Normally, I write a chapter in three or four takes, approximately. I think I easily spent fifteen on this one. Main reason is my crowded home schedule. Over the next two months, updates will slow down a little, since we are moving soon, and there is work to be done in the new house. But once we are settled, I think it will be a very inspiring place!
Oh and the second reason is that I knew close to nothing about roman brothels…
Marcus, Biancus and a few others take up a few days of leave from duty and they visit Lutetia, where the rest of their Legion is stationed.
Lutetia was a moderately sized town only, but it was the capital of its region, and that meant it was remodelled more drastically than the Gaul towns or villages that Marcus had visited during their healing missions in the past year. Insulae, public housing blocks, lined the paved streets that led to the Forum they had visited earlier as they were shopping. It was a lot busier now, which surprised Marcus.
Maybe it was the nice weather. It was mid-October, but the day had been warm and pleasant, and tonight, with the aid of some bonfires lined up in the square centre of the Forum, the pillared hallways invited to linger. People did. They chatted. They sang. There was a surprising amount of people either playing music or singing. A particular group of Gaul musicians caught his attention. Three women. Two men. Dressed in the typical colourful checkered dresses and tunics of these regions, they were playing different sized drums, making the air around them vibrate with the cheer volume of their beat. They laughed and chatted as they played and slowly caught people in their rhythm, as the groups around them adapted their tune to support the song that took over the entire Forum.
They hit the baths first, which were as lively and crowded as the Forum itself. Marcus relished the entire experience like he would have meeting up with a long lost friend. Although his own time visiting the public baths in Rome had been relatively short, he had enjoyed them a great deal. From the warm Tepidarium into the hot, steam-filled Caldarium and finally to dive into the cold bath. He had always felt completely revived after that. When he went there with Spiritus, they had always trained first. Now, they just spent a lot longer than necessary in the Tepidarium, where most of the gossip was to be found.
The baths weren't as lavishly decorated as the ones in Rome. The heated tile floor carried a simple checkered pattern in different shades of blue, and the walls were still bare, the tubes that transported more heat through the room not hidden behind mosaic. It felt like home nevertheless.
As they soaked they learned that Lutetia actually counted another bathhouse on the isle in the middle of the river, and that the town also housed two official brothels. One right here at the Forum, and one run by a Lena* named Leia, a few blocks down the road. Once they had retreated to the Caldarium, which was less crowded since the amount of time you could spend there before you got light-headed was limited, Marcus felt it safe to discuss their plans for the rest of the night. He hesitated though. He was happy to have reconciled with Biancus and he didn't want to insult him. Biancus beat him speaking for once too:
"Any objections to visiting Leia?" he asked.
"We're not staying at the Forum?" Marcus replied, a little disappointed. He rather appreciated the music. The gossip had also told them that October was known as 'Cantlos' in Celtic, which meant as much as 'song' month. They took that seriously, he mused.
"It is state-run and the girls are slaves. Not my thing."
Marcus hesitated: "Yeah, about that. Brothels aren't really my thing. In general."
"It is my first time visiting one too. But I haven't seen more than a glimpse of a woman for over a year. You go on missions. You see places. And people."
Marcus sighed. That was a huge exaggeration. Flavius saw people. They stayed on the sidelines, offering assistance when the journey turned grim, usually on the road. In the villages and towns, their presence was tolerated, but not welcomed. It hadn't exactly invited him to explore, despite his own curiosity. And it was exactly what he didn't it like about visiting a brothel either.
"I just meant, I'd rather mingle in the crowd. Have a few drinks."
"Leia could have excellent drinks."
Marcus snorted "Sure."
The dip into the Frigidarium cut their breath and conversation short, but as they got dressed and joined their fellow soldiers, they spotted a red-faced Decius next to an already alarmingly inhibited Flavius.
Flavius had joined their trip rather last minute, and Marcus could have slapped himself not realising his superior would, when he was addicted to Laudanum. What better an opportunity to get a refill than visiting the nearest Romanized town He might even have visited Lucius's and Myra's apothecary. Marcus couldn't verify that, since he was avoiding a visit to Phyllis's parents like the plague itself.
"Leia?" Biancus whispered to him. Marcus nodded. Anywhere away from Flavius would do.
"Save Decius. I'll go and see if I can find Felix. They don't deserve this mess, either."
A few minutes later, the four of them were walking down the street, literally, since the street descended and narrowed as they progressed.
"This part of the city will get flooded if the Sequana bursts its banks," Marcus remarked. No one seemed to listen to him. They were craning their necks to discover 'The Ruby Romance', as Leia's establishment was called. Another ridiculous name. Almost as bad as 'Goliath'. There was nothing romantic about a brothel.
"Doesn't it bother you?" he finally said. "The idea that they are only pretending to like you?"
Now he did have their attention, he wished he had kept his mouth shut. Decius burst out laughing. For the first time in over a week. Felix and Biancus were just snickering.
"As long as they do not only pretend to fuck me, I'm fine," Felix told him and Marcus mentally readjusted the image he had of the older soldier.
"And who says they are only pretending? They are earning a living, these girls. That doesn't mean they necessarily hate us," Biancus said.
It sounded terribly naïve, but Marcus was done arguing. They had found their destination, and to his immense relief, the street outside the red tavern was quite busy as well. A few tables were set up outside. He plopped down on the first empty chair he could find. If they were interested in going inside they could do so without him. Besides, the waitresses were dressed in flimsy togae, and there was a small stage right across the street where a comic play was being performed. There was plenty to see. As they waited for their drinks, Marcus tried catch the words of the actors. He heard the name Augustus more than once, but the performers spoke Celtic littered with street Latin, and it was hard to follow. After a while, it became clear to him that they were ridiculing the prudery of the Emperor's marriage laws.
He was startled out of his reverie when a tall woman with draped herself across his lap. She was curvy and surprisingly heavy. Her long hair tickled his chin as she murmured in his ear:
"You know darling, despite popular belief, most actors aren't for sale."
Marcus leant back to study her, which wasn't easy since she was all over him. He did see that she was beautiful. He estimated her around thirty. She had very light blonde hair that hung over her shoulders in loose waves, jade eyes and a wide smile that reminded him of someone enough that he could barely resist the urge to push her off him. It wouldn't be very fair. He was sitting in front of a brothel after all.
"I am just watching the play," he said, trying his best to keep his voice neutral.
She ran a hand through his hair. "And do you want to play?"
He hesitated. His stomach constricted at the idea, but the others were watching him. She was a beauty, he had the money. They'd call him mad if he refused.
"If you need directions, feel free to ask," Decius laughed. "And if he doesn't figure it out, we can always take over."
She didn't take the bait. "I made my choice, sweetie. But I'll send someone over for you."
She grinned at Marcus. "Privately?"
He stood up. "Sure. Take me away from these morons."
The ground floor interior was dictated by all things see-through. Red gauze curtains, floaty shawls, wooden shutters that left far too little to one's imagination. To his immense relief, the blonde woman led him upstairs. He didn't even know her name. She led him into a room that was furnished with a bed with fine sheets, a shiny dressing table and a few cluttered shelves. It was surprisingly cosy.
The woman put her hands on her hips. She wore a velvety green dress that matched her eyes, rather than a collection of shawls. And a ruby necklace. He hadn't noticed it before, but she seemed a little different from the other waitresses. "So, soldier, what's your name?" she asked.
"Marcus," he said. He wasn't about to add more, especially not here.
She pursed her lips while she rolled a shiny lock of platinum hair around her index finger. "You have no idea how many customers I've had with that name."
"That's quite an off-putting remark," he told her. She had taken a step closer to him. He didn't have to look down to catch her eyes. She really levelled his own height.
She just smiled. "It's the truth though. It's just the first name that pops into their minds when they lie."
"Well, I'm not lying," Marcus said. "What's your name?"
"Is that a lie?"
She laughed. "Maybe. A drink?"
He nodded. He had no idea where to put himself. Or his hands. Maybe he could just take the amfora Bridgid had just uncorked and down it. It would probably help. She handed him a goblet of wine instead. He took a careful sip and had to keep himself from shuddering. The wine was strong, not lengthened, and sweetened to cover up the fact that it tasted sour. He couldn't fathom why his fellow soldiers were drowning themselves in it downstairs.
"Any nicknames?" Bridgid asked, before taking a long draught of her own goblet. The atrocious quality of the liquid was clearly inferior to the high it could bring.
He took another draught himself, since all in all, the high would be rather welcome for him too.
"No. I have a … friend who calls me 'Marc' sometimes. She says she doesn't really like the 'us'."
Leia smirked, as she sat down on the bed "Any chance this friend of you is Gaul?"
"Interesting. So what are we going to do 'Marc'? Are you going to join me, or are we going to spend our time playing Tabula?"
His eyebrows shot up. "You play? Tabula?"
She tilted her head back "Tabula is just one of one of my talents, my dear Marc."
He couldn't for the life of him tell whether she was being serious or not. But then she pointed at the shelves and he spotted a rectangular board with painted triangles on each side, the pieces stacked next to it.
He grabbed the board and stood with it rather awkwardly. There was no table. Bridgid patted the bed and he sat down beside her, the board in between them. He set it up quickly and as he looked up, Brigid magicked a set of dice from her cleavage. The ivory cubes felt cold as she dropped them in his hand.
"You were not keeping them there," he said smiling. They would have been warmer.
"Very perceptive Marc. Let's see if you count as well as you observe."
He was an excellent Tabula player. Whether you got your pieces across first was not a matter of chance. Whoever didn't realize that was bound to lose from him. But Bridgid knew chance could be counted and soon he had forgotten all about where he was here, focusing entirely on the game. He still lost once, and they were level-to-level into their third playthrough when he noticed it was pitch black outside.
"Don't worry. My girls will keep your friends busy. But if you have other interests, now might be a good time to name them." Bridgid's bright eyes were on him again, measuring him like she had done countless times by now, trying to figure out his next move.
"I … I'd rather finish the game." He bit his lip. "I don't suppose two hours of playing Tabula is on your list."
She giggled now, and she looked almost like a girl as she threw her head back. But she wasn't reluctant, or shy, or unhappy or anything he had expected from anyone forced into a lifestyle that was impossible to enjoy.
"There is no list. The girls pay a fee for their living arrangements and equipment. What they charge is up to their own judgment."
She jabbed his chest. "I would charge you extra because you are wealthy. If I was needy. Otherwise, I might do you for less, since you are appetizing. In fact, most of them probably would. But they had some trouble to catch your eye. A rare occurrence that I had to check out personally."
A million dices fell into place. He had been so slow to figure it out.
She shook back her hair, seemingly satisfied he had caught up. "Care to place a bet? If you win, you can ask me a favour. If I win, I can ask you one."
It took him all he had to defeat her, and this time he did need a bit of luck on his side. It had been a gamble, since he knew she could outplay him. But by the time the final dice rolled in his favour, he knew exactly what to ask.
A few days later, the rumour of Flavius nearly stabbing Leia after he lost his third game against her was the talk of the Legion. And this time, when Marcus stopped him from completing the act, it had been in plain sight, the number of witnesses making up for their inebriated state.
Had she been a mere prostitute, it wouldn't have had such an impact. As it stood, Leia's status was of doubtful moral, but it was high-valued throughout the Legion's ranks. Flavius didn't stand a chance, his temper quickly deemed unfit for a location as fragile as Mesmer and any chance for him to return there was forgotten.
Leia had taken a considerable risk for him, and it had cost him a bit more than the favour he had won. He couldn't turn Leia into a trading contact. As Biancus had said, it was unwise to break the rules set for yourself. But he knew exactly who was going to help him make good on the promise he had made Leia.
*A Lena is sort of a 'madame', a female pimp if you will.
** In this chapter I have, as Marcus finely remarks, discovered that I am utter rubbish at thinking up brothel names.
Okay. Marcus is a total snob. He's the kind of snob that doesn't even realise he is being a snob. I've copied this trait of a friend of mine.
So, thoughts about the chapter? I am not against naughty scenes. But I wanted to keep focus on Marcus and he had different things on his mind…