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Battle wounds


Aia
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(End of the year, 76AD, after Winter walk)

Decimus was on duty, and Aia was out of work for the day, so it was a great time to spend a few hours at the baths. Living at the insula, Aia had grown to like the neighborhood, and wandered around the Esquiline hill until she found the best spots for everything. Best food, best markets, best views... and the best baths. Not the biggest or most fancy ones, but the ones that were clean, never overcrowded, smelled nice, and had good water.

As she walked from the tepidarium into the room with the hot water, she discarded her towel, and walked down the steps. Once upon a time, it would have been unthinkable for her to be naked like this around other people - back when everyone thought she was a boy. Sometimes, discarding her clothing still felt like a dangerous thing to do, even in a bath full of women. Not just because of her body, but also because of the scars. She didn't mind them anymore - and Decimus had given her ample reminders he did not mind anything about her body at all - but here in the city, far from the legions, they still got some curious looks from people. Mostly because it was clear there were cuts done by blades, not the usual lash marks of burns carried by slaves and freed people.

Still, she was used to it by now. Aia sighed a contented sigh, entering the hot water, letting her long red hair down.

@Sara

 

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The baths had been chosen for precisely this reason, but being utterly alone here didn't make her feel any better, or more confident. Nobody she knew used these ones - her and her girlfriends favourites were smaller, more intimate and higher quality but she couldn't exactly parade her newfound scars in front of her friends, yet. The excuse her father had conjured was so thin it was almost unviable, and she wasn't going to test it out with Nesennia yet. The dinner three nights ago had been painful enough. Yet nor could she keep using the baths in her own domus; her father wanted her to be seen, but not completely seen and so sending her to baths in the Esquiline at a quiet time of the day seemed a good solution to him, if not to her. 

She sat on one of the marble benches next to the warm pool, a towel tied around her hips and another shielding her shoulders as she worked up the courage to go in. There were a few women here but mercifully none she recognised, and she doubted any knew her. Here where they were all stripped down, anybody could be anybody. She might be sharing a bench with a prostituye for all she knew, but the middle aged woman sat on the other edge didn't seem the type. Lucia was with her, glancing nervously between her domina and the water. She'd been sat here for an age already and she knew she had to get in, but didn't want to. The stitches had only been removed that morning and the wounds looked...ugly from what she could see in the mirror in her mothers room. Monstrous, even, to somebody like her, but the medicus had said the warm water would help. 

"Domina..." Lucia's soft voice intoned and Ovinia huffed, "I know, I know." She swallowed and her eyes followed a redhead as she descended the steps into the warm pool, her eyes alighting on a silvery white line on her ribs and then more, as her eyes focused. Ovinia blinked. He'd said there had been others. Nobody seemed to pay the redhead the faintest bit of attention as she entered the water and it gave Ovinia newfound confidence, although not enough that she dawdled as she removed the towels - handing them to Lucia before rapidly entering the warm water. She was soon submerged up to her shoulders, the wounds hidden from view unless somebody was peering under water. The warmth did feel good. 

She swallowed, eyes still following the redhead. Such unusual colouring. Such unusual scars. She bobbed over, her head above the water - hair neatly pinned so it wouldn't get wet. "Salve," She opened with, "Do you speak Latin?" She spoke slowly, as if to a child and gestured to the woman's hair, "You are not from Italia?" 

 

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Aia submerged herself in the water and resurfaced, enjoying the warmth and the sensation of water flowing through her hair. She blinked when she heard a voice, and turned to see a dark-haired woman coming towards her with her chin above the water. She did not look familiar, but that in itself was not unusual. Some people were just friendly. And some were uncomfortably curious about red hair.

 "Salve. Do you speak Latin?... You are not from Italia?" 

Oh, gods bless her heart.

"I do speak Latin." she said with a polite smile "And Greek, and Gallic, and a few dialects of Britonnic. But I'm from Gaul. Salve."

Aia had been done with being shy a long time ago.

@Sara

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Ovinia blinked. Oh. Good job the heat of the baths had already flushed her cheeks otherwise she might have shown her embarrassment more clearly. She cleared her throat and forced a smile on her face even though for the last few days she felt like doing anything but. 

"My apologies, I didn't wish to presume...your colouring is just so unusual." She was trying to be polite but wasn't convinced her words didn't sound horrifically sarcastic. She'd not intended that. She cleared her throat again and switched to accented Greek. "It's been years since I practiced properly, one of my brothers tutors was Greek and I was so jealous when I was a girl my father hired me a body slave who was, she taught me." Besides - it wasn't an unusual skill to have for a well-bred young woman. She floated awkwardly in the pool, her forced smile on her face, debating on how on earth she was going to bring up the scar that her eyes tried to find under the water. Although from Aia's angle it must have looked as if she was just eyeing her up. Speaking in Greek, so they wouldn't be listened in on was a start but she had...no idea how one broached an actual conversation. 

"Gaul...is a long way from here. What brings you to Rome?" 

 

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"My apologies, I didn't wish to presume...your colouring is just so unusual."

There it was. Red hair like hers stuck out in Rome, even with all the people coming into the city from all over the empire. And Roman women, especially highborns, were fascinated by it. Aia had gotten quite a few offers for selling her hair. But she was holding on to that as a last resort.

"It's been years since I practiced properly, one of my brothers tutors was Greek and I was so jealous when I was a girl my father hired me a body slave who was, she taught me." 

She switched to Greek, which was passable. Body slave. That made sense. Aia made money as a tutor for rich families, but the wealthier ones often just paid for a slave instead of hiring an outsider to do the job. Properly. "Your Greek is not bad." she noted, in better Greek.

"Gaul...is a long way from here. What brings you to Rome?"

"Work" Aia smiled. She noted the glance the woman gave her. Was she... into exotic women? Was that what this was about? "I am a language tutor. They hire me to teach languages to the children of wealthy families. Like yours." It was a shot in the dark, but it was an educated guess.

@Sara

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Ovinia couldn't hide her surprise. "You?" She arched her brows as she bobbed over to the side of the pool, resting an arm on it to keep herself from floating away. She'd never heard of a female language tutor. "Do many of the men that employ you...comment on it?" She asked and then shook her head, realising she hadn't explained herself well in her unpracticed Greek, "I mean, I'm surprised many men would employ a female tutor. Especially one from Gaul." Her lips twitched a little in a smile. She hadn't meant to be offensive but well...it was unusual. 

"Maybe I should employ you," She said with a nervous laugh and a wince, "To better my Greek." Not that she had any real need for it - it was mainly so she could impress her father - and later husbands - clients. The thought made the melancholy that had been sat in her stomach bloom and grow and she gulped down some air to make it go away. She gave the other woman another cautious glance through the water, debating on how to bring up the scars...now...what would be a tactful way of doing it...?

 

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"You?"

Wealthy girls were so predictable.

"Do many of the men that employ you...comment on it? I mean, I'm surprised many men would employ a female tutor. Especially one from Gaul." 

Aia chuckled. She was unusual, but as long as she taught children, no one minded a female tutor much. It wasn't like she was trying to educate professional lawyers or anything. "Beauty of the Empire. People come from all over." Some, in more adventurous ways than others.

"Maybe I should employ you. To better my Greek." 

Aia saw her eyes flicker over her again. Was she trying to proposition her?... "I'm always grateful for more work. But... somehow I doubt that is why you came over here in the first place." she said with a small smile. If the girl was a little smitten, she really could not fault her for it.

@Sara

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Ovinia frowned, not understanding the other woman's meaning as she finally dragged her eyes up from where she had been staring at her. That was the problem with people like Ovinia - they had grown so used to seeing other bodies as merely possessions, or something to gawk at that she never quite realised until it was too late when she was being inappropriate. Like right now. She blinked again, confused and stuttering before she finally cottoned on to what the other woman was implying with her small, sly smile. 

Oh. Ovinia grinned for real, her first smile in a fair few days, shaking her head. "No...not  that kind of work." she cleared her throat and tried - this time - to look at anywhere but the woman's body under the water. "I was...I suppose this might sound rude," She cleared her throat and reached up to push up a few lose tendrils of hair that had drifted into the water and stuck to her neck. Lucia had done a bad job of pinning it. "I suppose I was wondering how a Gaulish language tutor comes to have those scars...?" Not very tactful, but...it was the best she had.

 

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The girl finally caught up to what was happening, and grinned.

"No...not  that kind of work."

"Good" Aia grinned too. "I don't do that kind of work." Not that there was anything wrong with it. But it was definitely not her profession. The girl looked a little flushed. And Aia was curious now. If she was not flirting, then why...?

"I was...I suppose this might sound rude. I suppose I was wondering how a Gaulish language tutor comes to have those scars...?"

Aia tilted her head, glancing down. The girl must have seen the scar when she walked into the pool. Glancing over at her, the lights on the water concealed most of what could be seen, but she did wonder. 

"Would you believe me if I told you it was a sword?"

@Sara

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"I'm glad." She replied with a smile. Despite Alexius'...education of the place of prostitutes in their society, she still didn't like them. Or think them worthy of her time. This woman, however, was. She was intriguing and easy to talk to and she needed that. Besides the dinner which had been awful the only people she'd had to speak to for over a week now were her family and the slaves. And one man, in an angry conversation at Livia's Portico that she was trying very, very hard not to think about. She'd already shed enough tears about it. 

"A sword?" she repeated back with wide eyes. But then her face fell from one of surprise to one of clear disappointment. The man she knew didn't use swords; just knives, well concealed, sharpened, ready. She shuddered under the water and tried to rearrange her features back into polite neutrality. "How fascinating." She gave another brief, but less enthusiastic smile. "In Gaul?" 

 

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The girl's face... fell, at her words. She looked... disappointed? Aia had no idea what was going through her head.

"No, in Britannia" she replied, distracted by trying to put together why this girl came over to talk to her in the first place. She leaned back against the side of the pool too. "I'm sorry, were you... expecting something more exciting than a sword fight?"

She had not told many people what had really happened to her, in Britannia or in Germania. It could still come back to bite someone in the ass, even if she did not belong to Flavia Juliana's household anymore. But she was also not sure what was happening right here.

"I am Aia, by the way."

@Sara

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Britannia? Her eyebrows did rise now, despite her disappointment. Had she not been searching for something else, this could have been a fascinating conversation. She gave the woman an embarrassed, small smile and sighed, shaking her head. "No, no it's very exciting. Sorry. Tell me more? You were a warrior?" She guessed. Why else would a woman have a sword wound? Well...she had a knife wound, so she could guess, but hoped that wasn't the case. She winced, "You don't have to tell me...if it's painful. Sorry, I should not have pried." 

She exhaled, and rolled her neck in the water, letting the warmth of the water wash over her. She'd usually find it relaxing but was finding it anything but right at this moment. She offered the other woman a smile nonetheless. "Aia. I'm," she bit her lip, "Nia." It was a stupid pet name that she hated that her brother used to tease her with. Not good enough for the Ovinii...you can be in the Nii...

 

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Her name was most definitely not Nia. Aia smiled anyway. She was probably a wealthy girl, who did not want to be known to strike up a conversation with plebeians. Or barbarians, which she seemed to assume she was, even though Gaul was part of the empire.

"Kind of a warrior." she smirked. "I interpreted for the legions." As a man, but she did not quite need to know that. Not that interprexes were usually women, but in cases where not many people spoke both languages yet, it was easy to assume exceptions would be made. "I don't mind the prying... it just feels like you had something else in mind. Believe me, whatever you have to ask, I've heard it before."

@Sara

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She was genuinely surprised this time and smiled, awed for a moment. "That is...so exciting." She meant it genuinely. "I...have wanted to travel since I was a girl. You got to go to Britannia," She smiled again but it was sadder this time, "What was it like?" She would never go herself, she knew that - unless Fortuna married her to a man who was due to be a Proconsul out there, and that seemed a very, very remote possibility. The same uncomfortable, melancholic feeling settled in her stomach again. 

"Oh," She swallowed and shook her head with a her smile becoming even more thin and even more drawn, "No, it was nothing I...had a friend, is all," She cleared her throat and spoke lower, still in Greek - hoping none of the other patrons were listening or cared to try and understand, "Who...well...there is a man in Rome that is hurting people. With a knife and I saw your scars and wondered...but you have a much better story." And a braver one too than allowing herself to be bound up and sliced like some slave.

 

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"That is...so exciting. I...have wanted to travel since I was a girl. You got to go to Britannia. What was it like?" 

"Cold" Aia smiled. "And very green." The girl was naive, but she seemed genuine. It was not her fault she had probably never been outside of the city. At least she was not malicious about people who were... not from Italia. But Aia still wondered about her true motivations.

"Oh. No, it was nothing I...had a friend, is all. Who...well...there is a man in Rome that is hurting people. With a knife and I saw your scars and wondered...but you have a much better story."

Aia's smile faltered as she arched an eyebrow. The way the girl talked, how she switched to Greek, and what she said...

"A friend?" she asked quietly. She was looking at scars on other people, trying to find... a man who was hurting people? "Someone is attacking people with a knife?" Not that it was unheard of inside the city, but... someone doing it on a regular basis, without being caught?

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"A friend." she replied with a wavering smile and she nodded; "Didia." The name sprung forth from her memory from that conversation. At least that part of it hadn't been painful. At least there had been some utility to what had happened. She swallowed the lump stuck firm in her throat. 

"It seems that way..." She nodded and let out a little sigh, biting at her lip. "Mainly women it seems. I just thought..." She sighed and shrugged her shoulders. "The vigiles are looking into it though." She said with rolled eyes and barely concealed contempt. "So we'll obviously all be completely safe...in about fifty years when they catch him." 

 

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"A friend. Didia." 

"Wait, Didia?" Aia blinked. She knew a Didia. She lived in the same insula. "She sells fruit and vegetables?"

"It seems that way... Mainly women it seems. I just thought... The vigiles are looking into it though. So we'll obviously all be completely safe...in about fifty years when they catch him." 

Oh, this woman had it out for the vigiles. At least they shared that one across social lines. Aia did not trust them either as far as she could throw them, and the praetorians had a long-standing distrust against them, although Decimus was generally mild and good-natured about it. "Bad experience with the vigiles?" she ventured with a smirk. "My h... my partner, he's a praetorian. I can see if he knows anything."

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Ovinia blinked. She'd said too much. She felt herself panic and shook her head, "No, no she doesn't." Surely there were hundreds of Didia's in the city? Surely? She cleared her throat, "Well...she might do." She winced with an embarrassed smile, "She's a friend of a friend more than anything...I know her via another friend, Alexius?" She winced. This was good right? It had to be? She thought herself useless - that she could contribute nothing to the hunt for the man that had so nearly taken her life...and Lucius had all but confirmed it for her. He'd find him. She'd sit still and weight. It was an unfair charge but she was mounting them against him - it made her feel better. 

"With one or two of them." She gave a tight smile and a shrug and glanced curiously at the woman. A praetorian...partner? She frowned, not understanding the use of the word in this context before it dawned on her and she smiled a little, embarrassed. Imagine that! A relationship before marriage! "That would be kind, thank you...if he could tell the vigiles if he finds out what he knows that would be useful, I'm sure. But...you have done well," she offered in an unknowingly arrogant way with a sly smile- "A praetorian is a good catch. Is he near the end of his service? So you can marry?" 

 

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"No, no she doesn't. Well...she might do... She's a friend of a friend more than anything...I know her via another friend, Alexius?" 

"No shit" Aia arched an eyebrow, surprised more than anything. This was the way she had to find out, from some rich girl at the baths, that Alexius and Didia had been involved in something so dark?... Right next door? Also, how was this girl friends with Alexius? Unless... unless she was friends with Alexius. Oh.

"That would be kind, thank you...if he could tell the vigiles if he finds out what he knows that would be useful, I'm sure. But...you have done well. A praetorian is a good catch. Is he near the end of his service? So you can marry?" 

"I'll see what I can do." She'd have to tell Decimus when he got home. And then they would have to go talk to Alexius and Didia. The vigiles... that could wait. She smiled a little at the compliment, even though it came out a bit patronizing. She already knew the girl did not hear what she was saying. "Well... he's got some years left, but we are hoping for a special permission. So we can see if married sex is better than the other kind." she added with a grin. She was a plebeian. No one gave a shit. Except maybe patricians.

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Ovinia smiled. Special permission she hoped...any polite thought she was about  to have was immediately cut off as the woman continued to talk and she spluttered, choking - jerking enough that she managed to create a deep ripple of the water that splashed at her and Aia's face. Her blush was furious. It shouldn't have embarrassed her this much, but she'd never heard another woman be so...crude, or so forward. You're a grown up, Ovinia so...grow up. 

"Well..." She said, clearing her throat with a small cough, "I...I am sure you will be happy." What...on earth did that even mean? She inhaled, irritated at herself that she should be so startled and undone. "I mean, I'm afraid I wouldn't know but I'm sure it will be worth the wait." No...no that didn't make sense either because she'd clearly not waited. Ovinia smothered a groan and leant her head on the side of the pool as if about to thwack it down, embarrassed. She grimaced at Aia. "I'm sorry...I don't know what to say to something like that. And certainly don't have the words in Greek." She gave an amused, embarrassed smile. 

 

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The girl almost drowned in embarrassment at Aia's words. Bless her. Aia laughed, wiping the water out of her eyes. So innocent. She had to be a patrician. Those people guarded their daughters like they guarded their treasures. Maybe more.

"Well... I...I am sure you will be happy." 

"We already are" Aia smiled softer. Married or not, her life with Decimus was lovely.

"I mean, I'm afraid I wouldn't know but I'm sure it will be worth the wait... I'm sorry...I don't know what to say to something like that. And certainly don't have the words in Greek."

Aia chuckled at the girl's embarrassment. Of course she wouldn't have the words. Poor girl was probably waiting for a husband to even think about any of that. "Well, here are some words. Sex is great, with the right person. Totally worth it. I doubt marriage can improve on that." Probably no one has ever told her any of that before. "I'm surprised you wouldn't... I mean, you are friends with Alexius, aren't you?"

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"I'm friends with him," She laughed - genuinely - feeling like a weight was shifting and lifting from her chest, "But friends, just friends. Although..." She winced, "He's told me similar." She'd never had a conversation with another woman like this - not even her closest friends. Any reference made to bedding had been perfunctory and coupled with an eye-roll or scorn that their husbands were eyeing up the slave girls already. Not this. Maybe Alexius had not been lying. The thought made her more uncomfortable than not. 

"I will find out one day I'm sure." She said with a blush but the smile on her lips grew a little more forced, and her eyes became a little sadder. Aia had clearly chosen the man she wanted, or at the very least ended up with one she did. She would not have that choice. She swallowed. She'd shut off the only escape route, not that it had been much, of course. No more than just a teenaged crush that had gone too far, she told herself. Maybe if she said it enough it would hurt less. "How did you know he was the right person?" She said, trying to shake herself out of her melancholy and get Aia back talking about herself, rather than Ovinia's own immaturity and inexperience. 

Forgetting herself, she pulled her arms up to rest on the side, looking sideways at Aia, the top of the red, angry scar on her shoulder blade visible above the waterline.

 

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"I'm friends with him. But friends, just friends. Although... He's told me similar." 

"He would." Aia chuckled. Alexius... got around. And from what she could tell, no one was really complaining about it. The entire city of Rome was happy to share the ex-gladiator with a heart of gold and... other body parts of equal value. 

The girl seemed a little... sad, talking about choices. She would have to wait until marriage, most likely arranger by her family. And if she found out the match was shit on her wedding night... it would already be too late. Sometimes Aia was glad her life had taken the path it did.

"I will find out one day I'm sure.... How did you know he was the right person?" 

Aia smiled softly at the question. "It took me a while. I mean, he was my best friend before that, he had my back whatever happened, he cared for me when I was injured... but in the end, he figured it out first. After we both almost died in an attack." she added, glancing down at her shoulder. She still had the marks of that fight, even though Decimus had carried the brunt of it. From her own shoulder, Aia glanced over at the girl, and tilted her head. "... I'm not the only one with scars." she noted more quietly. "That looks recent."

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She listened with genuine, undivided attention as Aia spoke through how she knew. The sinking feeling came first, starting in her chest and then gripping her stomach, her insides, and taking her breath with it. She swallowed hurriedly and looked away. "That sounds...lovely." She said weakly with a horrifyingly sad smile, before she turned her face back to Aia. "I hope I find that feeling one day. And find somebody who feels the same." 

She was speaking in fantasy. She would find a husband and whether or not those feelings bloomed was incidental. That was her role. That was her life. Any other stupid little fantasy she had been harbouring was gone after she'd bidden it to leave. After she'd bidden him to leave, and he had, with no protest. He clearly did not have the feelings Aia was talking about even if for a snatched moment she both thought they had.

Ovinia met her gaze and then looked over her shoulder. She realised almost immediately and dropped down lower into the water, her arms releasing from the side. She tried to affect a breezy, light smile. "The stupid slaves..." She shook her head, using her fathers ridiculous excuse, "They left a nail in the doorframe. My brother pushed me into it and..." She winced. "The medicus said it would heal soon enough, and it's nothing compared to being stabbed with a sword in Britannia." 

 

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"That sounds...lovely. I hope I find that feeling one day. And find somebody who feels the same." 

She looked... sad. Poor little trapped bird. It was hard to imagine she did not already have a secret crush on someone. But it was very unlikely she would ever get as lucky as Aia had. "Well, if you do... fight for him." she said "It's worth it. Unless it's Alexius. Alexius a treat for the people." she added with a smirk.

The scar... the scar made sense. Aia was slowly piecing the picture together.

"The stupid slaves... They left a nail in the doorframe. My brother pushed me into it and... The medicus said it would heal soon enough, and it's nothing compared to being stabbed with a sword in Britannia." 

Yes, no, all of that was a whole big cart of bullshit. Aia's smile disappeared as she floated closer, giving the girl a serious look. She was shorter than Nia, but right now, she mae up for the height difference.

"Was it him?" she asked quietly. "Is that why you asked?... does Alexius know?"

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