of her childhood accent were long gone, much like her memories of the times when her parents had been alive; her Latin was the rough, direct sociolect spoken by fishwives and prostitutes all over the Subura.

She failed, also as usual, to notice any hidden meanings in Brysias' last question, the sarcasm rolling off her like the oil she'd cleaned herself with earlier. "Well, I don't make my own hours," Safinia started, looking thoughtfully at some invisible point on the wall behind Brysias and to her left. "But it's mostly busy from dawn until the late afternoon, and it depends on how much there is to do. Today I got to leave a bit before sunset. And next week I have a whole day off." She had not yet decided how to spend it: soaking in the thermae all day could be a possibility.

@Lauren

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Sestia had the grace to look a little shifty as the other woman probed a little deeper. It had been foolish of her to think that her playacting would be fool-proof. She might be able to pretend to be a freedwoman companion but her voice automatically gave her away as a child of privilege. Using more rounded, careful and embellished Latin, not the more blunt, melodic urban slang and patois of the city’s lower quarters. Also, for someone who claimed to come from Africa, her accent was decidedly Italianate. If she was really choosing to be pedantic she wasn’t even doing a great impression of Brysias who was, in any event, Parthian by birth.

 

“Yes, I am from Rome originally,” she said quickly. “I grew up with my mistress’ family on the Esquiline. When she moved to Carthage, I went with her. Now she is back, so am I,” she said, almost as an explanatory fait accompli.

 

The bath was now filling up with other bathers, leaving the two no longer alone. The babel of different voices, languages and accents all barrelled up into the great vault of the room and echoed back. The pipes feeding the warm water into the pool gushed merrily and the pleasing gentle steam continued to rise off the surface of the water. Sestia took a moment to rest her back against the edge of the pool and look around. Although this was not one of the city’s premier establishments, the owners had still gone to quite some considerable lengths in beautifying the place. Plinths in the wall houses (knock off) replicas of famous statues. As befitted a female bath-house, the statues were of female subjects – goddesses in elegant poses, most in a state of undress, showing off enviable figures, still taut and firm in the correct places yet sensuously curved in others. Idealised figures of traditional female beauty. Or, rather, what the male sculptors presumably imagined their ideal female pin-ups to look like. A brief look around at the occupants of the room gave the lie to that – women came in all shapes and forms and very few adhered to the marble stereotypical perfection of these statues.

 

Around them, the walls were painted in pleasing pastel colours in various matching patters and designs. Quotes from ancient poets ran around a strip at the top. Sestia wondered whether anyone actually took notice of any of these. A female attendant was shuffling along the periphery of the room, mopping up the larger pools of water shed by passing bathers in a bid to minimise slips. Despite the noise, some of the grunts and slaps from the nearby massage rooms could be heard, where clearly overzealous staff were taking out frustration at low wages on the fleshy limbs of their unfortunate clients.

 

“Lusitania, that is an awfully long way to come,” Sestia said quietly as she soaked. She did not know much about it save that it was further West than the Spains and, beyond it, was the great expanse of ocean that ran to the very edge of the world. Only recently(ish) pacified, it had been home to a ferocious Celtic people who had held the Romans at bay for many years, and the Carthaginians before them.

 

“What is it that you do then? You don’t seem to speak of it with any resentment, it is something you enjoy?”

 

@Liv

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