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(February 75CE)

Marcus had no idea if the new slave, Azarion, knew just how closely he'd been watched since he'd been hired by the White faction. He had given him into the care of Varica, his head trainer, and received reports from him that made him take a closer interest in the boy. He had gone back to the boy's master with a proposition. They had struck a deal and it was that which had led to Marcus' standing on the balcony outside his office, watching the activity in the stables below, waiting to spot one particular slave.

There he was.

Rather than summon the kid to him, Marcus descended the stairs to the stable-yard - he would only bring the kid back down here, there was no need to make him do the trip twice for no reason.

"Azarion!" he called, once he could be certain of not interrupting or disturbing him.

 

@Chevi

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"Azarion!" 

Azarion looked up at his master's voice. He had been grooming the horses all morning, and he was just about to take Borena out to walk her around the yard; she had been restless and fussy all morning. He managed to soothe her enough to lead her out, making soft sounds and petting her on the neck. There were other slaves exercising other horses around, and the usual hustle and bustle of the Whites' headquarters.

When he heard his name, Azarion handed the reins over to one of the other slaves passing by, who took them without question; Marcus Eppius Parthenicus' word was to be obeyed at once. Walking over at a brisk pace Azarion stood in front of him, bowing his head in greeting. He wondered what his next task would be. The leader of the Whites did not usually trouble himself with giving out menial tasks to the slaves directly. 

@Sharpie

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The boy was prompt in handing over care of the horse he was walking, which was good. Not that Marcus would have allowed anything other than promptness in obeying an order; if his men were prompt anyway, the habit was already there for when an emergency arose.

"If you were to choose any two horses for the bigae, which two would you pick?" Marcus asked the boy - he seemed less feral now and looked marginally less starved, though Marcus suspected he would always be thin.

@Chevi

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"If you were to choose any two horses for the bigae, which two would you pick?"

Azarion blinked, surprised by his master asking for his opinion, then considered the question. He was not in a position to pick teams, but maybe as someone who worked closely with the horses, his thoughts were somewhat valuable to Marcus. He glanced over at Borena. She was one of his favorite horses, but she was spirited; with three others she'd be forced to behave, but in a two-horse team, she was likely to upset her pair. Azarion considered the other horses at the stables.

He finally made some hand gestures. The horses he referred to were named Cirratus and Penna, although in his mind he called them Siranos and Storane. The former was a curly-maned gelding, sturdy and steady, and the latter a mare of a lighter build but good stamina. It might have looked as an unusual pairing, but Azarion believed they could work well together. 

@Sharpie

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That was an unusual choice. Marcus nodded. "All right. We can't give them a run here, so let's take them to the Circus and see what they can do."

He gave a brief instruction to the nearest slave, Theseus, before turning to the boy beside him. "Come with me."

The walk from the stables to the grandeur of the Circus Maximus was not long; the White faction stables lay practically under the shadow of the stadium, near the starting gates. 

They walked into the vast expanse of the Circus, the sandy track in front of them with the spina dividing it. The bronze dolphins that were used to count the laps gleamed golden above their heads, and there were other charioteers giving their teams a run - they had to train horses and men to work together, it didn't just happen.

Marcus greeted the drivers as they came past, none of them flying at full gallop, not today with the stands empty. Save that speed and danger for race day.

"Ah, here we are," Marcus said as the sound of a lighter chariot came from behind. Theseus had brought out a set of the padded protective armour the charioteers wore, too, the smallest the Whites had.

"Have you driven a chariot before?" Marcus asked Azarion.

@Chevi

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"All right. We can't give them a run here, so let's take them to the Circus and see what they can do. Come with me."

Azarion wondered what the point of the exercise was, as he followed his master to the Circus. It was a short walk, but long enough to ponder. Was he tested on his knowledge of horses? Was Marcus thinking of selecting a new team for the chariots? Was he here to keep an eye on the horses while a new charioteer trained with them?

The Circus, even though he had been in there almost daily, never ceased to amaze Azarion. It was hard to believe mortals had built it. The charioteers driving around the tracks definitely seemed like demigods (and some of them believed that too).

"Ah, here we are. Have you driven a chariot before?"

Azariot's jaw dropped at the question. He looked at the chariot and the two horses he'd picked, then back at his master, blinking. Then he realized how stupid he must look and snapped his mouth shut, briskly shaking his head. Who would have let a stable hand drive a chariot anyway?

@Sharpie

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Were Marcus anyone else, he might have smiled at the astounded look on the boy's face, but he wasn't. "I've heard you can ride, and you certainly seem to know how treat horses, so here's your chance," he said, and stepped across to the chariot - even if Azarion was the world's best horseman, he was still a slave, and the horses were valuable beasts; if he'd never driven a chariot before, it would be safest to show him rather than let him try to figure it out on his own. "You can have the protection if you like, but we're not going to be galloping today."

Quite apart from its being the boy's first time in a chariot, there were several other charioteers, trainers and slaves around. Shipwrecks were all well and good in front of a packed circus, but they were expensive things and Marcus had no intention of allowing one today. Especially with the added risk to life and limb for horses and driver.

He took the horses' heads as Theseus sorted the leather armour out and held it up. "Better safe than sorry,"  the stablehand said, with a glance at his master. "I'll give you a hand, if you want."

 

@Chevi

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"I've heard you can ride, and you certainly seem to know how treat horses, so here's your chance. You can have the protection if you like, but we're not going to be galloping today."

Oh, he knew how to ride. He missed riding. He missed riding so much he sometimes dreamed about stealing one of the horses and seeing how far he could make it before the guards caught up to him. Not that he could have gotten away, he had tried it before and had the brand to show for it, but he really missed just... riding a horse free, without having to go in circles.

Marcus was about to show him how to drive a chariot. That was... unexpected, and yet amazing. The races were all excitement, and Azaion did not dare dream of trying them himself.

"Better safe than sorry. I'll give you a hand, if you want."

Azarion nodded, reaching for the armor. He was not going to drive alone for now, but it really was better safe than sorry...

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It wasn't long before Theseus was fastening the last of the straps on the leather armour - it was probably a bit big, really, but that was neither here nor there, it was something between him and the ground should anything untoward happen. Marcus relinquished the horses' bridles back to him and stepped into the chariot. It had been a while since he had been in this position himself (he was the head of the faction, the races were far too dangerous to be worth risking driving in any race) but some things simply could not be forgotten.

"Come on," he said to Azarion. The chariots weren't really built for two, but this was a training one (and therefore a bit bigger than the actual racing chariots) and Azarion was only small - and it wasn't as though Marcus was fat. They'd fit.

"In an actual race, the drivers wind the reins around their bodies, but there's no point in doing that today," Marcus said, taking the reins and expertly separating them, the two left in his left hand and the two right in his right hand, before offering them to the boy. "Just a walk to start with, until you've got the feel of it, it isn't like riding."

 

@Chevi

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Azarion put on the armor with some help. It was awkward and padded, and he was not sure how much it would actually protect him if they turned the chariot over, but it did provide a sense of confidence, which he sorely needed right about now, as he stepped into the chariot with his master. It was going to be a close fit. And he was still surprised Marcus decided to do tis himself, rather than sending Bassus or someone else to do the work.

"In an actual race, the drivers wind the reins around their bodies, but there's no point in doing that today. Just a walk to start with, until you've got the feel of it, it isn't like riding."

It most certainly isn't like riding. Azarion took the reins and tried to hold them like Marcus had. When one rode a horse, one could feel its body, its movement, its mood; it was a connection of the rider's body and the horse's, something reliable. Here, Azarion was standing in a man-made contraption (in a real race, he'd be strapped to the reins too), trying to communicate with the horses through the reins he was holding. Tentatively, he moved them, trying not to snap them right away. Siranos and Storane huffed and started walking; they were clearly not used to each other either, but they did pull the chariot. Azarion swayed, trying to keep his balance as the wheels and the light structure moved under his feet. It was not a movement he was used to, but he imagined it was what being on a ship felt like.

@Sharpie

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The motion under his feet as the chariot began to move was a familiar feeling to Marcus; he had not personally raced in years but still liked to take a chariot out now and then on days like today, especially when trying new combinations of horses to see which animals would work best together - the charioteers were the ones whose names the crowds chanted, but half the race was in selecting the right horses to run together.

The boy had a light touch on the reins, light but sure. If it weren't for the boy's being rendered mute, Marcus would have questioned him as to his origins - about all that could be certain was that he was not a native Italian. He reminded Marcus of his own family, something about his looks, but he could not tell more than that.

The two horses were well-chosen, he thought. They were unfamiliar with each other, but were well matched for size and stride and temperament, confirming what Marcus knew: the boy knew horses, and in a far deeper way than most of the other stable-hands.

"Keep your knees soft, like your hands," he said, his own grip on the chariot light. "You want a firm stance - you'll see how it's different from riding, and yet there are similarities, too."

 

@Chevi

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There were two people in the chariot, which made the whole thing move in unexpected ways. It would have been difficult enough to get used to the movement of two horses, a chariot, and his own body, but having Marcus there too, Azarion was having a hard time adjusting to the motion. The horses walked at a steady pace, slowly getting used to being next to each other. They were doing better than him, for sure.

"Keep your knees soft, like your hands. You want a firm stance - you'll see how it's different from riding, and yet there are similarities, too."

Oh, he saw the difference. Azarion frowned and adjusted his stance. The reins were a lot longer than with riding, which meant moving them was different too; he tested the thought by pulling on one side, watching them turn slightly to the right. The chariot turned too, and he had to sway to find his balance again. He had an urge to twist the reins around his forearm to make them shorter. It was probably safe for now, except in a real race, that was a sure-fire way to break an arm. Azarion glanced up at Marcus, waiting to see what he's say.

@Sharpie

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Marcus was trying to keep from interfering with the boy too much, letting him find his own stance and handling, aware that yes, it would be very different from riding, and it would be different again if Azarion was on his own in the chariot.

"You can still connect with the horses, though naturally it isn't the same as when you're closer to them," he said, and wondered if the boy's disability would affect him too much, or if he would find ways to compensate for it in this role. He wanted the very best to represent his team, of course - that way would give them the best chances of winning, and charioteers could become extraordinarily famous and raise the visibility of their faction.Despite his inability to speak, Azarion had a way with the horses and Marcus wanted to know if that would translate into a capability to handle them on the track.

"If you prefer to hold the reins some other way, to make it easier for you, by all means," he said, making allowances for the fact that the boy was smaller than every other driver as well as not being able to speak to the horses. Marcus had brought a falx with him, the wickedly sharp blade able to cut the reins, but it was an emergency precaution only (as it would be in a race). He had no wish to use it unnecessarily, especially in a simple canter around the Circus in training.

 

@Chevi

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Why couldn't the Romans just race on horseback like normal people?

It would have been so much easier.

"You can still connect with the horses, though naturally it isn't the same as when you're closer to them," 

Oh great, Marcus could probably tell he was not nearly as comfortable with this as he had been on horseback. Azarion was not going to give up that easily. He was good with horses, and as much as this was not natural to them either, he had seen charioteers in the races. It was fascinating. And it was a way up, out of being a stable boy forever. He would do it if it killed him, because it was his only good way forward.

"If you prefer to hold the reins some other way, to make it easier for you, by all means,"

Was this a test? Azarion looked at the reins, and tried to figure out how to compensate his height and weight. In a race, the reins would be wrapped around him (which was solely responsible for many charioteers dying if they could not cut themselves loose fast enough). Apart from the thrill of danger, it had to have a better reason, right? After a moment of consideration, Azarion pulled on the reins, lifting them over his head and behind his back. It wasn't the same as wrapping them, but now he could use his weight (as much as he had) to manage them. He tried to turn the horses as they got to the end of the tracks.

Better.

@Sharpie

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Marcus could see from the set of the boy's shoulders that he was not about to give up, although he was obviously finding it challenging - which was why Marcus had started him off with the far less rigorous bigae for now. Well, it was partly the challenge and partly the boy's size - or lack of it.

He hid a smile as the boy slipped the reins over his head and round his back, able to use the new position to make better use of his slender frame.

"They're still horses, and they still respond to the same pressure as they do when riding," he pointed out as the chariot turned around the spina at the curved end of the Circus. "The excitement doesn't change that." He could not aid the horses with his legs as he could when riding, but they were responsive enough even through the reins.

Marcus had dismissed more than one charioteer who had been so forceful on the reins as to injure the horses' mouths - it was a waste, and made it so much harder to control them in the heat of a seven-lap race, with all Rome watching from the stands.

"You're doing very well. Perhaps a little more speed, if you're up for it?"

 

@Chevi

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"They're still horses, and they still respond to the same pressure as they do when riding. The excitement doesn't change that."

They kind of did. With the initial wobbliness slowly wearing off, Azarion was recognizing the familiar reactions to the reins. Sarmatians also harnessed horses on occasion, usually to pull carts when they traveled from one camp to the next, but those were not the same kind of horses they rode. Still, the principle remained, even with the light, wobbly chariot. He would just have to learn to steer them with his hands instead of his body.

"You're doing very well. Perhaps a little more speed, if you're up for it?"

Azarion nodded, and tried to find his balance before he snapped the reins lightly. The horses jumped and pulled; Azarion wobbled and had to steady himself by grabbing the edge of the chariot with one hand. The horses made a beeline before he could get the reins in hand again. Still, they sped up, and made another half round around the tracks at a steady pace. Azarion glanced back at Marcus. How did people even do this with four horses?

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Marcus glanced down. "If you spread your feet a little wider apart, it will help with your balance," he said, shifting his own feet to give the boy room. He was more used to being in a chariot than Azarion was, naturally. "Especially when you have your hands full and can't hold on to the chariot."

So far,  he was pleased with what he had seen. Yes, there were wobbles, yes it was awkward the first time, but he thought Azarion showed promise. It might be a while before he was confident and skilled enough to actually drive in a race, but the potential was there.

He met the boy's eyes in that momentary glance back. It was a very speaking glance - the kid was expressive, probably as a way to overcome his main communication problem.

"How do people drive four horses? Practise, mainly. I won't say that it doesn't take hard work and skill. There are some thing that can't be taught, though, that come from inside - the very best drivers have a connection to the horses."

 

@Chevi

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"If you spread your feet a little wider apart, it will help with your balance. Especially when you have your hands full and can't hold on to the chariot."

He did so, trying to find a stance that was stable enough without being too wide apart. Between the chariot and the reins, it was not easy to find a center, and stay confident while the chariot made another hal round around the tracks. Marcus seemed comfortable, despite Azarion's wobbly attempts at keeping a steady pace. He was used to it.

"How do people drive four horses? Practise, mainly. I won't say that it doesn't take hard work and skill. There are some thing that can't be taught, though, that come from inside - the very best drivers have a connection to the horses."

Azarion smirked, hoping his master didn't notice. He did have a connection. Horses were magnificent animals, sacred to the gods, and they had to be treated with respect and understanding.

Chariots, however, were stupid contraptions made by men. It was that part that he had to put effort into, if he ever wanted to be come a good charioteer. Or a great one.

Eventually they returned to their starting point. Azarion stopped the horses, then disembarked from the chariot and walked around to pat them on the neck. They had done well together, as he had suspected. He looked back at Marcus, tilting his head. Would he allow him to train?...

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Marcus clapped Azarion on the shoulder. "I will have a word with Varica for you to train these horses for the bigae. He'll probably set you up with one of the others - most likely Tarbus or Theseus."

Azarion's lack of speech might hinder him, but he was a clever young lad and had ways of making himself understood.

"We will have to see about whether you can actually race, of course - you don't have much weight to you, and that would help, but there are ways around that."

 

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"I will have a word with Varica for you to train these horses for the bigae. He'll probably set you up with one of the others - most likely Tarbus or Theseus."

Azarion nodded in understanding. So, his training would move forward, for now, and so would that of the horses. Marcus was giving him a chance. Now he just had to make sure to be actually good at what he was doing. He hoped Tarbus would be the one to talk to. The man had a way with the horses he cared for, unlike most Romans.

"We will have to see about whether you can actually race, of course - you don't have much weight to you, and that would help, but there are ways around that."

Azarion nodded again. He'd have to put on some muscle if he wanted to hold his own in a four-horse chariot. Weight, and muscle. He had been growing somewhat since he ended up at Alucio's household, mostly because the food was better and people were not constantly beating him. Working for the Whites kind of continued the process.

Azarion touched his hand to his forehead, thanking Marcus for the opportunity. For noticing him, really.

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