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Aelia

Water

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Water. Gods, water.

 

A sharp shard of morning sun slipped through the uneven slats of her bedroom window and, with agonising exactness, managed to pierce her closed eyes and draw her from sleep. Her body, as a courtesy, offered her several seconds before it made her painfully aware of the presence of a firm and well entrenched hangover. The sort that would not be remedied easily by fresh air and exercise. The sort that would linger and nauseate you for the rest of the day. Her tongue was dry and her throat ached. Gods, water.

 

Bracing herself, Aelia – with expert slowness, no stranger to the sensation – swung her legs off the mattress. 4, 3, 2, 1…she gingerly lifted her head up, wincing as the pain in her head made her senses swim and her stomach lurch. Gods, would she ever learn? Looking around, through half open eyes, still heavy with uneasy sleep, she scanned the state of her room. Another person may have sat upright, aghast, thinking they had been burgled for there were clothes thrown everywhere, a stool overturned, several cheap drinking cups lying in a cheap, chipped pile. This, however, was the general state of her room and, if one ever was forced to describe it, it would be best summed up by the phrase “there appears to have been a struggle…”

 

Memories of the night before flickered back to her in disjointed pieces. There had been no specific reason – that she could recall, anyway – for a house-party. They had had a good performance that evening, nothing spectacular – a standard, run of the mill farce by Terence for the usual crowd of quasi-interested theatre goers. Grumio and Dromon had expectantly come into possession of a sum of ready coin (which they did not explain how) and – in a bout of thoroughly untraditional generosity – offered to stand the troupe several rounds of drinks at The Mermaid, an artsy drinking establishment for the liberal minded on the Caelian. Asking the Proculus Players for a drink was not a question. The question was when and where. So off there they had all headed and, with standard practice, one drink before an early night became…hmmm…well, from memory, at least 6 or 7. Cleander’s current boyfriend had turned up: he was the main singer in a band of stringed instrument and flute players – very popular with the youth of the working class districts and even with a following amongst the edgy, arty, rebellious equite and senatorial band of teenagers. Naturally, it was then straight from The Mermaid to an underground concert his band were playing in a disused grain warehouse on the waterfront. After Gods know how many more, and as the first streaks of dawn were slipping through the clouds, they slipped drunkenly but with inherent skill past patrols of vigiles, dodged the influx of last minute early morning traffic and slipped back to their flat in an insula on the Esquiline. Then…well…not quite sure but here she was, with throbbing head and a sense of self-loathing.

 

She staggered to her feet, unsteady like a new-born foal. The spinning in her head fuelled the churning in the pit of her stomach. That bloody sunbeam was somehow still lancing her eye. Shuffling across the room, treading over the detritus of her chattels, she pushed the creaking shutters asides, flakes of chipped paint falling off in the process. Bad idea. The full force of the day hit her senses like a runaway horse. She grabbed the lintel as she hunched over and gave several spasmodic retches, dumping the contents of her stomach outside the window and down three storeys to land in the street below which was already alive with pedestrians, being as it was nearly noon. Shouts of abuse carried up from the affronted folk below but she snapped the shutters closed and stagger back into the half-gloom of the room.

 

Water. Yes, she needed a drink. Not the other sort of drink. No, at least not yet, anyway. The thought of wine turned her now empty stomach. Still unsteady, she pushed through the curtain that separated her room from the main living area of the flat. Their flat in the insula was not bad, as flats go. A previous tenant had obviously had some means and had convinced the landlord to allow him to knock through and make two smaller flats into a single, larger one. The array of couches and chairs in the centre of the living area were in a ubiquitous state of disarray. Someone she didn’t know was sprawled comatose across one. Dromon lay snoring on another, no sign of his partner Grumio anywhere. Aelia shuffled across to the area which passed for a kitchenette. Not a proper one, of course, the landlord would not allow anything more than a basic stove in his building to decrease the chance of fires. Mostly they just used the counter as a place to leave packets of take-out food they had swiped on the hoof. The woman they hired to clean twice a week kindly removed the dirty wrappings on each visit. There was, however, an amphora they usually kept filled with water for general thirst quenching. Grabbing a ladle, Aelia scooped inside but found nothing. She gave a huff of frustration.

 

Through his partition curtain she could hear Cleander’s snores. Looking around she could see no one else up. “Fine,” she huffed, “I suppose I shall have to do it myself!” Grabbing a bucket, she set off on the walk down three flights of stairs and through the bustling noontime crowds to reach the nearest common fountain – a drab and quasi-dirty affair, a thin spout sticking awkwardly out of a poorly carved lion’s jaws, trickling water out to piddle into a chipped, shell-shaped trough. She set the bucket under the spout. At this rate it would take an age to fill the damn thing. Hand on hip, she stood there, exasperated. She screwed her eyes shut against the light that was stinging her eyes. “Oh hurry the fuck up,” she muttered.

Edited by Lauren
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 Flavia Juliana was visiting the Palatine, and Aia had the morning off, all to herself. Decimus, however, was on duty, and so was Cynane, and while it would have been great fun to pester them, the redhead Gaul had gotten into way too much trouble recently for hanging around the princess' bodyguards, so this time, she decided to take on the city instead. In the bright, sunny morning it was safe and entertaining to wander, people-watch, maybe buy or eat something fun. With her hair a decent length now, and her double black eye from the broken nose almost completely gone, Aia felt like herself again.

Wandering on the streets of the Esquiline, she headed to a little square with a fountain. Some people were yelling at something someone threw from a window (or threw up? hard to tell). Aia paused to orient herself, and make up her mind about where to go next. She could walk on some more, or make a beeline back to the Forum. She pondered, then decided to walk up to the fountain for a drink before she made up her mind. 

By the time she got there, there was a miserable looking young woman trying to fill a bucket from the barely trickling spout. She seemed like she held a personal grudge against the bright morning sun.

“Oh hurry the fuck up,” 

"There is another one a block or two down" Aia noted with a smirk, leaning against the wall by the fountain "Better water pressure, but with a very judgmental beggar woman across the street. Rough night?"

@Lauren

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Aelia looked up, squinting a little at the light. It made a change not to be accosted in the street by a man looking for a good time or else some crazed fan. Instead, she was faced with a young red-headed woman, presumably a Celt dragged off to Rome, presumably against her will. Aelia looked at her warily. If you thought that the thieves, toughs and criminals in the city were all men you were wrong. In fact, in her experience, some of the worst and most violent of the city’s criminal class were women. That said, she was in a busy street and had nothing worth taking so she let herself calm a little. Even after all these years her nerves still got the better of her when she had to go out on her own, even during the day. It was as tiresome as it was sad.

 

She smiled. “No more so than usual. I must be getting older, I used to handle it better than this.”

 

A queue was starting to form around the fountain. The usual gaggle of tutting wives, lecherous men and – today, the worst – screaming children. Aelia let a spasm of pain crease her brow as two little girls nearby shrieked in laughter, the loud noise echoing through her sore, delicate head.

 

The thought of having to schlep even a few blocks away was unappealing. However, it was starting to look like a necessity. The fountain’s spout was giving off a distinctly worrying gurgling noise, sputtering and coughing like a sick old man. Aelia was about to politely decline when a commotion broke out, getting closer. A wheeled vehicle was groaning along the street, barging people out of the way. Wheeled vehicles were forbidden in the city during daylight hours unless they were on government business so this didn’t bode well. A freedman with grease-stained tunic and a thick gold torque around a bull-like neck pushed his way through the queue at the fountain. In his wake followed a gang of city slaves, their arms tattooed with the mark of the Urban Prefect. Several of their number were pushing along a wagon piled with wooden poles and lead pipes, bags full of tools and sacks of lime.

 

“That’s it, come on, clear off, the lot of you,” the bovine freedman shouted in an officious voice. He shoved an old woman to the side to make room for three of the slaves who rushed forward with wooden barricades who busily started setting these up in front of the trough. “Fountain’s closed. Orders of the Aedile. You dirty bastards have clogged the pipes, so hop it, go on, bugger off.”

 

The crowd began to grumble, most shuffling off to head to other pumps and fountains in the district. One of the slaves reached in and grabbed the bucket, tossing it aside.

 

“Hey!” Aelia exclaim, whirling away from the red-head for a moment, “that’s mine, give it back!”

 

The freedman stopped, looking at her in a creepy way. “Well, look here, boys, if it isn’t that tart for the Whites!” The slaves stopped what they were doing and laughed, grinning gap-toothed leers in off-putting manners. “Come on, darling, you want your bucket back maybe you show me what makes you so popular?” The men laughed as he dangled the bucket in front of him at waist level, suggestively. In no mood for this sort of humiliation – which was an annoying and repeat regularity in her line of work – Aelia snatched the bucket back and turned her back on him. The slaves laughed at cat called as they went back to blocking off the pump.

 

“A judgmental beggar sounds much better and I think I can handle that, lead the way,” she said, her voice heavy with anger, expecting the red-headed woman to lead on. She seethed angrily but her new companion seemed nonplussed and looked happy to talk away regardless.

@Chevi

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The woman looked like she had just woken up on the wrong side of the floor. Aia did not make a habit of getting drunk, but she did have the experience.

“No more so than usual. I must be getting older, I used to handle it better than this.”

"Depends on a lot of things" Aia shrugged with a smirk. She was not one to judge. People usually had a reason to drink, and fun was just as valid a reason as any. Some wine was worse than others.

The fountain was getting ready to dry up in a fit of coughs and gurgles, and the line behind them was getting impatient. The woman hesitated, but decision was made for her when the city slaves showed up with the freedman to make repairs. Romans were nothing if not efficient about their water.

“That’s it, come on, clear off, the lot of you. Fountain’s closed. Orders of the Aedile. You dirty bastards have clogged the pipes, so hop it, go on, bugger off.”

"Serving the public with a smile I see" Aia grinned, moving out of the way. However, the freedman decided to take the woman's bucket and make a game of it, and a very rude game at that.

“Well, look here, boys, if it isn’t that tart for the Whites! Come on, darling, you want your bucket back maybe you show me what makes you so popular?”

So, she was a prostitute? Aia frowned at the man. So what? It wasn't like her job was better or worse than his own. Not to mention the city slaves. And it also didn't mean she'd poke him with a stick if she could help it. Some men were just pigs. Had Aia been dressed as a man, she would have picked a fight him. As things stood, the woman snatched the bucket back and decided to walk away.

“A judgmental beggar sounds much better and I think I can handle that, lead the way,” 

Aia huffed and followed. She was not going to start another fight with violent men, not until her nose healed from the previous one. She hurried a little to catch up to the woman.

"So, last night, was that work or fun?"

@Lauren

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Aelia had intended to trudge on in grumpy silence with only her screaming hangover for company but her new companion seemed blithely unaware of this and continued to chatter away pleasantly. The city was full of cranks - the type who could witter to themselves for days, generally harmlessly but some were indeed truly mad. Aelia gave her another look as they walked along. The woman carried herself with confidence but did have a mark on her face - right on her nose - as if it had be walloped pretty hard. Abusive partner, perhaps?

She signed and knew her silent defences had been breached by the prospect of a persistent barrage of questions.

"A bit of both," she said with a shrug. The woman looked at her expectantly. Clearly she wanted more than that. She was not going to be put off with monosyllables. There was a distinct possibility that this well meaning woman would follow her all the way to the fountain and back and fire questions at her every step of the way.

"I'm an actress," she continued. As usual, she said this in an apologetic way. She had long gotten over the stigma of it but had kept the same tone of voice every time she told her job to people. It was a profession that society -well, Roman society, anyway; the Greeks were more open minded - considered nefas, putting her in the same category as prostitutes, gladiators, charioteers and even poor old butchers. Usually the admission of her profession had two outcomes. Either a disgusted frown would cross a brow and any children in the immediate vicinity would be protectively gathered back, or else she would be leered at because, in the eyes of almost every Roman male, actresses and prostitutes were one and the same. 

There were plenty of actresses who did not know where the line was, she admitted. She had even been guilty of it herself.It was a hard life when you were nefas so you did what you had to do to get by. 

The woman was still looking at her with a puppy like expression of general well being. It partly annoyed Aelia (highly) but also at the same time caused her to soft a little. She also realised that this unexpected companion provided her with the escort she lacked for her trip out this morning which was a happy coincidence. 

"My name is Aelia," she said with a smile. "And what are you doing this morning except for loitering about public sanitation?"

@Chevi

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"A bit of both. I'm an actress,"

"Oh. Fun." Actresses were not among the most highly valued members of Roman society. Ask most men, and they were basically just prostitutes with an exhibitionist bend. Decent people avoided them and carefully hid their faces when they watched their performances like everyone else. Aia, on the other hand, was no decent people, and she knew exactly what it felt like to act, as a woman, most of her life. Also, Roman plays, while not the high art of Greek theater, were definitely tons of fun. And actresses were just as entertaining to watch as actors. Plus, she had no judgement about the prostitution part, whether this woman did it or not.

She did look a bit hung over.

"My name is Aelia. And what are you doing this morning except for loitering about public sanitation?"

"Aia" she returned the favor of introduction, and chuckled at the question. "I'm killing time until my pupils or my domina need me again. I'm a language tutor. Originally from Gaul, via Britannia. How about you?"

@Lauren

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Despite herself (and despite her splitting headache), Aelia gave a loud, unexpected, trilling laugh. Fun? Yes, it could be fun. Great fun. Yet it also came at a very large price to oneself, no matter whether the coin was good or bad. She looked at this Aia quizzically but still smiling broadly. “Yes, I suppose it can be fun. I am my own domina. My money is mine. My time is mine. I enjoy acting and music. But – well – you’ve just seen what it can be like. Lowest of the low,” she giggled, waving her free hand airily. “Might not need a man to validate myself but I still need one or two to keep me from harm. Likely to get some form of abuse when out and about.” She clicked her tongue. “It is as it is.

 

It was, however, reassuring to be speaking to someone who didn’t mind. Truth was that a large part of the population didn’t really care about nefas status. The problem was that the part which did tended to be both vocal and violent. Some actors and actresses had achieved fantastic wealth and power, regardless of their status. Many had thoroughly middle of the road lives. Not destitute. Finding a wealthy enough knight or freedman to become a mistress or even wife of. It wasn’t truly bad. She wasn’t a slave. She’d hate that. She was a citizen and possessed a degree of rights, no matter what the traditionalists may like to think otherwise.

 

A Gaul, then. Being a non-Roman would probably explain her pragmatic approach to actresses. The native Gauls probably didn’t even have professions of that type. It would explain her auburn colouring and the light splay of freckles on her face. She had mentioned a mistress. The term could be quite loose. Was she a slave or did she just have an employer? Some slaves were hired out by their owners as tutors. Make some extra money for the masters as well as for themselves. Aelia was forever a nosy and inquisitive person, hungover or not.

 

Who is your domina?” she asked. It may be that she had heard of her. The good thing about being a regular item of city gossip was that you naturally kept abreast of all other gossip at the same time from those scurrilous sources. “You have your own classes then? Teaching children I’m guessing or is it tutoring adults?”

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She made Aelia laugh with her comments about actresses. It seemed like she was amused by the idea that someone did not make a fuss about her occupation. As a woman wandering around the streets of Rome with no discernible purpose, Aia was really no one to judge.

“Yes, I suppose it can be fun. I am my own domina. My money is mine. My time is mine. I enjoy acting and music. But – well – you’ve just seen what it can be like. Lowest of the low. Might not need a man to validate myself but I still need one or two to keep me from harm. Likely to get some form of abuse when out and about. It is as it is.”

"Yeah. Rome is full of assholes like that." Aia shrugged. Any woman was at peril one way or another, but even more so when they were their own mistress with their own occupation.

“Who is your domina?... You have your own classes then? Teaching children I’m guessing or is it tutoring adults?”

"Flavia Juliana. Her husband is proconsul in Britannia." Aia smirked "I'm tutoring her children in barbarian languages. But occasionally I also get asked by adults to help them with their learning. I guess I am my own domina too, in a way... Did you grow up in Rome?"

@Lauren

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Now that was interesting, Aelia thought. Tutor to the children of a proconsul. She kept up with politics only in so far as it was helpful to know who was on the way up and who on the way down and whether any of those going upwards might be in need of a mistress. Often many an aspiring politician took one or several as status symbols which was perfectly fine with her as they were only too happy to bestow on her decent gifts which would, if nothing else, help pay the rent for a few months at a time. Land a suitably big fish and she could leave the lower Esquiline forever and set herself up like some of the better members of her class, with grace and favour flats and houses in pleasant, upmarket districts of the city.

 

Oh, now that is interesting!” she said, “what is his family like? Does he have many children for you to teach? Any brothers? Senatorial families can be so very strange it always fascinates me to know what is going on with them and how they live.” She did not need to add the obvious “how very differently from the way we live…” to it.

 

Reaching the end of the pavement of one block, they hurried across the road and reached the safety of the other side, managing to avoid being run over my handcarts or litters that were thronging the street in both directions. Carefully using the blocks of stone set up as stepping stones, they avoided having to navigate the filth of the street. The government slaves in charge of the old, sacred right of keeping the crossroads clean and its gods appeased, were nowhere in sight. Due to budgetary cutbacks they had probably been culled and drafted into something altogether more unappealing like cleaning the Cloaca. The shops lining the street were doing a busy pre-lunch trade. The smells of cooking meat drifted out, mixing with freshly cooked bread and the acid, pungent assault of fish sauce. It made Aelia’s stomach churn and not in a good way. A group of children ran past them, barging them aside as they whooped and hollered off round a corner. An old blind man sat on a stool outside a shopfront, slowly weaving a basket. How he could tell the different coloured straws to use Aelia could not tell but somehow he had managed to create a beautiful, vibrant pattern.

 

Her other question was a funny one. The official party line, of course, was “yes.” Aelia, the pin-up girl for the Whites, was a true, blue Roman rose. The sort of proper Roman woman that – had she not been an actress, of course, and therefore outside the pale of polite society – you would happily bring home to meet your mother and then have raise a large brood of strong, sturdy Roman sons to fill the legions and conquer the world. The fact that she was actually not from Rome at all was hastily covered up by herself and Proculus, both because it was very bad for business. The Roman Rose actually a Greek! How shocking and disgusting!

 

That said, her profession was all about the dichotomy between reality and deceit. On stage people knew the parts she played were fictional, the emotions counterfeit, yet they still lapped it up. Most of her lovers knew that her ardour was probably feigned but they overlooked it. When people flocked to the promotional events to see a true Roman floosy they probably knew, as well as she, that she (like most of the other famous low-life women of the city) were only Roman in their current address and certainly not in their heritage. It was one of those secrets that is no not-secret that no one ever bothers to point it out.

 

Dodging a man staggering down the street, carrying a tray of dubious-looking pies, she saw no harm in being honest with her new acquaintance.

 

Nah,” she said, still adopting the slang and slurred tone of the Aventine, “I’m from Greece originally. My dad was from Athens, not that I knew him much and not that I’ve ever been there. But the people here prefer to think I’m from Rome and it’s better for business if I am so if I’m asked then, yeah, sure I can tell you a lie about how I was born up here on the Esquiline and my family is so old and Roman that my great-great-great whatever grandmother gave a saucy smile to Sulla. Sometimes I forget myself what my actual story is!”

 

You get out to plays much?” she asked. She wondered what sort of woman she was. Seemed like a bit of a bruiser. One not unused to a brawl or two. Women from her part of the world seemed to be like that. She was probably a blood-sports aficionado then but she thought she’d sound her out.

@Chevi

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