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Antheia
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March 76 CE, the slaves' quarters in the Domus Augustorum

Antheia lingered in the passageway as she'd been told. Though she was pretending to inspect the striped pattern on the walls, her attention was focused on her surroundings like a sunbeam bouncing off the inside of a shield. Her previous mistress had been a rich patrician, but even now she could tell that this household was a great deal larger than that one - all variety of people came scuttling about around her, heaving heavy arms behind them, carrying trays, having urgent conversations in low voices and numerous different languages. Not one of them seemed to spare her more than a cursory glance. Antheia tried to catch a passer's eye sometimes, smiling, but everyone seemed so very wrapped up in their own heads. She hoped life wouldn't always be this frantic - she had at least had time to build up a rapport with the other slave members of her previous familia - but she suspected life would still be a lot calmer for her than for these frantic attendants, fetching and carrying all day. All Antheia had to do was attempt to teach the young Claudia Caesaris. She hoped that her new domina wouldn't try to make that task any more difficult than it had to be.

The sullen porter had told her to wait here for someone called Volusa, then had dashed off again with a scowl on his face. And so Antheia leant against the wall, readjusted her chiton on her shoulders, retraced the pattern of the mural with her eyes, and waited.

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The slave quarters were their usual bustling hive of activity; Volusa had expected no less, of course. Her mistress' quarters were less frantic, less crowded and generally a more soothing place to be - almost as if the palace were like a swan, all beauty and calm and grace in the visible areas and frenetic activity below the surface where nobody important would ever see it.

There was one spot of stillness in the corridor, though; an older woman standing by the wall, trying to be as out of the way as she could while obviously looking and waiting for someone. If she had properly understood the half-garbled message passed to her, that someone was her.

"Salve," she said. "I'm Volusa - are you Claudia Caesaris' new tutor?" If she sounded somewhat doubtful, it was merely because she had not expected a woman to be given that role - not that it was impossible for a woman, it was just highly unusual.

But then, her mistress seemed to surround herself with unusual people, so that was nothing new.

 

@locutus-sum

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She noticed the girl straight away, mostly because she seemed to be the only one paying Antheia any attention. There was something about the way the girl held herself, the slight downward tilt of her chin, and, once she had spoken, the pleasant, understated voice, that endeared her to Antheia almost immediately. Perhaps it was because she recognised something of herself at that age in the uncertain young woman before her.

“Yes, that’s me,” said Antheia, smiling warmly as the girl finally met her eyes to introduce herself as Volusa. Honestly, Antheia’s stomach felt like she’d just swallowed a dodgy oyster, but as usual she masked her nerves with a friendly, calm demeanour. She had been feeling a touch nervous about her accent - her Latin pronunciation was still markedly Hellenic - but her previous mistress had said her voice was nice and soothing, something which Antheia had been careful to play up ever since.

She swung her small sack of possessions and savings back up over her shoulder and pushed herself away from the wall, putting all her weight on her two feet.

My name is Antheia. I was told you could show me around?”

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"Antheia," Volusa repeated, committing the name to memory - not that that was hard, not when meeting one new person. It would probably be harder for Antheia to remember the names of everyone she was introduced to, of course. The older woman seemed friendly, at least, with a steady calm voice and a Greek accent which was pleasant enough despite the unfamiliar lilt.

"Don't worry if you don't remember the way, it's a bit of a rabbit warren at first. Most folks will give directions, you just have to be direct with them to get their attention," she added, breaking off to snap, "Watch where you're going, Nisus, you clumsy great thing!"

"Excuse me!" came a cheerful reply, flung over the shoulder of a male slave of a similar age to Volusa, who turned back to Antheia with a shrug.

"They don't mean to be rude, they're just... busy all the time. Except when they're not," she said.

 

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Antheia was sure that Volusa was right - they probably were friendly when you got to know them - but that didn't stop her worrying that she wouldn't find here the same close-knit atmosphere as at her previous home. Home: yes, that was what it had been. Those few body slaves, Aristo, the domina's maid, had been her family. Indeed, the domina herself had been her family. A part of Antheia ached with disappointment that she hadn't been freed upon the young mistress' death, but then she had learnt not to hope for anything too much - that was the path to disappointment.

Well, young Volusa seemed nice enough. Perhaps she'd have some people she could call friends, in time.

Following closely behind her guide as she darted a path through the bustling halls, Antheia had to hurry to keep up. Volusa was right - the place was labyrinthine, dimly lit and full of activity, like the den of some small animal. Something about it made Antheia want to scuttle out to the surface, particularly when a swinging pole-arm nearly took her head clean off as she rounded a corner.

"Are these all the lady Claudia's slaves?" she half-shouted over Volusa's shoulder in order to be heard. "And do they all live and work in this place?"

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Volusa glanced over he shoulder and realised that the older lady was having a little trouble keeping up with her, so dropped back to a more sedate pace.

"No," she said in answer to Antheia's first question. "And yes. That is, they're not all the Lady Claudia's slaves, but yes, they do all live and work here. This is the Emperor's home, our mistress is his niece, or cousin or something, and he has other members of his family who live here too, and it's a big house, so there are a lot of slaves to look after everyone and keep the place looking as Caesar's palace should." She paused, to let the older woman catch up, and then continued, walking more slowly, "There aren't really so many of us - there's me, there's Cynane who's her bodyguard, her ornatrix, her cosmetics slave and Isis who does all the general sort of work in her apartments - and now there's you, as well. It's not so many, not really. And there's the house slaves who come by to run errands or bring messages, that sort of thing, but it's usually the same faces and they don't spend all their time with us."

It was probably a lot of information, but Volusa hoped it was relevant and useful information, at least - and she would try to answer whatever questions Antheia had.

 

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Antheia nodded. Volusa seemed a helpful and informative guide. How open she was willing to be about other questions, such as what the domina was really like, Antheia had yet to establish.

They had gone so far from where they had started that she was now sure she wouldn't be able to find her way back unaided. Thankfully, though, it seemed their little journey was at an end: Volusa stopped abruptly in front of her, arms spread slightly as if to say, "so, this is it."

"I gather this is where I'm supposed to sleep, then," asked Antheia encouragingly.

@Sharpie

 

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"Yes," Volusa said. "Well, sort of." She opened the door into the princess' apartments, and indicated a room off to the side, out of the way. "This is where the other girls sleep." There was an alcove to one side, offering a bit more privacy for the simple pallet it contained.

"I sleep in the mistress' room - I'm her body slave - and Cynane usually sleeps by the door, being her bodyguard." She looked doubtfully between the room and the new slave. "They're not bad girls, not really."

The alcove would be for the senior slave, with its illusion of privacy, and Volusa supposed that a tutor would fit that bill - and she was certainly old enough to supervise the girls.

"I'm supposed to answer whatever questions you have - and right now, the mistress is out somewhere and didn't need me, so we won't be interrupted for a bit."

 

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"I see, thank you."

Volusa hung by the door, letting Antheia get used to the surroundings. She knew it was going to be impressive, but being here was something else. The fresco work on the walls, all done in the brightest pigments, invited the eye to glide along its sinuous patterns, to peer at every detail of the mythological and historical scenes depicted there.

The anteroom Volusa had shown her, the one in which she was supposed to sleep, was less ornate by far, but the floor space and the presence of paint on the walls was still far superior to the dingy cubby hole she had called home with her previous family. She noticed that the vacant bed, presumably meant for her, was nestled in an alcove, giving her a bit more of her own space that that alloted to the other girls. Had the domina herself specified that she should have it, or was it thanks to the generosity of the other slaves? Either way, it was comforting to know she had friends somewhere, although she did feel a wave of guilt at this unearned privilege.

Antheia smiled quickly at Volusa then slunk over to the bunk, lowering the leather bundle containing her few earthly belongings slowly onto the cot.

For once, Antheia judged it prudent to let a bit of her true emotion show through as she sank down onto her new bunk, running her hands over the cool linen blanket.

"Well, this is lovely," she said genuinely. "Um, is there anywhere secure I can keep my peculia?"

 

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Anywhere secure... no, not really, unless she wanted to trust it to a banker - but that was out of reach of even Imperial slaves, mostly, who couldn't often get out of the Domus Augustorum.

"Mistress Claudia could look after it for you, or everyone's got their own hiding spot, there'll be one around here somewhere." This was not Volusa's sleeping space, she didn't know where the former occupant had kept their peculium.

"Is everything to your liking?" she asked, although realistically there was no much that she could change if it wasn't. "And - if you have any questions, I'll do my best to answer them." It was always best to have an idea about things before you got dropped in the deep end, after all, and Volusa herself hadn't really had much chance to find things out first.

 

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"I see," nodded Antheia, making a concious effort not a place a protective hand on the coin purse she kept round her neck under her chiton. She'd definitely be keeping as much of her savings as possible there until she'd sussed out the other girls and their trustworthiness.

When Volusa asked if the place was to her liking, Antheia answered truthfully: "Yes, thanks. It's lovely." Some privacy, a comfortable pallet, a room away from the Mistress' constant gaze.

"If you have any questions, I'll do my best to answer them."

She had about a thousand, but most things were best worked out for oneself. Nevertheless, she decided to give it a go anyway with her most pressing question.

"What am I actually... well, supposed to do all day? Wait here until she wants to discuss philosophy or literature?" Being a body slave and entertainer had been very different to this role.

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"No - I mean, you're an imperial slave, you'll be allowed out to visit places and all, and I'm sure you can have access to the library when she doesn't need you. You'll want to keep up with what's being published, and all the new ideas, surely, especially if you're supposed to discuss things like that with her. She's a pretty easy-going mistress, really - I'm the one who's got the least free run of things because of being her body slave, and she doesn't keep me cooped up indoors all the time. We're allowed into the gardens if we want, or down to the market, if she knows where we're going, though of course we have to get permission for that.

Hanging around in Mistress Claudia's rooms with nowhere to go and nothing to do sounded every bit as dull as watching laundry dry, to Volusa's mind, although she had a fair amount of her own work to do, and was expected to accompany the mistress when she went out. There was no reason at all that Antheia could not be part of the perty on such occasions, too.

 

@locutus-sum

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At the mention of the library, Antheia immediately brightened.

"Sounds wonderful, Volusa, thank you."

Well, things did sound pretty good here. She'd feared it would all be faceless anonymity, discomfort and being run off one's feet trying not to get on the wrong side of the Imperial family. A pretty easy-going mistress. Well, she'd have to see for herself, but Volusa's words were a comfort to her.

There was a pause. Antheia's hands drifted down to her sack of belongings, carefully undoing the bindings and letting the piece of cloth fall open. She unconsciously moved her body round a fraction as if shielding the pile of possessions, as she had learnt to do. She'd packed the cithara-cleaning cloths, bags of herbs and odd rags in closely around the oil lamp, the one with the panther she'd always used to bring in for her mistress' cubicula in the evening, to cushion it on the long journey. Ever so carefully, she lifted it up and set it down on the small ledge next to her bed. And then she picked up in two fingers her most precious possession of all, that tiny, misty vial of cheap glass filled with lavender oil. Tenderly, almost ritualistically, she released the stopper and carefully tipped the vial a fraction so that two drops of the liquid formed at the rim and dropped down onto her pillow.

She realised Volusa was still watching her.

"It helps me sleep," she said to the girl by way of explanation, although there was a lot more to it than that. She'd tell Volusa at some point, probably, once they'd got to know each other better.

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"It helps me sleep,"

Well, that made sense - everyone ad their own ways of settling in and making things easier on themselves, and it wasn't easy to transition to a new owner (not that Volusa herself had ever really done that, she'd just gone from a general skivvy in the Palace to the service of one member of the Imperial Family in particular).

She turned away a bit, to try to give the other as much privacy as possible - unpacking things was a private moment when you had few possessions, after all, but couldn't help seeing the cithara. It would be nice to have some music in the evenings some time.

"Have you got any other questions, while we've got the time?" she asked.

 

@locutus-sum

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Any more questions? Not really. Just about Volusa herself. The girl seemed polite and mild, but other than that Antheia did not get a very strong impression of her. Was she a happy person? Usually it was obvious, but Volusa didn't give her a particular impression either way. She, Antheia, was like that as well, but other people didn't often seem to be. Antheia knew very well why she herself was like that, but Volusa…? Well, hopefully she'd find out, in time.

"Well," she said, turning her whole body towards the girl to show her she was ready to converse again, “only if you have any favourite songs.” She settled the cithara in her lap and brushed her fingers lightly against the strings which hummed slightly at her touch.

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"I... don't know," Volusa replied, a little surprised to be asked. Nobody had ever offered to play anything for her before, so she didn't really have a particular song she liked. Most songs she knew were working songs, the sort of thing slaves sang to keep a rhythm, or to soothe their child to sleep.

"Though, there was one I heard once, I don't know what it's called," she said, something coming to her mind - an afternoon spent weaving, before she'd entered Claudia's service, and in the distance, someone playing the cithara. If there were words she likewise didn't know them. She began humming, trying to remember the tune.

 

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Volusa began to hum, shyly and uncertainly. Antheia strained her ear to listen for any familiar refrain. Volusa's eyes met hers, and she gave the girl a smile of encouragement.

The tune was unfamiliar but now audible. It was a wistful lament in the doric mode.

Antheia closed her eyes, inhaled and conjured up the memory of those rough, lined fingers running over the strings as she watched. Aristo had played this one that would fit with Volusa's tune quite nicely. How did it go again?

Her own fingers found the strings, barely a whisper, just like Volusa's quiet hum. At first she had to concentrate to follow the tune, but in time her fingers moved of their own accord.

She smiled at Volusa again. "Now sing me a story," she said. "Tell me about Troy."

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Volusa dropped her eyes momentarily. "You're cleverer than me," she said. Or more educated, anyway. "I know the first bit of the Aeneid, but I don't really know much about Troy, not to put to music... arma virumque cano..."

Her voice was likewise untrained, but she could hold a tune and not miss note unless they were particularly difficult half-tones or something.

It was nice to hear real music, properly, and not just as an incidental to Volusa's own work - being a female slave in the Imperial palace meant that she didn't really get to deal with many of the family's guests or visitors because they had male slaves to deal with all of that sort of front-of-house thing, so Volusa had really only heard music properly in passing or when the musicians were practising out of earshot of the family.

"You play very well, though," she said a little later, once they reached a natural pause.

 

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"You're cleverer than me.”

Oh, she hoped she hadn’t made Volusa feel small - that was the opposite of her intention!

“First of all, that’s not true, and secondly, you don’t need to KNOW anything. Just what you’ve heard from…” she didn’t want to say your parents, because one could never guarantee a slave knew them, “from whoever nursed you.”

“arma virumque cano..."

Antheia nodded with encouragement. Volusa wasn’t half bad at singing. Not half bad at all. And it was a lovely thing to hear Vergil out loud, far different from muttering it to yourself in a corner of a library. Volusa seemed to feel it too.

"You play very well.”

Antheia laughed. “Oh no, I’m just an amateur. But thank you. Music is a passion of mine. And nobody told me you could sing like that! We’ll have to do that again,” she smiled. And she meant it. Sharing music with someone, even someone uninitiated like Volusa, would make this place feel a little more like a home.

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"Well, more educated, then," Volusa said, putting into words her thought of a moment earlier. That was indisputably true, too; Antheia was a trained philosopha and musician and Volusa had no actual formal education in anything whatsoever - she could spin and weave, but what female house slave could not? Likewise, she could sweep and dust and scrub floors, but none of that required any sort of mental acuity, and all that she needed for her current role was a quick eye and a sense of which colours would go well together and be suitable for whatever activity her mistress was about to undertake.

"I'm not really a singer," she added. "It was fun, though, I would like to do it again - I've never really been able to listen to music, much." Perhaps Claudia would like the two of them to perform together, something Volusa was less sure she would enjoy. She was shy when it came to anything that might draw attention to her, after all.

 

@locutus-sum

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Well, Volusa seemed to like singing well enough, even if she was just saying so out of politeness.

Antheia laid down the cithara with reverential lightness, running a cloth over the wood to polish off any fingermarks then swaddling it in its wrap and stashing it under her bed.

What now? She didn't want to take up too much of the girl's time, but she didn't want to shun her, either. Volusa was nice to talk to, it was just there wasn't very much to talk about.

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There didn't seem much else to say, really, at least on the topic of music and education.

"I ought to show you around, I think - the Palace can be a bit of a maze until you get your bearings, and even Mistress Claudia doesn't spend all her time just in her own apartments," Volusa offered after a moment. "That's if you're not too tired or - anything."

They couldn't go exploring the whole Palace for obvious reasons; there were several places that were off-limits to people like them, but there were several places where they could go, and Antheia ought to learn how to get there from the princess' apartments - or how to get to the princess' apartments from there. Who knew when she might have to run an errand, after all?

 

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A tour! Sounded like a great idea. It hadn't really occurred to Antheia that she'd need to stray outside of the princess' apartments on official business. Incidentally, she was keen to see some more of the place; so far, it seemed bloody breathtaking.

She swung her feet off the cot and stood.

"Thank you, Volusa, yes. I would like to see more of the palace."

Volusa nodded obligingly and led her out of the dormitory room and into a passage leading away from Claudia's apartments. Antheia craned her neck to look at every detail they passed.

"So, where to first?"

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"This way," Volusa said, and paused. She would rather like to just take Antheia there without saying where it was, let it be a pleasant surprise when they got there, but it wasn't really fair to just take her somewhere in this maze without giving her a hint. "I want to show you one of my favourite places - it's one of the gardens. The family do use it, but not often, though the princess comes here when she wants to be outside. It's the closest peristylium to her rooms, after all."

The Emperor had an open garden much closer to his audience chamber, and there was a much larger space that he used that belonged to his own private apartments - nobody need worry too much that they would interrupt (or be interrupted by) the emperor himself or other senior members of the family, not in this smaller private space.

The corridors Volusa led Antheia down were quiet, obviously not service corridors, but not as well-trodden as more public parts of the palace, not even as well-used as the plain narrow service corridors that kept the slaves out of view.

"Here," she said, after a moment, turning a corner and stepping aside.

 

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Soon the corridors came to an end, and Volusa stepped aside to give her a good view of the garden they had just entered. It was not small exactly - about the size of the average villa's hortus - but it was cozy compared to the larger gardens she'd glimpsed on her way in, and much more private, enclosed on four sides by a peristyle deep enough to provide decent shade on all sides, no matter the time of day. And it was decorated in colours a good deal more expensive than those you'd to see in a common garden. 

Antheia twisted round to give Volusa a happy smile.

"Oh, this is nice. I hope I shall be allowed to spend lots of time here," she said, taking a few paces forward into the garden to look around, playing at the edge of the box-hedges with her fingers. "Do you come here often?"

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