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Even Stoicism Isn't Enough Sometimes


Antheia
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The Romans were used to seeing Greeks wearing masks. Antheia's, however, wasn't twisted into the tragic visage of some stock character; in fact, it was the picture of perfect neutrality. Beneath, she could be a vicious Medea, a grieving Persephone, a powerless Helen, or any other figure from myth. But one doesn't often try to look behind the mask, peer through the eyeholes into the actor's soul. The façade presented to them is all the audience sees. So it was with Antheia. Her soul was strictly off limits.

There was only one person on this earth (at least, one person she knew the fate of, one person she knew she could go to) who wasn't deceived by this cunning guise. Antheia had left behind the gilt columns and clean air of the Domus Augustorum, at least for a few hours, and had descended to the Subura. Here, slaves were dirty and scowling, citizens forewent the ceremony of a toga in the street, and life seemed real. Here, among all the unrepressed humanity, was her old friend Aristo.

As she hopped across the stones connecting the pavement on either side of the street, the anticipation filled Antheia's mind with glorious recollections. When she went through the door, there he'd be, shrivelled like a tree root in his old rocking chair, his hands dry and papery as the scrolls spilling out across his knees, scratching the few tufts of white beard he had left as he mumbled to himself in the beautiful language of Plato and Socrates, punctuated by the odd curse. She'd dash to help tidy up the scrolls, his hands swatting at her in protest to stop fussing as she pulled the blanket back up over his bony legs. After he settled down, he would read to her in Greek, the language of her mind, the language her mother sung to her in, his voice rasping over every 'chi' and 'kappa', lapsing into a wheezing fit every time he'd aspirate a vowel. She'd cry, then, and he'd smile a bit, but he'd keep on reading, because crying would be OK. And then before she left she'd bend over and squeeze his skeletal frame to her, and the fragile breath and papery skin would make her cry again, and he'd just shake his head and say something wise.

As her eyes adjusted to the dim interior of the little house their master had given him when he was freed, Antheia felt the squirming in her stomach change suddenly. The physical feelings of excitement and panic were strikingly, horribly similar, and one melted into the other like scalding wax dripping into the wine cup of its inattentive owner.

The first thing she saw was the rocking chair, fallen forward on the floor. The entirety of the woven backrest had come undone, and one of the front legs was missing. Underneath it lay a scroll, completely unrolled. It was a beautifully written thing, bearing the name of Aristotle in huge letters. And it was torn clean apart through the middle. Not a single piece of wooden furniture seemed to have survived the raid untouched. Sherds of glass and pottery were strewn over the floor along with their former contents, huge pools of watery wine, their edges creeping outwards as she watched, grapes trampled and burst by sandal-studs. The tiny strongbox which she knew Aristo kept under the bed was gone, too, and so, she quickly realised, was Aristo. The stubborn old fool would never leave the house, particularly not in a raid. She had a feeling he'd rather try and whack any thieving scamps to death with the end of a scroll than let them take his peculia, hard earned cash accumulated by hours of honourable service.

As Antheia backed out into the street, she failed to notice the raised doorstep. A misplaced foot sent her tumbling over backwards. Thankfully, though, somebody caught her.

Turning her eyes upwards, she saw a bronzed, bearded face and a pair of eyes wide with surprise.

@Chevi enter Tranquillus!

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Tranquillus was taking advantage of some time off. He didn't get much of that, since his dominus had been busy furthering his political career, and Tranquillus wished to assist him best he could with keeping everything in order. Especially the administrative tasks. But even so, sometimes he did get time to himself. Today, he had finished running his master's errands with great efficiency, and decided to take the long way back to the domus, through the Subura. It was not the most elegant part of Rome, but it had hidden treasures when one knew where to look for them. No, not the brothels. 

Tranquillus had visited the home of a bookseller he was familiar with. The man had a stall on the Forum, but tended to keep some of his wares at home, for the eyes of those who could truly appreciate them. He also had some of the less perfect copies that were much cheaper than what he sold on the Forum. Tranquillus was not above buying reading material that had cosmetic issues, as long as the text was correct. And it definitely helped to budget for them.

With some carefully selected scrolls under one arm, he walked down the street, already listing his tasks for the afternoon in his head. Which was why he noticed too late that someone came stumbling out of one of the doorways. They collided, and Tranquillus caught hold of her on instinct, scrolls tumbling to the ground. "Ow!" The woman looked up at him, and Tranquillus made sure she was steady on her feet before he let go, holding his hands up in apology.

"I didn't watch where I was going. I apologize."

@locutus-sum

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As soon as she'd recovered her balance, Antheia spun round to face her rescuer. In doing so, she again lost her footing, ending up with her back against the front of the villa, her hands gripping the bare brickwork for balance.

She noticed the scrolls rolling (and unrolling) across the street at that moment, and with a cry of "oh, let me!" threw herself to her knees, bending to hide her burning cheeks, scrabbling at the bits of parchment and shoving them back into the surprised man's arms.

As she was crouching to pick up one book, the unfurled edge of which had cascaded off the pavement and was currently dangling into the muck of the main street, the lettering caught her eye. Greek. Beautifully arranged rows of letters, written with care, squirming to work around the large inkblot in the centre of the scroll - so much work, and now the thing was not fit for sale. But the text was still legible, the battle motif around the border was artfully executed, and the calligraphy itself was of a standard she had rarely seen even in her old master's well-stocked library.

She could see the brown, stubble-flecked lips of Aristo, with its snaking wrinkles spreading like a river delta, reading out those same words as soon as her eye skimmed across them. Homer's Iliad.

She lifted the beautiful scroll into her arms as if there were an infant swaddled inside, raising her eyes to the man's face as she registered he'd said something.

"Oh, no. It was my fault. I've just... it was a shock, and I didn't look where I was going," she said shakily, brushing a loose strand of hair out of her face. For a moment, the pair of them just stared at each other. Antheia blinked and shoved the scroll towards the stranger.

"Here. I'm so sorry. It's a beautiful... beautiful book. I'm sorry if I got it dirty. It's just... some thugs must have been in to my friend's house and torn the place to pieces. I wasn't expecting..."

@Chevi

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The woman scrambled to pick up the scrolls, handing them back to Tranquillus with an ashamed look on her face. He would have picked them up too, but she seemed to feel responsible for the collision. He noticed the way she looked at his new copy of the Iliad. A look of... appreciation. Tranquillus tilted his head slightly, curious about her.

"Oh, no. It was my fault. I've just... it was a shock, and I didn't look where I was going," 

"Quite alright." she handed him the book. Tranquillus rolled it up and tucked it under his arm with the rest of them.

"Here. I'm so sorry. It's a beautiful... beautiful book. I'm sorry if I got it dirty. It's just... some thugs must have been in to my friend's house and torn the place to pieces. I wasn't expecting..."

"They... what?" he blinked, looking between her and the open doorway. "There are robbers in there?"

@locutus-sum

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"There are robbers in there?"

The man suddenly tensed up, she could see it. In all her melodramatic ramblings, she'd made it seem like the danger was still present.

"Oh! No, not anymore. They've... been and gone," she clarified, a little more loudly than she'd have liked. Get a grip, Antheia. "My friend's been robbed, his scrolls are all in tatters, and he... oh, well, he's gone!"

She fished around in her thoughts for any possible idea of where he could have gone. The baths? No, he preferred to wash in the basin. The forum? He hadn't bought any books in years, and he only ate the bread and cheese she brought round for him. No, Aristo had been gone. How long till the ransom note arrived? And would he survive long enough to be a useful hostage?

Realising she was staring into the distance, Antheia wiped her eyes aggressively and turned back to the man with an apologetic smile and a hasty, "Don't worry, you... you carry on. Sorry again about your scroll. It's all muddy. Here," - she reached down under her chiton for the money purse that hung there, close to her chest for protection - "how much did it cost? I'm afraid I only have... two denarii."

She held out the coins in her shaking palm. They bore the head of Quintus Caesar - she'd been saving them up a long time. Fixing the man with a mortified gaze, she hoped the apology in her eyes would make up the rest of the cost.

@Chevi

Edited by locutus-sum
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"Oh! No, not anymore. They've... been and gone. My friend's been robbed, his scrolls are all in tatters, and he... oh, well, he's gone!"

Now that he could take a better look at her, she did look beyond distressed. It made sense, if a friend of hers had really been robbed by thugs. Especially if he was missing. Tranquillus was beginning to grasp the severity of the situation he'd stumbled into.

"Don't worry, you... you carry on. Sorry again about your scroll. It's all muddy. Here, how much did it cost? I'm afraid I only have... two denarii."

"It's alright" he said, gently curling her fingers over the coins and patting her hand. There was no way he would take them. "The scroll was cheap, don't worry about it. I think there are more important matters at hand... what's your name? Are you injured?"

@locutus-sum

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The man's eyes were kindly and full of genuine concern that made her feel a touch more at ease. She inhaled deeply, trying to rein in her panic. His hands were gentle as he pushed hers away.

"What's your name? Are you injured?"

"My... oh. Name. Yes. I'm... Antheia. I just started as Claudia Caesaris' tutor," she managed, scrabbling to replace the coins in her sweaty palm into the leather pouch round her neck. "And no, I think I'm ok, thanks," she said, trying and failing to hide the grimace on her face as a jolt of pain shot through her twisted ankle. "Just in shock, I think. He was... well, I don't even think he knew how old he was. Over eighty, I'm certain. His knees are all seized up, too. Those bandits might have..."

She suddenly became aware of her use of the past tense, an unconscious acknowledgement of what she knew to be true - no bandit would have bothered holding a doddery old fellow like Aristo captive once they realised how frail he was. Right now, he was probably lying battered in some muck-filled back alley ringing with the lurid laughs of drunken lowlifes, the cobbles digging into his ribcage as he tried desperately to draw breath into lungs no longer fit to hold air.

@Chevi

 

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"My... oh. Name. Yes. I'm... Antheia. I just started as Claudia Caesaris' tutor. "

"Oh." he blinked, a little surprised. It was definitely not common to run into an imperial household member in the middle of the Subura. "Well... I'm Tranquillus."

"And no, I think I'm ok, thanks. Just in shock, I think. He was... well, I don't even think he knew how old he was. Over eighty, I'm certain. His knees are all seized up, too. Those bandits might have..."

She was spinning out again. Which was understandable, given to what she had just walked into, and the implications of her old friend missing after a robbery. Tranquillus placed a hand on her shoulder, trying to keep her steady.

"If they had killed him, they would have left him on the scene" he said, although he was not entirely sure about it. It was not like he spent a lot of time around crime on the streets. "Maybe he's gone for help? Or someone has already taken him to safety?"

@locutus-sum

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"Maybe he's gone for help? Or someone has already taken him to safety?"

"Perhaps..." she echoed faintly. He could be right - couldn't he? She certainly wanted to believe so. They couldn't have got him three paces out of the door in his state. But none of the alternative options he offered seemed plausible. "He couldn't have gone for help on his own. Perhaps someone has taken him in - but he didn't have any friends, really, apart... apart from me."

She gave him a small smile to let him know she was grateful for his conjecture. It offered her some hope. Whether or not that was healthier than acceptance, she wasn't sure, but she was certain it felt better, so she allowed herself to.

"Well... I suppose I could ask around... see if anyone saw anything..." she said weakly, staring unseeingly at Tranquillus' shoulder as she turned over different hypothetical scenarios in her mind.

@Chevi

Edited by locutus-sum
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"Perhaps... He couldn't have gone for help on his own. Perhaps someone has taken him in - but he didn't have any friends, really, apart... apart from me."

Tranquillus could tell that she was still in shock. If her old friend's house had been robbed and ransacked, and him gone, that was understandable.  Tranquillus put a careful hand on her shoulder. He was not usually one ofr physical contact with strangers, but she looked like she needed some steadying. 

"Well... I suppose I could ask around... see if anyone saw anything..."

"It is okay to take a breath" Tranquillus prompted, guarding her to the side of the street to be out of foot traffic. "My name is Tranquillus. I'm body slave to Titus Sulpicius Rufus. I'll try to help, if you want me to. Should I go alert the vigiles?"

@locutus-sum

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"Tranquillus… thank you. That would probably be a good idea," she said breathlessly, feeling rather stupid. When he laid a hand on her shoulder, she had at first flinched, but now she was glad of its supportive presence as he lead her slowly along the street, making sure she didn't trip again on the pavement edge. There'd surely be someone patrolling this stretch: the close buildings of the Subura made it a particular fire and crime risk.

Sure enough, leaning boredly against a tavern wall bearing the scrawled slogan 'Aulus sucks, where are our thermae?' in angry letters was a helmeted figure swinging a bucket in his right hand and holding a wine cup in the other.

Antheia nudged Tranquillus and pointed him out.

@Chevi

 

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