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Reading, Writing and Arithmetic


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They had settled into some routine over the last few months, which was something Teutus had been a little concerned about - things had gone smoother than he had feared they might as everyone adjusted to everyone else. Mostly, they were adjusting to him, he thought, because he was the master. It was an anomalous position in the household, of course, but far less anomalous than his position in his father's house had been, even before he'd been freed.

Olipor was giving Amandus lessons, with Teutus' blessing, and Varinia was teaching her maid Proserpina something, which left Teutus and Jannus.

"Can you read?" Something he had not asked when he'd bought Jannus, nor in the months since.

 

@Insignia

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The transition was rough at first for Jannus, not because he failed in any of his tasks, but because his new master gave him a loose rein. Moreover, his master's mother seemed to dote on everybody in the household. Her actions were not unwelcome, but unfamiliar to be the recipient of. It had been so long since he received a kind word or a cake like that. Jannus knows his master's a freedman, and a relatively new one at that. How must it feel for him to be in different shows?

The insulae is quiet. Jannus appreciates it; sometimes the din can be a bit much. A hard balance for him, finding enough noise. For smaller places, ones he holds closer, he prefers it to have bits of silence to break up the sounds. So many of them, quiet sighs and bold proclamations. He does not dare change its delicate equilibrium. An inquiry stirs up memories from times past. 

"Yes, domine." 

@Sharpie

Edited by Insignia
turns out domine is the vocative form
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Posted (edited)

Teutus still had to bite his tongue when any of his slaves addressed him as 'Master' - he'd been a slave for most of his life and a freedman for only a bit more than a year... and owned his own slaves just a bit less than that.

He nodded at Jannus' quiet answer. That was good, if perhaps a little unexpected. He hadn't pried into any of his slaves' pasts, figuring that they might not want to share things like that with their master. And he had a lot he didn't want to share with his slaves. 

"Can you write?"

Reading and writing didn't always go hand-in-hand, after all. The one was easy enough, the other took practise.

 

@Insignia

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If Teutus shows any discomfort, Jannus doesn't notice it, or pretends not to. It is simply the way of things that he is the slave. As much as he pulls at hypotheticals like strings in a spider's web, they are only that: hypotheticals. Pitted against the harshness of reality, none of those beautiful ideas stand a chance. Once upon a time, those strands may have diverged. Back with the first master, he'd had a chance of being freed. Never happened, sadly. The sentiment lost its welcome a long time ago. Jannus did gain a few opportunities many other slaves would fight tooth and nail for during his time there. One of them, instruction on how to read. Writing, he practiced sometimes on his own. 

"Not well, but yes, domine." The few times he amped himself up enough to add to the local graffiti, his letters were barely legible.

@Sharpie

Edited by Insignia
turns out domine is the vocative form
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Posted (edited)

Teutus slid a two-leafed wax tablet and a stylus to Jannus. "That's a good place to start, then. Write out the alphabet, if you know it - if you don't know it, just write out the letters you do know."

That would give him some sort of baseline they could build on.

One of the responsibilities he'd had when he was Tertius' secretary had been educating Antonia Varia. Well, teaching her the basics, anyway. It was one of the tasks he had enjoyed doing, as well - the challenge of figuring out what to teach her, what she could do, what he knew... it had been pleasurable and something he had found that he was good at, even with Antonia's swings between utter boredom, fascination, and wanting to know everything possible.

Of all the people in Tertius' household, he found that he missed bright-eyed, copper-haired chatterbox Antonia the most. He would have to see if he could do something about that - ask Tertius if he could take Antonia out somewhere, just the two of them, as brother and sister. Almost the way he'd used to do when he was a slave.

"If you don't know something, or there's anything you're not sure of, you can ask," he said, banishing the thoughts and memories in favour of the present day and Jannus.

 

@Insignia

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Jannus stops the tablet from sliding off the table with uncertain hands. It has been a while since he has held a writing tablet like this, not for somebody else but for his own use. The wood feels smooth under his fingers. How did someone hold a stylus, again? He pictures the many times he's seen Olipor awake at night writing records. Yes, that must be it. His first three fingers wrap around the stylus. Index finger on top, middle on bottom, thumb on side. Like a tripod. 

In times past, he used to chime the words to a song recalling the alphabet. Time has made him rusty; if he is to have any success at this, he must remember letters by frequency of use. The vowels come easily; he slowly inscribes them on the tablet, letters small and neat at first but growing marginally less tidy as he continues. Then the next three, which he's seen on many a slave: F, V, G. That leaves quite a few more. His name uses two different letters; that is easy enough. Jannus leans his head on his left hand as he considers what others, then quickly straightens up. Having poor posture does not make for good learning. A 'V' and an 'R' for sure; that's what his master's mother has in her name. Amandus and Olipor have some other characters he needs to include as well. Three more letters on the list. He erases repetitions using the flat end of the stylus. 

Huh. This is actually kind of challenging. There ought to be other words he can think of that have letters he hasn't written down yet. A friend from the popina-wait, that's another word with more letters he hasn't used. And a friend he met there-two letters. Now he is at fifteen letters and can think of no more. Sparks fly through his mind as he tries to remember the rest. He can read the graffiti just fi-one more. Sixteen of them stare back. Unless he wants to sit here thinking of words and waste even more of Teutus's time, he needs to ask for help. It feel like his master's gaze is burning into him. 

"Domine," Jannus quietly pipes up, "may you show me the rest of the letters?"
 

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"Of course," Teutus answered, slipping easily back into a role he had played for many years. He took the offered stylus and inscribed the alphabet neatly on the opposite leaf.

A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X Y Z

"Some of the letters are used more than others, of course," he said. "And some are hardly used at all - mostly in words we've adopted from Greek."

He didn't expect Jannus to become his secretary - he had Olipor to act as his clerk, after all - but it would be a useful skill for Jannus to have, even if only for himself if neither Teutus nor Varinia ever needed him to make notes.

"If you know the alphabet, and you know how the written word works, you're more than halfway to being able to write anything you ever need to," Teutus said, and gave the stylus back. "There. Why don't you copy that out - it'll help you remember it better."

 

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It confuses him. Why is he being allowed this luxury all the way in a half-crowded insula, of all places? He should be dismissed, or treated with scorn. Was that not the way the world worked, to learn things the difficult way? No, nobody has time for that kind of thinking, least of all his master. Jannus feels something akin to warmth, nothing like the blazes of a forest fire or even candlelight, but a small persisting burn like a tiny scrap of vine flickering for a few seconds of glory. Perhaps, he thinks, he can begin to feel at home in this place.

He does not smile; he rarely does, after all. Showing too much of any facial expression makes him feel powerless, as though his face is the one thing that belongs to him and he cannot afford to lose its value. However, he allows himself a bit of leeway. The small furrow between his eyebrows, the one his second master hated him for, disappears. Fresh sunlight peers in through the window. It will be okay. He quietly thanks Teutus and copies back the letters a few times. Which is when he gets a new question.

"Domine, how do you reduce the amount of wax crumbs when writing?"

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"Don't dig so deeply into the wax," Teutus said quietly in answer to Jannus' question. "It won't eliminate them completely, of course - every wax tablet needs renewing from time to time, but that's just how things are. A light scrape is easier to erase when you want to clean the wax off for next time, too."

Teutus' own writing was the practised neat handwriting that he'd developed over years as his father's secretary. Jannus' writing was rougher around the edges, less practised, more rusty, as though he hadn't used the skill in a long time, and hadn't done it much even when he was in practise. Teutus didn't really need a secretary, and had Olipor for actual secretarial and clerkish work, but he could find things so that Jannus could have some regular practise. It would be a good skill for him to have and to keep up with, after all.

"You're doing very well," he said after a moment, looking at Jannus' scratched letters, which were improving a little with each repetition of the alphabet.

 

@Insignia

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Jannus doesn't speak any further, but tilts his head towards the direction of Teutus's voice to show he's listening. More shallow. That makes sense. His letters are drawn with a clumsy hand and a lighter touch, such that he's no longer shredding up so much wax. Why was it so difficult to keep his handwriting neat? All it takes is to move around a pointed stick, yet it feels alien. Several times, he has to pause to reposition the stylus so it sits correctly in his hand. Running laps around three insula in the blazing sun would be easier than doing this all day. 

Deep down, he knows his reluctance to write is buried in a deep sense of shame. He's nothing more than a slave. Why bother writing and adding his own piece to the collective narrative of Rome if it wasn't for somebody else higher in status and more deserving? He walks by the walls of graffiti sometimes and wishes to add his own piece, but there's simply no point. Nobody needs to hear from him. 

Jannus quietly thanks his dominus. After rubbing the top of the wax-slate clean with the flat end of the stylus, he slowly but surely writes something. It's the most he can do given how much time Teutus has spent teaching him:

THAGNK YOU

He can't remember how to spell "thank" accurately, and his 'V' is horribly misshapen, but he hopes the sentiment comes across regardless.

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The sentiment - misspelled it might be - made Teutus smile, a warm genuine smile of the sort he hadn't managed in quite a while. It didn't matter that Jannus was his slave, he enjoyed teaching and it felt good to be able to show someone else something that was so simple and yet so worthwhile.

"You're welcome," he said, aware that anything he suggested would probably be taken as an order instead of the suggestion he'd mean it to be. They weren't comfortable enough around each other for Jannus to be able to separate suggestions from outright orders, after all. Not yet, anyway.

"If you've got any questions, I don't mind you asking them," he said. A statement, not an order, just to be on the safe side.

 

@Insignia

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Against it all, Jannus can't help but smile as well. It's a small thing, only the corners of his mouth quirking up slightly. His eyes betray the rest of his hidden sentiments. For a brief moment, it seems like the spark is back. As quickly as it forms, it fades. Tabula rasa. Jannus erases the bottom part of the tablet, leaving behind the misspelled 'thank you.' Someday, he'll make his dominus smile again. This household is quite different from the past, but both masters remain equally mysterious about their private lives. Jannus, as of now, scraped a bit of truth from the edges of the barrel, yet a sea of secrets remains. 

"Domine, what would be a good example sentence to practice writing letters with?" No, he cannot allow himself to get any friendlier than necessary. His tone maintains an air of respectful distance.

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"That... is a good question," Teutus replied, and had to stop and think, running through several different possibilities in his head. "Hmm. The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog has all the letters, I think. Let's have that stylus."

He took the offered bronze pen and wrote out the suggested sentence, double checking that the sentence did have all the letters as he thought it did. "Yes, that has all the letters, including the Greek ones. But really, the best way to practise writing at all is to do it. Remind me tomorrow to get you a tabula and stylus of your own."

He'd let him have these, except he was rather attached to the bronze stylus they were using because it had been the one he'd used for almost his entire secretarial career before he'd been freed. It was a stupid thing to be attached to when he could buy numerous brand new styli, but that didn't change the fact.

 

@Insignia

 

(Note: I picked an English sentence because we're writing in English, so it made sense not to go for an actual Latin sentence... though I fell down a research rabbit hole, apparently there isn't a Latin sentence that does it (at least, not one in any actual texts), probably because Latin authors never needed to check that all letters in a typeface actually worked! But, I'm not the first person to wonder, because I found this really interesting discussion!)

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Jannus watches Teutus write out the letters in order to remember the proper sequence of strokes. The 'X' begins with a cross to the left, not to the right as he'd mistakenly thought. The 'E' similarly goes from left to right, top to bottom. Now that he thinks of it, he's been adding an extra line to all of his E's before today's lesson. Did that create super-E's? Imperial E's? This was why reading was so much better. There was little point in creating material of his own when he could barely write his words correctly. It doesn't have to be that way. At the same time, it did. It is his place. Yet that small rebellious voice doesn't leave his mind. The words stand clearly for themselves, showing flight. Promise. Agency.

Of course, his train of thought goes into a tailspin once he hears the rest of what Teutus is saying. He meets Teutus's eyes for a brief moment with an look of surprise not usually associated with him. 

"Thank you, domine."

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"You're welcome," Teutus replied, a little startled by the surprise on the other's face, although he supposed that it might be a bigger deal for Jannus than it had been for him even when he'd been a slave himself.

He wasn't about to pry, but made a mental note that Jannus didn't seem to have any good expectations from people around him. Maybe he'd open up a bit to Varinia, once he was more used to this household? It wasn't as though Teutus planned on treating his slaves as long-lost relatives (he'd already found her, after all!) or anything, but he was human and so were they, and he'd been a slave. He could treat them with a bit of humanity, after all, show them that he valued them as individuals. There was more to a person than simply the value a slave-trader put on them and their skills, after all.

"I think you should keep practising, it'll get easier the more you practise," he said. "That is a suggestion, not an order, you don't have to if you'd rather not. But I think you should. You might find it useful in the future, after all."

 

@Insignia

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Jannus curses himself for being so upfront about his emotions. He never intended to startle Teutus, and in the world of slavery where fair isn't a word, wearing your heart on your cheek is a death sentence. And yet, for the briefest of moments, he can't deny that seeing the alarmed look on his master's face makes him feel good. Powerful. Like he could flash teeth and shatter the invisible ties that bind him. No, he chastizes. Such informal behavior won't do. He is a slave, and he must be a proper one. Resistance if futile; one either rises like the sun or sinks like a stone in the workings of Rome.

His strong sense of self-criticism comes from being taught to be overaware of perceived improprieties. Indeed, Jannus has not seen much kindness in recent years. Until he was a teenager, he was treated more like a member of a family. He had one person who looked out for him. It all fell apart within one mundane night, breaking the illusion he was anything but a slave, a tool, a piece of equipment that toiled away for hours on end. But now, he is under Teutus's domain. He has time of his own, friends of his own. With the writing tablet comes freedom. 

"Thank you, domine." 

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Jannus repeated his thanks, and Teutus smiled in recognition and appreciation; he'd already said you're welcome twice in the last three minutes, after all. Saying it again would be overkill, probably... though something about Jannus' expression and repetition of his thanks made him take a fresh look at the other. Jannus was perhaps five years younger than he was, with similar dark hair and blue eyes - if things had turned out a little differently, they might have ended up as a matched pair of house slaves in some Senator's home. Despite all his many flaws, though, Tertius had never once made Teutus fear he might be sold, or given a lower status in the house than as his secretary.

He sent a quick glance across to Olipor and Amandus - even the young boy had similar dark hair, though Teutus had a sneaking suspicion his eyes were darker, like most Romans'. Anyone just glancing at them might think they were brothers or something. Maybe.

Jannus was more like Teutus than perhaps he realised - there was something of Teutus' own diffidence and uncertainty, though perhaps with more reason. Well, he couldn't fix Jannus' head - he couldn't fix his own - but he could try to be a lot less of an enigma to Jannus than Tertius was to him. And a lot more supportive, in his own way.

One thing he would never do, though, was to delay keeping  a promise until keeping or breaking it made no difference.

"Jannus," he said quietly. "I don't care what your previous masters were like. This is a different place and you have a place here. If you need to talk with me, I will listen. Just... make sure it's a good time, all right?"

He'd offer the same to the other two - three, if Proserpina ever needed to, although he thought she would rather confide in Varinia, her mistress.

"I won't ever play guessing games, mind games, with you. I've been in your position with people doing that and I won't do it to anyone."

 

@Insignia

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Honestly, Jannus isn't acting as conscientiously as he'd like. Every day, there exists a time, whether during the dead of night or in the middle of the day, where he can let his mind fall back and his body take over the rest. It's quite simple during activities like this, where a simple "thank you" and "yes" are enough to keep the conversation going. He likes it when other people talk, for it is much more interesting to listen than to offer anything of his own. Perhaps that's why the tablet burns itself into his mind. There are endless possibilities for what to do, but he cannot decide it for himself even though he should be able to.

He used to think about what life would have been like if he'd been friends with somebody of a similar age. He always learned best by copying; maybe that's why he ended up subconsciously mirroring the body language of his first master when he was a child. After all, his job was to become what others wanted, and birds of similar feathers gravitate towards each other.

Teutus and he look similar, don't they? A harebrained idea, one of serving as a body double, flies through his mind. Too risky. 

To avoid spooking Teutus like earlier, Jannus looks away while he considers the former's words. No mental gymnastics sounds like a promise he could rely on. 

"I trust you."

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"I trust you." Three words, three simple words, in answer to a statement of intent... Three words that sent a warmth through him that he didn't realise he needed.

His father had never said those words - had never demonstrated those words, which would render the saying them out loud null and void. Oh, Tertius had trusted him to go shopping for him and come back at a reasonable hour with the correct change. But he had never trusted him in the bigger things, the personal things. He didn't trust his brother, or Charis or... anyone. He never trusted anyone with his thoughts, or his emotions, anything like that. He expected them to screw him over and so he played guessing games with them, almost searching for reasons to justify why he couldn't trust them.

What a sad lonely life he had, that he couldn't let anyone in to it.

"I trust you."

It shouldn't mean anything, coming from a slave who was utterly in his power, but it meant everything. Far more than Jannus would ever know.

"Thank you." He could only hope to be worthy of that trust, even if he was never worthy of his father's, he could for someone else.

"Now, do you think you can write the alphabet from memory, or do you need to copy it again?"

 

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Jannus isn't really sure how much he can go through with those three words, but he may as well try. There isn't really a place in Rome for slaves who trust; being in that situation ripped the carpet out from under him when he realized that things such as promises, safety, and security are illusions, and that nobody is truly safe. However, he'll do his best by playing his part as he's told to. That much he can achieve. 

A long time ago, somebody told him that no man can survive in this world by himself. Like it or not, everybody has a place in the social fabric of Rome, and trying to rip oneself from it would be even more difficult than ripping out a well-reinforced hem on a tunic. Teutus does not seem like the kind of person who would backtrack on his word, at least not without prior warning. And so Jannus opens up his mind and lets down his guard as he waits for Teutus to finish speaking. 

"I'll try it from memory." The letters still come out a bit shaky, but it's a noticeable improvement from before, and Jannus is surprised when he manages to remember the full sequence. What to do with this knowledge?

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"I know it isn't always easy to trust," Teutus continued - oh, how well he knew that! "I appreciate that you might not always have been able to, but I'll do my best to not let you down. Any of you."

If you showed you trusted someone, thought the best of them, it was human nature to rise to the occasion and prove that trust warranted, after all.

He fell silent as Jannus bent to his attempt at the alphabet. The letters were less awkward than before and he finally sat back after writing out all the letters in order.

"Oh,  well done!" Teutus had never stinted with praise where praise was due - admittedly his only previous pupil had been his half-sister, who was a child. But surely every student wanted to know their efforts had been noted.

 

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Jannus nods. What else is he to do, really? Trust will not come easily, but he can still store away the knowledge in the back of his mind to pull out every so often like a memento. Only time will tell as to what the future holds next. 

Would he be able to break the cycle, or was he entirely powerless? For the past few years, the answer was a resounding no and yes to both questions. Now, he's not entirely sure. The view from the window is bright.

Praise is warm. It thaws the edge of a decades-old piece of ice. 

"Thank you. Today's lesson was well worth it."

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