The Villa of Narses

[ At the end of this chapter was a baths scene with the girls in the gladiator's school... hey! It's a Roman epic... gotta have some bath scenes... ]

            Hot water sluiced into the stone tub, steaming as it filled. Thyatis was already sitting in the basin, her knees up to her chin. She hissed, both in delight and at the heat as the water flooded over her toes. Two brawny slaves were pouring for her, hauling big ironbound buckets from the heating room down the hall. She ignored their stares with long practice. Men had seen her naked before. If they tried anything, she would kill them and her promise to Narses be damned! The old cripple wouldn’t miss one or two slaves…

            “Candace! Get in here!” Thyatis started scrubbing at her toes with a soapy brush. “Bring Agrippina.”

            The two condemned women came in after a moment, then stared at Thyatis, up to her neck in steaming water thick with foam. The two men left, empty buckets slung over well-muscled shoulders. Candace stared after them. Both slaves were wearing only short tunics, which left little to the imagination. After a moment, she shook her head as if waking from a pleasant dream and looked around in surprise.

            “Come on, get in.” Thyatis was still in a sour mood, but it was lifting, buoyed by the smell of lye soap and hot water. That had always meant cleanliness and home to her. Even with her black mood, it was a giddy sensation. “What? You like being filthy?”

            “No, not me!” Agrippina said, shaking her head. The older woman stripped off her tunic and eased into the water. Thyatis raised an eyebrow, seeing a brutal network of scars on the woman’s arms and thighs. Some of them had healed badly, leaving puckered welts. Beyond that, however, the woman had serious muscle under a layer of fat.

            Agrippina submerged, then surfaced, her hair slicked back. She was had a broad plebian face, all stout angles and a short nose. Thyatis lifted her chin, indicating one of the scars that laced its way across her shoulder. “What did that?”

            Agrippina looked down, frowning, then nodded soberly. “Meat axe.”

            “You’re a butcher?” Thyatis started working on her back with the brush. It felt so good! Maybe she could convince one of the others to rub her down with salt afterwards. An expensive treatment, but she saw that the previous inhabitant of these rooms had not stinted on the luxuries. There were green and blue bottles of oil, an assortment of bronze strigils and various scrubbing brushes.

            “Yeah. I was.” Agrippina captured the bar of soap, which had slid down to the bottom of the tub, and began lathering her hair with it. “Twelve years.”

            “What happened?” Thyatis knew she shouldn’t ask, but it might make a difference.

            Agrippina stared back, her face blank. After a moment, her eyes blinked, slowly, like a crocodile emerging from the green waters of the Nile. “Killed a man. Cut him to bits with the treadle-saw, put them in the grist mill after, made him into feed for the sacred geese.”

            “Oh.” Thyatis’ forehead creased, furrowing. “How did they find out?”

            Agrippina shrugged, her powerful shoulders rising out of the water, then disappearing again. “The gods were displeased, I suppose.”

            “Well, that’s a puzzler. Candace?” Thyatis looked up at the Nubian woman, who was still standing beside the tub, looking disgusted. “Aren’t you getting in?”

            Candace made a face, staring at the water, which was now beginning to shimmer with oil amid clumps of dirt and hair. “No… I think it might just make me dirtier!”

            Thyatis scowled, then splashed lukewarm water on the Nubian girl. Candace yelped and jumped back. “I’ll go after you’re done!”

            “Fine. It’ll be cold then.” Thyatis stood up, letting the soapy water spill off her. The slaves had left three more buckets of hot water just for rinsing. It wasn’t the luxe treatment at the Baths of Caracalla, but it would do for today. She turned the bucket over, slowly, letting it sluice down the firm curve of her body. Soap peeled away like a second skin, swirling gray into the rinsing basin. The last of the water was for her hair, which had managed to grow out enough to lie flat against her head. Grains of sand and other, less identifiable grime, rolled under her fingers.

            Hmm, she thought, it might take another four or five baths to get really clean…oh well.

            Agrippina was still scrubbing, so Thyatis sat on the side of the tub, checking herself for scratches or other wounds. There were fresh scars, but they seemed to have scabbed over. She let them be. Dying with cold steel in her gut didn’t frighten her as much as rotting from gangrene. While she had waited in the cell, she had washed her wounds with urine, hoping to keep them clean. She wrinkled up her nose, that hadn’t been one of her best days, but one of her instructors on the Island had sworn by it.

            At the thought, she froze, besieged by memories. All of them brought some kind of pain, so she started to breathe, slowly and evenly, until they passed. Her mind started to go far away, into the gray haze, but a touch on her shoulder brought her back.

            “Don’t.” It was Agrippina, leaning over her. The older woman had a bleak look on her face and her sausage-like fingers were digging into Thyatis’s shoulder. “If you hide, it gets stronger.”

            “What do you mean?” Thyatis pushed the hand away and stood up.

            “You know.” Agrippina turned away, gathering up her tunic. “Not my business.”

            Thyatis scowled, but she rummaged in one of the cupboards and found a pair of clean tunics. She tossed one to the butcher, then pulled the other over her head. It was too small, but she managed to pull it down enough to avoid complete indecency. “Candace! Your turn.”