Face claimToby Kebbell
Ever since returning to Rome, Titus liked to start his day by going for a swim in the Tiber. Most of the time, little Publius accompanied him - this particular exercise built character, stamina and resilience and could one day mean the difference between life and death. It also let them have some uninterrupted father-son bonding time on the way to and fro the river. On that particular day, though, the boy stayed home in bed: he kept coughing as though snakes lived in his lungs and his nose produced prodigious amounts of snot. So Titus went alone, had his workout, and was back at the domus towelling his hair in a near-futile attempt to get it to dry faster when he heard a familiar and beloved sound coming from somewhere else in the house.
He smiled, passed the towel to his body slave and walked off towards the source of the sound. His wife was sitting in the garden, enjoying a glass under the autumn sun and seemingly paying great attention to a scroll. Coming up from behind Valeria, Titus pressed a kiss to the top of her head and peered over her shoulder to get a better look at what she was reading. The handwriting wasn't hers, but he didn't recognise it; could have been a scribe's work anyway. "Whose is that?" Skimming through the section Valeria was holding left him no wiser. "You came back quicker than I expected. Your father not in the mood for visitors?"
The lack of clues as to the boy's whereabouts was hardly surprising. Rome was a big city, and many slaves worked indoors, venturing outside only on rare occasions such as festival. That, if the boy even was in Rome - after two years he could very well be anywhere, from Lusitania to Syria. Still, Titus felt sorry for his friend."Give my secretary his description, won't you? I've got this new slave whose greatest talent is getting lost in the city, might as well have her do something useful while she's at it." Provided she managed to find her way back to the domus.
He beamed at the mention of his wife in such good terms. "I'm sure she'll be happy to, just tell her when." Knowing Valeria, she probably wouldn't waste much time finding out the whos, whats, whens and hows that had happened during the years of their absence, since gossip allowed for prolific flights of writing fancy. "What are you going to do with all that gold anyway, with no wife or public office to relieve you of it?" Titus laughed, clearly amused by his own quip.
Was a praetorship really such a preposterous notion? The laughter died out and he stared blankly at the other man, not quite sure how to respond, before concluding that another swig of the fine Alban was response enough. "I don't think I'm a bad judge of character - except, of course, for the day I accepted your offer of friendship, which I'll rue until I die." He shot Longinus what he hoped was a regretful glance. "And I don't think I'm the kind to get drunk on power either. How many times have you seen me torture prisoners just for kicks?" For information? Sure. As punishment? Absolutely. For fun? Nope. Titus did not derive pleasure from seeing people suffering gratuitously under his command. Getting drunk was best done with wine, as he was putting into practise at that very moment.
"No shame-" he paused to help himself to more wine, "in admitting that. You've got an excellent record, Longinus. Even if you never wanted glory, it found you and stuck with you. And I'm sure it'll stay that way if you serve as legate for the fourth time, be in Judea or Syria or wherever. You're good at that." He popped a small square of cheese into his mouth, grimacing as he chewed it. Blue cheese was one thing, but this was fucking mould. He'd have to have the thing banished from his house under the guise of an offering to some minor deity. At last he managed to swallow the grisly piece and hurried to wash off the flavour with yet a little more wine.
"Honest opinion: if you need more time to grieve your wife and don't feel like dealing with your mother and Roman society in general, take another post knowing it may be your last. If nothing else, you'll come back richer, perhaps wiser too." A small pause to assassinate another slice of ham. "However, I also think that you run the risk of people thinking you're only good for that one thing. Like 'oh, Longinus does such a great job as legatus, why even bother considering him for anything else', you know?"
Titus set his cup on the table and stood up abruptly; his eyes took just a second too long to focus again. "Wait just a moment, I've got an idea." He ambled over to a small desk and rummaged through one of its drawers; after a few seconds he found what he was looking for, and returned to his seat with an air of self-satisfaction about him. He held up a hand in front of Longinus: in it was an aged sestertius. "Heads says legions, tails says civilian career. What's it gonna be, legatus?"
He threw the coin up in the air and waited for it to fall on the back of his hand; when it did, he immediately covered it up with his other hand, giving his friend a mischievous grin at the same time. "Well?" Whatever result Longinus had hoped for while the coin was still in movement would reveal what in his heart of hearts he really wanted.
Bummer. Longinus hadn't taken the bait, but Titus did not lose heart; instead, he rewarded his friend's motion of confidence with his best and most heartfelt showing of the digitus impudicus - a gesture that would come to be known in modern times as flipping the bird.
Nevertheless, he quickly dropped it out of respect while the other man elaborated on what had transpired with his bastard. The more he heard, the more bewildered Titus grew. Two years and still no trace of the slave - could he have been ordered killed and not just sold? Longinus was used to seeing things from a myriad perspectives, as any good commander and strategist would be: he may already have considered this possibility. "By Mars, not even the Greeks could've come up with a story like this. Are you still looking for him?" He elected to make no further comments about the sneaky wench his friend had for a mother, as he might say something he came to regret and ruin the friendship.
And of course the harpies and vultures of Rome would have already set their sights on Longinus. Remarriage was expected at some point, but not even two months had gone by since Antonia's passing; unless Longinus were dead set on getting his daughter a mother figure as quickly as possible, Titus didn't see it happening before the new year. "Bet your house'll be swarmed by single ladies of good standing or their representatives the day you do away with that beard. Hell, you can even be like Paris and choose the most beautiful. At least you'll have something nice to look at in the mornings."
The two sat in agreeable silence, and despite the seriousness of the subject, Titus couldn't help but smile a little as he brought the cup to his lips and drank some more. Misery loved company, and it was sad yet comforting that Longinus was struggling with precisely the same decisions. "That's exactly it. And those old buggers will outlive you and me," he chuckled mirthlessly and took another swig of wine. "The senate meetings aren't the worst part for me. You can always just think about something else. It's not like they pay attention to what you say anyway, we're just spring chickens to them."
Titus sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose with his free hand. What route, indeed? "I don't know," he confessed, shaking his head. "One day I wake up and think I've made up my mind, but when I go to bed at night I've come to the opposite conclusion. I almost wish Quintus Caesar would drop another term on my lap and make the decision for me." His goblet was now empty, but he didn't call for the slave just yet. "On the other hand, praetor has a nice ring to it, doesn't it? Propraetor sounds even better. And I don't have to tell you what comes after that, Longinus."
Two claps later, the slave came and went with practised efficiency, leaving two full goblets as the only evidence she'd even been there. Titus didn't waste time in taking a new sip.
"How about your plan?"
His slave seemed elated at her new task, which was certainly a plus. Whether that was due to genuine fondness for children or to some misguided mental sandcastle remained to be seen, but Titus reckoned he'd find out within the next few weeks if she didn't screw it up. However, he needed to lay down some ground rules before she got too excited.
"Good. I like your enthusiasm. You're going to need all of it, Valeriana's got a lot of energy." Understatement of the year, Titus. "Please try to keep her away from your domina's cosmetics, will you?" The bloody things were far too expensive for a three-year-old to be getting her hands, mouth, nose, basically her whole face, on them. "There's two things you need to keep in mind, though." Titus held up two fingers to make sure the girl was following. "First: you're not allowed to take her out of the house. I don't trust you not to get lost." If she was indeed just getting lost and not going on reconnaissance missions whilst planning an escape... Not to mention the oddballs or criminals they could come across with ideas of theft, kidnapping or worse. The dangers were simply too great.
"Second: dim Brittonig. Dim ond Lladin1." Titus was no longer as fluent as he'd once been, but he still managed a simple phrase like that. Even if Nymphias spoke another dialect, she should be able to understand him just fine and realise how serious he was about it. There would be no room for misunderstandings - the gods knew his daughter had no need to learn yet another pig language, thank you very much. "Don't worry about how well or badly you speak it, she's got other people to learn from. But don't let me catch you speaking to Valeriana in any other language than Latin, all right?" Verbalising an eventual punishment was hardly worth it; the slave would have already learned it was implied if orders were not correctly followed.
Now that the Briton knew exactly what not to do, Titus allowed himself to relax a little and indulge his curiosity; he knew practically nothing of Nymphias but her name, origin, and that she was a relatively fresh catch - part of the reason why she had been so cheap, as his secretary had gleefully informed him. "Were you learning from a midwife?" Those would have been skills worth developing, even in Rome. "Or just looking after your siblings?"
1 - 'No Brittonic. Only Latin.' in Welsh
"I love it when you talk dirty to me, legatus. It turns me on," Titus said it in a sultry tone with a straight face, but, like before, the serious façade stayed in place for only mere moments before crumbling away into a guffaw. "Let me do you a favour and teach you some Dacian. When you meet someone for the first time, you introduce yourself with 'e dua karin'1. Then to say goodbye it's 'më thith'2." This time he was not betrayed by a case of unstoppable mirth and hoped his performance was enough to make Longinus fall for it. "But thanks, it is pretty good wine." So good that he had to wash the sausage flavour off of his mouth with another swig, although the sudden clap on his shoulder nearly made him spill it. He gave Longinus an exasperated look; the vintage was too good to let the floor stones sample it.
He leaned forward in his seat, resting his elbows on his knees. "Wait. She did what?!" The incredulity showed in his voice. Many Roman matrons were very set in their ways, but this... this was pure disrespect. Bastard or not, the slave had not been her property to sell. And with Longinus being paterfamilias, the offence was even greater. "When did this happen? Have you recovered him?" Titus exhaled heavily and bit the inside of his lip, wondering if he should say what he really was thinking.
"And you'd leave your daughter with someone who does this? How is your mother better? The next time you came back, she'd have married Cassia off to some ancient fellow old enough to be your father!" How was Longinus not outraged? Had it happened so long ago that anger had subsided? Titus shook his head, half in disgust, half in disbelief. The nerve of the woman!
It took him a minute or two to calm down, and Longinus' squeeze on his shoulder was reciprocated with a light smack on the other's back. "I was before you told me this. Not a dull moment in your life, it seems." Mimicking his friend, Titus too sipped at his wine thoughtfully. It'd be better to just come out and say it. With any luck, Longinus would have similar worries of his own.
"I feel like I'm at a crossroads. To do what I want, or what I should?" His gaze was once more trained on the wine inside his goblet, as if it held the answer to his predicament. "If it were just me, I'd stay with the legions until I died. But it's not just me. And there's always the risk of being ordered around by someone less able than yourself - you of all people know what that feels like, Longinus." The wine swirled around, drawing circular patterns on the smooth silver. "But dealing with politicians is just fighting a different kind of enemy, I guess," he concluded with despondence.
1 - "I love dick" in Albanian
2 - "Suck me" in Albanian
Hearing Longinus' poor excuse, Titus couldn't help but roll his eyes. "You're trying to impress the whole of fucking Rome, genius. If you want to be in control, you've got to look and act like it." Whether it was tough love the other soldier needed Titus did not know, but he wanted to give the strategy a shot before eventually scrapping it for a new one - or leaving it well enough alone, which he probably should do. Maybe Longinus did not feel like he could really open up to Titus about his sorrow... The thought deflated him. Were they truly such good friends, if that turned out to be the case? Preferring to avoid going down that train of thought, he distracted himself with another gulp of wine.
"My friend, let none of your desires go unsatisfied while you're in this house. More wine it is," and with these words Titus clapped twice to call the slave who would have been sitting just outside. Within seconds the woman came, filled the goblets again, and retreated back to wherever she had been waiting. "What was the bluey word for wine again? 'Gwin' or something like that?" Sluggish memory was one of the things that let Titus know he was getting old. Stiff muscles at random times of the day were another, and he shifted to a more comfortable position. "I still remember 'twll dy din di'1, though." Across all languages, profanity always came first and left last.
It's was Titus' turn to sigh. A new round of picking his brains, but this time out loud and with a new soundboard - which might actually be for the best; if anyone understood his current predicament, it was Longinus. "We've been well," he shrugged. "Can't really complain. My youngest wasn't happy about the move at all," Titus chuckled, remembering how she tied herself to a large chestnut tree with rope she'd discovered the gods knew where and declared she would not go to Rome. "She's not old enough to remember any other home than Drobeta, and she was used to running around freely. Climbing trees and looking for squirrels with Publius. It's obviously a bit different here..." Even if he ordered some trees planted, the saplings wouldn't mature for many years, and fully-grown trees did not always take to the new soil. He'd tried to make do with the nearby gardens of Sallust - one of the reasons he had decided to buy this particular house -, but despite their lush vegetation, it wasn't quite the same. "Their Dacian's a lot better than mine, though. Kids truly are like sponges," Titus mused, shoving a tiny sausage into his mouth.
"The other two seem pleased to be back. And Valeria... well, she's the kind of person who can make herself at home anywhere." His wife seemed to have enjoyed their time in the province, in spite of the lack of cultural stimulation. "My father-in-law, on the other hand, was ecstatic that we came back, although you'd never tell by looking at him." In his old age, Publius Valerius Flaccus seemed as emotive as a stone; even a marble statue showed more animation. "I think he was afraid of dying without getting to say goodbye to Valeria."
He shot Longinus a jocose look. "Personally, I'd rather raise kids in Dacia than in Britannia. You'd take Cassia with you, right?"
1 - since I couldn't find any online sources for Old Brythonic, I went with Modern Welsh lol
Longinus made a fair point about the sodden clothes; the damned island was so wet that during his time there, Titus nearly always woke up surprised that no mushrooms were growing between his toes yet. Even in the summer, rain had never been more than a day or two away, and in the winter the wet cold would seep into men's bones and drain them of their strength. "If you kept your hair shorter like a proper soldier it wouldn't be windswept" he quipped in response, taking another leisurely swig of his wine. "Seriously, if you're ever in need of a good cut, let me know. My brother has an amazing tonsor, the man could even do away with your arse hair without you noticing." The playful tone and crude words belied the worry Titus felt for his friend; the formal mourning rituals may now be in the past, but the loss was still recent and the wound caused by absence raw.
He understood well why the other man admitted to boredom. Like Alexander, it was the thrill of the unknown that beckoned to them, excited them - not the paperwork and bureaucracy of enacting taxes and tallying property in a peaceful province; that was safe and provided opportunities for self-enrichment, but it was also oh so very tedious. Titus busied himself chewing on a piece of sharp Tolosian cheese as Longinus talked, but as he swallowed, his eyebrows scrunched up in mock offense.
"Don't even think about it! I left the Claudia in the best shape of their lives, don't want you to go and ruin all my hard work." He managed to keep a serious face for all of five seconds, then roared with laughter at the pretense. While it was true that he had grown fond on the men during their shared time in the province, they would be in very capable hands if Longinus were to take over their command.
Leaning back in his seat, Titus gazed at the inside of his goblet pensively as he rotated it in his hand. It was still half full. "It was not bad, actually. The natives are a feisty people, very possessive of their land. Skirmishes all the time, even in places we thought were pacified." He bit his lip, remembering one such occasion where a small group of Dacians had managed to take over a hill fort and eliminate the best part of a century before relief forces could exact revenge on them. "They'll probably give us trouble for years to come," he opined with a predatory glint in his eyes. "Otherwise, good place. The soil is fertile, and there's plenty of mines. Gold, copper, salt... Though you'll have to fight the tribes for them. But all in all, I find them more civilised than the Britons. Oh, and the weather is much better."
Titus knocked back some more wine and pointed his chin at the tray with food. "Not hungry?"
As soon as one of the slaves announced the arrival of their visitors, Titus shot from his seat, restless with anticipation. Welcoming guests had always been a somewhat morose task, but exceptions were accorded when it was a dear friend who came knocking, rather than someone looking for a handout. His memory couldn't quite place when he last had socialised with Lucius Cassius Longinus with plenty of time to spare, but that was about to change, and he beamed with pleasure as his friend and his young daughter were brought into the atrium by another servant.
He returned Longinus' hearty embrace with one of his own, clapping the other man on the back with vigour a few times. His erstwhile companion had changed little, beard and long hair not withstanding; there may be deeper lines on his forehead and around his eyes, but he still carried himself as tall and strong as he had done in their twenties, a decade before.
"Hello, Cassia. You've grown a lot since I last saw you." He bent down to greet the child at her eye level, hoping it would put her a bit more at ease, but it didn't quite seem to work. Fortunately, someone else came to the rescue. At the mention of his name, Publius came out from hiding behind a stucco column and made a beeline for the guests. "I definitely am, sir!" he replied with excitement. A quick exchange of looks and nods with Titus and the boy took his new playmate by the arm, pulling her off to another room. "Do you wanna look at my bug collection? I've got butterflies too!" And off the two went, followed by Cassia's nurse.
"My condolences about your wife. What a dreadful thing to happen," he commented somberly. It must have been a shock for little Cassia to lose her mother like that; no wonder she was quiet and withdrawn. And Longinus, who certainly did try to appear cheerful in spite of his mourning beard, must still be in a stage of deep grief. In an attempt to lighten the mood, Titus snapped his finger at an attending slave, who quickly disappeared into the house.
He put an arm around Longinus' broad shoulders and showed him around the impluvium and into the tablinum, where they would have more privacy and protection from the biting November winds. "You finally got tired of those Britons, eh? I was starting to think you'd never leave!" As soon as they were seated, the slave from before came in bearing a tray of cheeses and cured meats, along with a fine silver wine jug and two matching goblets. "Alban, 63 vintage," Titus informed with a smirk as the slave poured their drinks. "If you can still appreciate decent Roman wine after years of that piss mead the blueys brew, that is." He gestured for Longinus to help himself to the food and drink and took a sip from his cup. The wine was exactly as expected: sweet and velvety.
"It's been far too long since we last sat and talked like this. Though I must say I'm surprised you're still here- it's been what, two years? Have you grown soft?" Titus chuckled, helping himself to a thin slice of smoked ham.
It was amusing to watch his slave's expression go from anxious to self-satisfied to fearful to relieved, though Titus kept his own carefully blank. The girl seemed to have understood what was expected of her and was smart enough not to try and explain away her detours with futile excuses, leaving him with a positive impression. She'd even raised her voice as he'd asked, needing no further prompting. If she stayed respectful and obedient, her life in the household had all the potential to be a tranquil one.
"That's good to know. You don't have to lie, though," he said with a chuckle, unfolding his arms and letting them hang at his sides. He thought Rome was indeed a very nice place and not at all like dreary Britannia with its lunatic priests and pesky weather, but no matter how magnificent the eternal city would appear to a new slave, it wasn't 'home' yet, and 'home' was best. That was why Romans and barbarians alike fought so fiercely in the name of 'home'. "We both know which place you like best... But I hope you'll change your mind in time. This is a city like no other." Not even Alexandria could compare.
The Briton's reasoning was sound and added to Titus' opinion of her. And this particular problem had an easy resolution: practice, practice, practice. "That can certainly be arranged." Titus tapped his chin lightly in fake contemplation; an idea had come into his mind almost as soon as the slave had finished speaking.
A sly smile tugged at his lips. "Starting tomorrow, you'll be minding Valeriana in the afternoon. I'll tell Betua about it so she knows you won't be in the kitchens as much." What better than to learn the language from a young child? Simple words, simple grammar, and kids that age were brutally honest when it came to pointing out mistakes. Plus, the young Briton would get to learn some Roman habits and traditions alongside his youngest daughter, not to mention the quirks of his little family. "I take it you have some experience with children?" Surely she'd cared for younger siblings or nieces and nephews before... probably.