Letter dated 8th of July, delivered by the same Dacian slave
Titus Sulpicius Rufus to Praetor Tertius Quinctilius Varus, greetings.
It it just as you say, many plans - and lives, sadly - have been lost to this disaster. It pleases me nonetheless to hear that your household is well, and I hope the material damage your domus has suffered is of little consequence.
We will be travelling down to my brother and sister-in-law's villa in Naples in about a week and will likely stay there until the end of August or thereabouts in an attempt to evade the worst of the summer heat, so I am afraid it will not be possible for me to visit you at the end of this month as per your suggestion. However, if you find it convenient, I would be happy to pay you a visit along with Nymphias and my son Publius in the days between now and our departure, or postpone it to when we have returned to Rome if that is more agreeable to you.
Regardless of date, I am sure the children will happily entertain themselves, and I should very much like to share my thoughts with you on possible next steps and hear your opinion on the subject. I shall also inform Nymphias about her sister, although since I did not know Charis until our past meeting I will not be able to elaborate on how changed should she ask. I imagine the opposite is also true, but should your slave be anxious please assure her that her sister has not suffered undue hardship whilst in my household. They will have much to catch up on, I dare presume.
T. Sulpicius Rufus
Florus seemed confused by the new task given to him, but all that mattered was that he completed it satisfactorily. He also made a prime scapegoat should anybody ever ask what had become of the statue, Titus belatedly noted; nothing like blaming it on an illiterate foreign slave who had misunderstood his orders. The damned eyesore would be more appreciated - and useful, as far as sculpture could be - smashed into a myriad fragments than whole, whatever miracle it was supposed to work on plants.
"That's good. Don't let me keep you, though. Feel free to get started," Titus half-suggested, meaning every word, The sooner it was done, the sooner the evidence could be disposed of. He needed to get back to what he had been doing, if only because jotting down what had been damaged and what could be repaired required him to stay focused on that and not think about the hidden significance to cherries and peaches and if his eldest daughter - barely a teenager, and always a baby in his eyes - had caught on to it.
Bringing up the wax tablet to chest height, Titus tapped on it quickly a few times and turned towards the doorway. "Well, I'll leave you to it. Shall I call for you if there's more tile and stone debris or is is this enough for your needs?" His tone was light, but gods willing there wouldn't be much more destruction; enough was enough. As he made to leave, a thought stopped him for an instant. "Oh, and good job, Florus. Your hard work is visible, even with the way things are now."
From what Titus had been able to gather through their blessedly limited interactions over the last few weeks, his wife was the sort who would rather die by her own hand than admit she was wrong. And wrong she was now, mistaking a mere tax collector for someone of more import (although judging from the smarmy missive, said tax collector held a high opinion of himself and would probably argue that he very much was of import). She probably had an inkling herself, what with her question and the suspicious way in which she looked at him, stroking the little boy's hair in what looked like a mechanical gesture of comfort.
Decisions, decisions. Keep the knowledge to himself and watch the bloody Dacians scramble about like headless chickens for a few weeks - by far the most tempting option - or take the high road and elucidate Zia and the chieftain? That would likely mollify them, let him earn their trust, and then... Then what? Get close to a fire and set the whole damn town ablaze? Taunt them in their sleep by emptying the contents of their chamber pots in their mouths? Satisfying at that might be, it would lead nowhere. His best choice, as much as he disliked it, was to play along and clear up the misunderstanding - but first, find out why exactly the old man was displeased with him.
"Displeased? Why? Have I not complied with your wishes, like I promised? Gone along with every whim of you two like a well-trained dog?" Titus countered nonchalantly, getting up and picking up an ox figurine off the floor before walking the few steps to where Luto was sitting and handing him the clay animal with an innocent smile. They were doing so well, too, until Zia had to come along and confuse her son. The little boy accepted the toy but did not smile back, instead glancing up at him with uncertainty in his big eyes.
Titus sighed and trained his gaze on Zia, feeling much like a tutor with an unruly student. "No, a publicanus is not the governor. It's a..." He thought on it for a moment, chewing on his lower lip, and switched to very tentative Dacian. "Man, come to ge-- take coin." The last word was almost a question, wondering if she had understood what he was attempting to communicate; for emphasis, Titus mimed rubbing a coin between his thumb and index finger. For the sake of compliance, he continued in Latin. "He's coming to collect your taxes. You know, what you pay every year to Rome for the privilege of existing and carrying on with your lives?" Assuming they'd had previous visits, that was; wouldn't surprise him if they hadn't, the bunch of barbarians.
The journey back to their domus was very much as Titus had predicted. The moment it was just the two of them again, Publius had zeroed in on him like a moth drawn to a flame, and wide-eyed and toothy-grinned posed the question that had been plaguing him ever since the word had been uttered. Titus set his jaw and exhaled grimly, keenly aware that this was not how he had imagined the first of presumably many father-son conversations on the topic to go. But the gods enjoyed playing dice too, and this was what the roll had dictated. If he did a reasonable job now, maybe it would be a while until the next 'conversation' came. A long while.
"Dad, will you tell me now what's a catamite?" The boy was all curiosity, hands folded in his lap and unconsciously bobbing up and down. Titus nodded, defeated. "First of all, it's a bad word. So you're not to call anybody that, all right?" Publius nodded enthusiastically back. He cleared his throat and continued. "It means a boy who is very good friends with a grown man, but they're not related." Well, they could be, although that would be even less appealing, but Titus chose to word it the way he did to prevent any instances of his son proudly and publicly declaring himself his catamite, since they were such good friends. The thought made him feel queasy, but the boy seemed not to notice; maybe he ascribed it to the movement of the litter.
Yet, somehow that was not enough to quell Publius' interest in the topic. The boy peered up at him, confusion written all over his face. "But why is it a bad word if they're friends?" Titus ran a hand through his hair, stalling for time. "Because..." By Jupiter, there was no easy way out of this. "Well, because the adult is having fun, but the boy is not. It's very, very bad for a freeborn boy like you to be called that," Titus stated seriously, trying to impress just how insulting it would be and failing due to his lacking explanation. Publius only seemed more confused, but his childish grin had faded. Perhaps he understood deep down inside on some visceral level that this was no laughing matter. "So if somebody is ever stupid enough to call you that or tell you they want you to be their catamite, you tell me straight away, okay?" The boy assented solemnly. "Okay, dad."
Silence filled the litter for a short while, enough for Titus to think the ordeal was over and lean back on the cushions. No sooner had he done it than his son was piping up again, clearly not satisfied with the resolution. "But dad, if it's bad for free boys, is it okay for slave boys? And you said it's fun for the man, but not for the boy...?" Publius' eyebrows had quizzically shot upwards, almost disappearing into his brown hair. It was a difficult concept for his young mind to grasp, and Titus quickly realised he would have to provide a definitive explanation - and do it fast, because going by the familiar incline the litter was taking now, they would be home soon. And once they got home there would be at least two more pairs of ears interested in said explanation and another pair of ears probably quite keen on co-opting it and making it even less child-friendly.
Titus swallowed, muscles tense as if he were headed into battle. "Son. You know how sometimes people lie together, yes?" Publius nodded with a knowing look. "Yeah! You said that if it's a man and a woman, sometimes they make a baby!" Good, that bit had stuck. "Exactly. But sometimes, and that goes for everyone, they just do it because it's fun and feels good. But in this case, it doesn't feel good for the boy. It's not fun." Publius seemed to dwell on the information for a moment or two, taking it all in. "But is it fun for slave boys...?" All Titus wanted to do at that moment was bury his head in his hands and let someone else take over. Had he ever asked his late father this many questions? Titus didn't quite remember, but he didn't think so; he'd had his older brother to ask, which had been far less embarrassing. And most of the time he hadn't even needed to ask, the information had just been given to him. The gods were surely laughing. "I guess? I don't know, son. I was never a slave boy."
Publius made a small sound of acquiescence, as if what his father had just said made perfect sense. "Do you think I'll have fun too when I grow up? Like, when I was little I didn't like wine, but now I do." Titus chuckled, feeling the stress ebb out of him. The 'wine' the little boy was referring to was at most a finger's breadth of actual drink and the rest of the cup filled with honeyed water, but it made Publius feel like he could keep up with the adults, and if that made him happy, why burst his bubble? The important thing was the he grasped that some things were enjoyable only when was one mature enough. "I'm pretty sure you will, son. "
The litter came to a stop, signalling the end of their journey. With any luck, there would be no more difficult questions that day.
Titus' expression gradually relaxed as Florus explained where the whole cherry tree thing had come from. So it was all Tranquillus' doing, brought about by seemingly innocent attention to detail and bits of the old tutor surfacing. He let out a breath he didn't realise he had been holding and nodded. "No, you did well. That was the right response." Good thing that in spite of his rather evident infatuation, the gardener still had his wits about him - though for how long remained to be seen, if he did go ahead with asking about some poems.
"If it goes well with the peaches and pomegranates then we can consider a cherry tree next year or the one after that, provided no earthquake ruins that plan." Not that Titus was entirely comfortable hazarding a guess as to what the following years would bring, but Florus didn't need to know that and his circumstances would probably remain unchanged unless he changed behaviour overnight.
Feeling he had had enough of fruit to cover a whole meal and still marginally ill-at-ease with the sudden turn the conversation had taken, Titus chose to focus back on the debris in hopes of distracting himself for a few moments more. Gods, even broken that Nabatean sculpture was still a bloody eyesore. "Florus, when you clean this room, start with the broken statue. And if it's advantageous for you to have it in smaller bits, go find a hammer and don't hold back." A shame Titus wouldn't be doing it himself, but it would attract too much attention. Ah well.
It was decidedly a little unusual, though altogether not unpleasant, to be the one giving advice. Normally it was Titus who requested Tranquillus' opinion on any number of subjects, but the change was more than a little entertaining. If his slave would take any of it seriously remained to be seen, although Titus' suggestions were mostly benign - and likely to get a lot raunchier when they finally arrived and he'd had had a little too much to drink. Poor Tranquillus, he would have to arm himself with even more patience than he already possessed, Titus mused.
"I'm looking forward to a good swim most of all," he answered truthfully. He could already picture it in his head: clear skies, the calm ocean spreading out endlessly and the water glittering like a million jewels and a slight breeze to cool the air. It was so enticing. Maybe he'd manage to con Longinus into a swimming race at some point. "Fishing too, I guess." Not on mornings that followed nights of excess, obviously, because Titus was not into self-inflicted pain, no matter how many of Neptune's creatures woke up early to taunt him with their bounty. "Actually, just getting a proper workout," he said by way of conclusion. There were so many activities that were impractical in Rome but entirely feasible in the countryside: hunting, horse riding, peaceful picnics by the water.
In previous years, Titus imagined Tranquillus had spent the most part of his short free time reading; how different would it be this year? Would the body slave stare forlornly at some nice-looking tree and think of his beau? The mental image made him chuckle, though not unkindly. "You should try to have fun too, Tranquillus. Then you'll have all sorts of interesting things to tell Florus about when we go back." He needn't be afraid of indiscretions; Tranquillus had never been that foolish before, nor did the gardener seem like the gossipy type with his one-track mind and his tasks.
Had Sulpicia mentioned anything about wanting a cherry tree too? First pomegranates and now cherries - Titus got a sinking feeling in his stomach that something was up. The whole thing was probably entirely innocent, but the seed of doubt had been planted. He would have to talk to Valeria about it, so she could make investigate further. By Mars, if she was the one getting acquainted with Landicus instead of just Florus... Titus shuddered, but managed to croak out a reply to the gardener. "Let's hold off on the cherry tree for now and just go with the peaches." No fruit was entirely cleared of suspicion, but after so many peach jibes and the mention of peach blossoms, he felt like Florus had the right to have a go at raising a peach tree.
"No, I don't think he will," Titus mumbled absent-mindedly, struggling to reunite with the cheap humour he'd been enjoying only moments before. Why the fuck had Florus said that? Had Sulpicia herself told him she wanted a cherry tree? Surely she couldn't be interested in him in that way, she was too young! And Florus was - thankfully! - interested in older men, it seemed. Men. Twice his age. With beards and cocks. Not girls, younger than him, beardless and cockless. Good. However, Titus wasn't fully satisfied with his own conclusion. Why not go straight to the source of his unease, then?
"Florus." His eyes could have burned a hole in the gardener's face, and his tone was dead serious. "Did my daughter tell you she wanted a cherry tree?"
From his reaction, it seemed his slave was less than impressed by Titus' choice of words, but that was perfectly irrelevant for the matter at hand. This was no formal occasion where he had to watch his language, quite the opposite - and if he couldn't speak freely in front of his body slave, then where could he? Besides, plain language left less place for misunderstandings.
"I'm sure he would appreciate flowers, but I don't see those surviving the journey back. Might be a bad omen," Titus laughed cheerfully at his own joke. He briefly contemplated adding a witty comment about bringing back seaweed instead since it was, well, a weed and therefore appropriate for a gardener, but that might just be too much ribbing for one day for poor undeserving Tranquillus. "Why don't you go to the market one day and see what they've got there? Perhaps you'll find something that reminds you of him. Failing that, seashells are free and plentiful." Knowing him, Florus would probably want to use them for decoration or draining or whatever it was he thought was good for the plants; maybe he would even want to use one as a flower pot if it was big enough.
The constant motion of the carriage combined with the heat was threatening to make Titus drowsy. He brought a hand to his mouth to hide a yawn and blinked lazily at Tranquillus. "So what are you looking forward to the most in Neapolis?" If Tranquillus dared to say 'the road back to Rome', Titus would personally kick him out of the carriage and make him follow on foot.
It looked as though Tranquillus himself had never posed himself the same question, which struck Titus as curious. How come his detail-oriented body slave had never considered it? On the other hand, maybe his inner monologue had never deemed it necessary. People liked who they liked even if it sometimes defied rhyme or reason.
Even though Florus was objectively a good-looking young man, somehow Titus had the feeling that had weighed very little in why his body slave was attracted to the gardener. Still, he tried to keep an open mind as Tranquillus gathered his thoughts and eventually voiced them, carefully prying away the thumb his sleeping daughter was unconsciously guiding towards her mouth and knitting his brow in displeasure at the same time. Earthquake or no earthquake, she wasn't a toddler anymore to still employ this particular self-soothing strategy.
"That he certainly is," Titus conceded with a nod. The gardens had never been lusher - at least until the end of the previous month. From what he knew of Tranquillus, it made sense that a good work ethic - which the gardener possessed - and passion for one's tasks would be desirable traits in a partner. "One thing, though. Regardless of however passionate he is," Titus warned, emphasising the variety of things one could be passionate about, "I don't care for this new state of things to go to his head, and I'll hold you accountable if it does. I've always trusted your judgement, Tranquillus. Don't let a pretty face and a tight arse change that." How many times had lust been the downfall of great men, as proven by Tullia in the days of the kings and Cleopatra in more recent times?
Confident that he had once made himself very clear, Titus changed the subject to a lighter one, voice tinged with mirth. "Are you going to bring him a souvenir from Neapolis? A pretty sea shell, maybe?"
Was Florus well-versed in anything but plants, Titus wondered. He spoke decent enough Latin, but did not seem to possess much in the way of curiosity, unless it was to devise ridiculous tools. But that was all fine and well; it meant lower chances of him doing something stupid or overstepping his bounds, after all. Eventually the gardener got an inkling as to what they were talking about, although - as expected - the finer nuances of language seemed to elude him.
"Maybe we could have some next summer, to make up for the lack of pomegranates," he mused out loud, certain that the more vulgar meaning of the words would make itself known to Florus long before that. And if the gods were feeling merciful rather than mischievous, out of Titus' sight and earshot. "Peach trees have very pretty blossoms too, even if they don't last long." This he genuinely thought was true, with their delicate shape and different shades of pink. Too bad they were so susceptible to wind and rain and everything in between like fragile newborns.
Titus let his hand drop from his face to his side, convinced he could lay on a pile of innuendo high enough to match the height of the Tarpeian rock and still Florus wouldn't see it. "You may ask him when he's not busy. You've been here long enough to start picking up on important names of our times, Florus. It would be regrettable for the both of us if you came to embarrass this household through ignorance." More like the gardener would be chewed up and spat back out if he entered one of the cheaper, grimier taverns and couldn't so much as recognise the authorship of bawdy rhymes when accosted by drunker patrons trying to woo him. Would he run to Tranquillus' arms for refuge in such a situation too? The mental image made Titus chuckle derisively.