Face claimToby Kebbell
Snip snip snip went Barbatius' scissors as locks of dark hair started littering the floor around his feet. The man worked at a leisurely pace, but each gesture was masterful and precise; fascinating, even. The barber's question snapped Titus out of his study, and he flashed the man an apologetic smile. "Pardon me, good Barbatius. I meant no offence to your skills, only to senator Longinus' face." Boom, arrows shot.
Behind the joke, he shared Barbatius' wish that his friend wouldn't leave the shop dissatisfied; a poor experience would reflect as badly on the barber whose skills were deemed subpar as on the one who had introduced businessman and client. Titus nodded as Longinus couldn't and gratefully accepted the wine from the woman slave. "Just the wine is fine, thank you." He wasn't particularly peckish yet, and whatever delicacies Barbatius could offer them would almost definitely pale in comparison to what he could have in his own home - but he wouldn't be so rude as to disparage any bites if the barber offered.
His friend's description of Dacia made him chuckle, although he cast the sitting senator a look that could be described as intense or murderous, depending on the observer. "They have surprisingly good wine there, and the weather is generally fair. Compared to Britannia, it couldn't be anything but lovely." The one thing both provinces had in common was the resilience of their peoples, though they had no choice but to submit in the end... but Titus didn't think Marcus Barbatius was the type to relish tales of military feats.
Titus sipped at his wine, pleasantly surprised by its quality. Barbatius seemed to aiming for a good impression, and decent drink always helped. Titus needed no further impressing since he was content with the man's skills as was, but Longinus might enjoy the liquid help to leave his preconceptions behind. Going by the way the latter was chattering, Titus got the feeling he wasn't quite at ease yet, but maybe Barbatius did have some good stories to tell. The divine Julius couldn't have been the only man who tried to hide a receding hairline...
The gods were on his side and seemingly more than happy to smite Longinus and his flimsy tent. It was very satisfactory, and as pleasant as it would have been to add to the wetness of the scroll by throwing his wine cup at Longinus' desk, Titus had had enough of their back-and-forth bantering.
"I'm not joking. Do you honestly think I would come all the way here from Londinium at full speed just to play a practical joke on you lot? I value my time more than that, and thankfully so does the proconsul," Titus retorted with an edge to his voice, and pinched the bridge as he closed his eyes for a second and inhaled deeply. He needed to calm down. It was not Aulus' fault that Longinus was a complete arse with an uncanny gift to get on his nerves.
He'd be having a look at those records later - provided he found them -, but first he wanted to know if the two officers could have a particular suspect in mind. "Good. Make sure nobody else touches them." The rolls would be essential to finding out the extent of the fraud, and possibly even at what level it was committed. If he had to go through the whole mess scattered about the tent to find them, then so be it.
Aulus, at least, was according the matter the seriousness it deserved, and Titus found himself thankful for the man's presence. He was sharp of mind and sensible, and might have some useful pointers.
"From what we've been able to gather, some 120 new slaves, give or take, have disappeared from your records between the last two to four months. Mentioned in the earlier records, declared dead in the newer. But that's a rather high mortality rate, don't you think? Two slaves on average dying every single day, when other camps having been losing at most a third of your numbers in the same two months. And no mention of disease that might justify this."
Titus drank a little more wine to wet his lips and throat, then resumed talking. "There's also some inconsistencies with valuables, gold and silver for the most part. But we can get into that later. For now, I'd just like to hear your thoughts on who in this camp may have a hand on this." The two officers in front of him were, of course, above suspicion, since neither needed to acquire even more wealth in such schemes; that they were also not inclined to corruption helped their case.
Titus took his place opposite on the couch opposite his friend and contented himself with listening to the other two talk about their respective families. Two widowers in lofty positions with young daughters and slave sons; even if no marriage plans came out of the meeting, a political alliance or play dates for the girls could very well become a thing. Who would have thought Varus and Longinus had so much in common from the get-go?
He wasn't oblivious to Longinus' furtive glances at Tertius' body slave and then at his own, almost as if he was comparing the two (and their host's servant was the winner in physical attractiveness, although Titus was staunchly devoted to the fairer sex). As far as Titus was concerned, he didn't think the action to be especially wise considering the subject that brought them to Tertius' domus, but as he too plucked and ate a juicy grape, he gave a mental shrug. He wasn't there to be judged as a groom and his judging of the potential bride had already been done in written form - he was only there for moral support, possible connections and a well-timed fit of coughing if a distraction was called for.
"I truly am lucky, Fortuna has been very kind to us." He lowered his eyes in a display of humility, but his cheesy smile spoke volumes of his agreement with the other two's praises. And was it not perfect? He was happily married to his first and hopefully only wife, all of their children were living and sound, and save for the occasional spell of illness like the current one, everyone was healthy. The same went for his siblings' families, and the grim exception belonged to his father-in-law, who'd mourned a wife and two sons and was not doing too great in his old age. Compared to the other two senators, though, he was doubtlessly blessed by the gods, although he didn't know what he'd done to deserve such favour and would not wonder nor complain lest they think him ungrateful. "Although it gets a bit rowdy sometimes with three children. My youngest is particularly boisterous, even though she's a girl." Hopefully she would grow out of it in the coming years, but if not, pity the man who ended up with her.
A second grape turned out to be a great offence to his throat and lungs. For a few seconds he coughed into his elbow pit with no respite, but at last it subsided. "Apologies," he muttered gravelly when it finally went away, eyes even more watery than before. "I'm afraid you'll have to put up with quite a bit of this today." Maybe some honeyed wine would help, if one of the slaves could be bothered to serve them...
He liked Varus already, though. The man had wasted little time in cutting straight to the point, although he remained polite enough. Why waste time with empty platitudes or long-winded speeches about nothing of interest? Titus gave a silent nod of approval, curious as to how Longinus would phrase his intentions.
@Atrice @Joaquin @Sara @Sharpie
Worry not, it's just the common seasonal flu.
If he were to be brutally honest, Valeria's little roleplaying act was the sole reason he hadn't completely tuned off yet. Sure, he laughed along with genuine amusement when she deepened her voice to mimic Tullus' roars or added her own words to the narrative, but those were the only bright spots in an otherwise cheap and boring tale.
Even the horse chase, which could have been its redeeming grace, fell short of Titus' admittedly inane expectations and failed to capture his interest again. A centaur or even a faun would have been more fitting than a common horse given the protagonist's incredible feats of strength. But no, Pustula was so unsatisfactory in his art that he toed the line between adventure and fantasy and failed to please in either genre. "I was curious," he mumbled, pouting to convey his disappointment in how the story had played out; the very same expression was often seen threefold in their kids with equal degrees of proficiency despite age differences. And Titus should naturally hope that Publius would feel the same way, their son was a smart boy and well-read enough that even he could poke holes in Pustula's flimsy excuse for literature.
The name pun was such low-hanging fruit that Titus couldn't stop himself. "Since when does your father read this sort of tripe and make that sort of comment?" If Publius the Elder were caught flicking through texts such as this, it could only be to have a stronger case in condemning them. Know thy enemy and all that. He would have been right, too. Titus' previous judgement stood: if even Valeria, who would read anything out of passion for the written word no matter how erudite or puerile, deemed the story terrible, who was he to disagree? Luckily she was a sensible person who did not wish others to suffer the same regret of having wasted time on this piece of crap. "Thank you for skipping to the end and sparing me from his ceramic fits of rage. Please tell me he found his daughter in the city's nastiest brothel?"
He caught the scroll she'd tossed at him easily and held it up at a slight distance, eyeing it with some suspicion. "Why would we want to insult Quintus like that?" The only uses he saw for the story at his brother's house were the same as at their own: an example of how not to write fiction when instructing the children, or letting them have the scroll to doodle on or rip to shreds to their little hearts' content. He rolled it up and chucked it carelessly on the floor; if one of the slaves wanted to pick it up later and keep the scroll for themselves, Titus didn't care enough to object - he certainly wouldn't miss the adventures of Tullus and his indestructible pot shard.
With no more third-rate authors to dissect, Titus decided to change the subject slightly as he sneaked a roaming hand under Valeria's clothes and up her leg. "So, now that we've established Pustula is anything but a literary genius, do tell: what is good old Landicus up to these days?" His expression as he looked at his wife featured a dash of innocence, twice as much mischief and a decent serving of ulterior motives; she should be well familiar with it.
Titus was quick to put down his cup and bring the pitcher over to Nymphias the moment she snapped her fingers, by all appearances eager to serve but in actuality praying silently that she would soon pass out from too much drink. He told himself he would try his best to make that happen as he stood behind Nymphias and slightly to her side, in prime position to pour her the wine she so wanted.
As he filled his domina's fancy goblet to the brim, his mind digressed into the realm of murder possibilities. The pitcher in his hand was not particularly sturdy, but a well-aimed blow to the back of the head or the temple might just do the trick and knock Nymphias out for good. Yet another idea was to force her mouth shut, pull her head back by that ridiculously fair hair she treated better than any of her slaves and pour the wine down her nose; she would suffocate if it got into her lungs. He could also choke her with aforementioned hair wrapped around her little neck like a snake... Unfortunately, none of these plans made provisions for Titus' survival once the deed was discovered, and so they were scrapped and banished from thought instants after forming.
His hopes of Valeria having come up with a master plan were dashed the moment the female slave finished explaining her idea. Carving. Carving!
Titus felt his stomach recoil in fear and try to merge with his spine. He stared at Valeria in disbelief from his safe position outside Nymphias' field of vision, mouth agape like a fish until he remembered to close it. How was carving supposed to be less deadly? Knowing their mistress, she'd sooner have them slicing rump steaks off each other's glutes and making them eat them than accept a fruit carving challenge as entertainment enough. If Porcus shared his discomfort, the man's expression betrayed nothing, but that might also have been because he was too daft to understand what was going on.
Valeria's little show of cutting herself only added to his apprehension; Titus wasn't quite sure he was following. Were they supposed to feign total ineptitude? What if the sight of blood made Nymphias even more unpredictable? Or even worse, what if Valeria was throwing him under the lectica and had injured herself on purpose so he and Porcus were on their own? That would be the worst betrayal of all.
Orange was not too bad; it was fresh and fragrant and not too womanly. A shame that Barbatius took his job seriously, because it would have been so much funnier to see and smell Longinus doused in something dainty and elegant like rosewater. And, truth be told, as feminine as those oils and fragrances appeared to be, they elevated a good shave to a full experience of well-being. Silly Longinus hadn't probably felt his own jaw as smooth as a baby's skin in ages, but hopefully he'd see the error of his ways soon enough and return to the fold of Roman-looking Romans - if not permanently, then long enough to woo his possible future wife and her closest male relative.
"You couldn't look this good if you tried," Titus retorted without missing a beat, inspecting his half-bitten fingernail; now it was more or less the same size as its nine siblings. If he thought about how such displays of familiarity between friends might affect how the barber saw them, it didn't show on his posture. Marcus Barbatius was a skilled man, and a useful acquaintance, but he wasn't so important that Titus felt like he had to be all stiff and formal with Longinus in the plebeian's presence.
Just as Longinus didn't fancy his hair short, Titus didn't care to let his own grow much longer: it would tend to get wavy and stick up in random places and take even longer to dry and it just... didn't look right.
He adjusted his position against the door and observed the barber's practised gestures. That he made it all look so easy and effortless was a testament to his prowess, and Titus found himself more interested in the whole process than he'd ever expected.
It was rather entertaining to see confusion written all over Longinus' face, then realisation as he understood he was being tricked. A small victory, but not worth celebrating: there was business to take care of and more battles of words to be fought, no doubt.
Titus felt the blood in his veins boil at Longinus' little jab, but he willed himself to keep a cool face. His friend was clearly looking for a reaction to see if he'd struck a nerve, and in a way he was right - this sort of task that involved long journeys did make him feel like the proconsul's courier. But Titus would not give him that satisfaction, quite the opposite: he would own that title. He'd be the proudest Roman errand boy in the whole island.
"He would, thank you very much, legate Praetextatus," Titus nodded agreeably at Aulus. "It's good to know that at least one officer here still abides by Roman manners, whereas the other-" he gave Longinus the side eye, "-probably wishes he was frolicking around with the natives, covered in blue paint and partaking in human sacrifices."
Not waiting for another invitation, Titus sat down on a folding stool and let his arms drop onto his lap, one hand holding the cup; his expression, though, was still as serious as ever. "As much as legate Longinus enjoys my company, I do wish we could have been far apart. Londinium is the backwater shithole of a capital it is, but it's still more comfortable than this tent." Neither place could said to be luxurious, but bricks and stones did a better job at providing shelter from the wind and rain than a tent, however sturdy it was purported to be.
"Anyway, your favourite errand boy is here to find out who in this camp has been fucking with the treasury. Your spoils of war aren't adding up, lads." Even the less bright of soldiers should know that messing with what was ultimately their payroll and retirement fund all-in-one was a supremely idiotic idea, but greed tended to override common sense... And at least one greedy fellow in camp had had a nice scheme going on, but they'd grown either careless or comfortable, and so the error was discovered. Newly enslaved natives seemingly dying in droves, gold and silver objects disappearing never to be found again... Something was definitely up.
Titus took another sip of his wine and looked at the two men in turn,, a cheeky smile forming on his lips. "You've been keeping records, right? Detailed ones?"
@Chevi @Sara @Sharpie
Only Longinus and his hunt for a new wife were equal parts interesting and urgent enough to make Titus crawl out of his sickbed and venture outside. That and, in all honesty, the prospect of becoming acquainted with praetor Varus. Even without having met the man, he and his family seemed already quite intriguing, what with rumours of the eldest Varus brother, Secundus, not being all there and being paterfamilias in name only - which explained why Longinus had decided to consult with Tertius instead about his niece (although Titus had to wonder: was there a Primus?).
So he dragged himself through the Viminal and to the Esquiline, shivering despite the thick woollen cloak wrapped about him and body aching as if he'd spent weeks on horseback. It took him longer than expected to reach his destination, but he couldn't help a wry smile as he saw a very familiar figure standing outside Varus' domus. At least Longinus had had the decency of waiting for him.
"My sincerest apologies. I was having so much fun coughing up a lung that I lost track of time," he croaked back to his friend with a scowl, pronouncing each word with painstaking care so as not to provoke another fit. He could only hope that whatever was afflicting his father-in-law had not decided to make a new home inside his chest. Showing up all bleary-eyed from illness and lack of sleep would not help aforementioned first impression either, but at least he'd shaved, and fortunately it was Longinus who would be under the most scrutiny.
The pair entered the domus and before long the master of the house appeared to welcome them. Following his friend's lead, Titus greeted Tertius as energetically as he could. "Thank you for having me," he replied in a low, raspy voice, and followed the praetor into the triclinium where drink and grapes awaited. Eating would make his sore throat ache even more, but for the sake of good manners, he'd have to nibble on something when the food came. Not wanting to seem too forward, Titus waited for the others to pick their seats.
@Atrice @Sara @Sharpie @Joaquin
Oh, this was going to be entertaining. The clueless look on Longinus' face at being asked what scent he preferred was just too funny, and Titus shrugged back in response as he bit the inside of his cheek to stifle a laugh. How was he supposed to know what smell his friend liked best? That was what a wife was for, and with any luck this grooming session was a step in the right direction towards finding one.
His first impulse at being compared to a woman was to give Longinus the finger, but that would have hardly been appropriate in the current setting and in Barbatius' presence. Instead he glared at the seated man with the burning flames of looming vengeance in his gaze and brought up two extended fingers in a V shape, which he first pointed at his own eyes and then towards Longinus.
"And not a moment too soon. Somebody needs to look after you if you won't," Titus mumbled as he chewed on a fingernail.
The gods fuck him if he was going to let Longinus ruin his good relationship with Marcus Barbatius. Good barbers didn't grow on trees, and to have a skilled tonsor at a domus required money, time and a lot of trust that wasn't gained overnight. Better to have a fellow Roman citizen of good repute brandishing his blades by one's throat than a treacherous slave thinking that slicing it was the opportunity of a lifetime to get away. Besides, cultivating pleasant business relations with the plebs had never hurt anyone.
He cleared his throat after his friend finished his little introduction and decided to get straight to business. As much as he wanted to tease Longinus, it wouldn't exactly depict him as the mature well-grounded man he hoped to present himself as. "It's just as Longinus says, your expertise is much appreciated in making him look like a proper citizen again after his bereavement."
He eyed the other patrician with amusement and just a hint of mockery before taking a step back. "So please, do show him your skills, Barbatius, and pay no heed to his reluctance." With these words, he retreated towards the entrance door and casually leant against it with his arms folded over his chest. "I can go after him." If Longinus thought he could take advantage of Titus being quietly sat with a sharp blade only a finger's width away from his face and make a run for it whilst still in possession of his facial hair, he was sorely mistaken.