Face claimToby Kebbell
Titus had been absent from Senate proceedings for years, courtesy of his service in the provinces, and most of the time he did not miss the stuffy, formal speeches that had senators talking in circles and boring each other to inaction. During this meeting, however, his colleagues seemed to have come to the same conclusions rather quickly, and not yet once had he had to steel his jaw to tame a yawn threatening to escape. It must have been Caesar's influence, transforming the venerable institution from an ineffective assembly to an energetic decision-making organism over the better course of a decade.
As the young Tiberius took his seat again, Titus stood up. "Esteemed colleagues, I find myself seeing the truth in your words, and agreeing with it. These children must not be left to suffer the whims of Fortuna, but instead aided so that they can contribute to the grandiosity of our homeland." Many had ended up in their situation through no fault of their own, and petty criminals and gangs would step in to claim them to their ranks if those of means did nothing.
"For many generations, Rome has been cleverly exploiting whatever resources are available. Our forefathers turned marshland into terra firma, and our soldiers build roads as they conquer foreign lands, all so that their successors will thrive. These children are a resource for our patria, one that we should take advantage of today lest we lose it forever tomorrow." He paused to clear his throat.
"Let us do as Tiberius Claudius suggests: send the brightest to a grammaticus, so that they may help shape the minds of the future. Send the strongest to our legions, so that they may bring glory to Rome and themselves. Send the others to be apprentices to tradesmen, so that they learn the virtues of being a Roman through honest work. And as for the girls - true, our mothers, wives, daughters and sisters may know best how to handle them. There would be value in letting them into our own homes, so that they may learn how to be good Roman women. But seamstresses, too, need apprentices, and the temples are often in need of novices. For if we offered our help to ten girls, how could we justify not extending the same charity to a hundred, or a thousand more who would reclaim it?" Let them all know meaning through hard work, males and female alike. Idle hands made for idle minds, and these orphans could contribute to society by providing useful work. Rome didn't need any more ne'er-do-wells.
Having spoken his mind, Titus sat back down, gazing attentively at the next speaker.
Titus nodded in acknowledgement of the slave's admission of ignorance. "Fair enough." Indeed, not all of them had a need for education; not every tool needed to be sharp. Yet, Felix had just been presented with a quick lesson in Italian and Eastern geography, courtesy of his master. Aulus' sketch was a very reasonable likeness to the real world, the distance between towns even sufficiently proportional.
His enthusiasm waned somewhat as Aulus pointed out his intended stops. It was beginning to look like a long sea journey was inevitable, since it was the faster - and given the circumstances, preferred - option. "It often is, so long as Neptune is in a jolly mood." A storm could appear seemingly out of nowhere, and many a good ship and crew never made it to their destination. Overland, as far as Titus was concerned, was safer to a certain extent: inclement weather could be waited out someplace dry, it was easier to stay on course and resupply, and ambushing thieves were easier to escape or deal with. But... it would take longer, even with fresh horses at every stop.
He exhaled deeply. "Your plan is sound. There should be ships going at least halfway there, to Corinthus or thereabouts." Titus turned to smile at Felix. "You would get to see your mother's homeland," he suggested with no scorn or malice in his voice. Had the slave ever wondered about it?
Directing his attention to Aulus once more, Titus figured it was time to come clean. Admitting weakness did not come easily to him, but he'd done less brave things. "You may have noticed my hesitation regarding sea travel..." He twiddled his thumbs, voice trailing off. "It's because I find it extremely unpleasant. It does not agree with my body."
There, he'd said it.
And prepared for the laughter he knew would ensue.
It was good to be back, but it was great to be home. Rome was, of course, home to any Roman worth their salt, but sometimes the lofty ideals of patria were supplanted by a simpler, baser need for refuge and belonging. As one of the household slaves welcomed him into the house that had been their parents' and was now his brother's, Titus couldn't help but reminisce. It had been years since he had last set foot in it, and the decorated walls had been witness to many things: his decision to join Quintus Caesar in the east, his brother Quintus' own one to stay in the city and protect the family from the lunatics that pretended to be the righteous rulers of Rome, their shared worries as to the safety of their wives and children... And older things still: Quintus' marriage, Sulpicia's cunning schemes to get out of trouble, himself swinging a wooden gladius at one of the slave boys in a play fight. It had been so long ago that it may as well have been in another life, a more innocent one.
As he saw his older brother come into the atrium, Titus broke out into a merry grin. "Quintus, my brother! It's been far too long!"He returned his brother's hug with a bone-crushing one of his own. Despite the years and miles that had separated them, their bond remained as strong as ever. "Is she here? I better borrow your tonsor before she shaves my face off too!" he laughed heartily. Sulpicia was a formidable woman of an even more formidable temper, and only the unwise should tempt her to unleash it. Yet it was also true that he should start to look more presentable and get rid of that itchy stubble, now that he no longer had the excuse of a long journey with limited tools and no skilled barber.
He followed after Quintus through the familiar spaces, studying his brother's back. He looked healthy, but tired, and when he'd pulled back from their hug, Titus thought there were deeper lines on Quintus' face compared to the last time they'd been together. Politics could be far more gruelling than most would believe, and a consulship could be just as much work as it was an honour, if not more - and was Quintus any less busy now, as a former consul, than he had been two years ago? For a fleeting moment, Titus felt what he thought was pity; at least in Dacia they fought the enemy with gladii and pila, not with intrigue and rumours.
"You're a far better host than I deserve, brother," Titus chuckled. There would be no shortage of delicacies, and dared he hope for some honey cakes too? "I trust Cornelia is in good health?" His brother's wife had seemed to recover well after the difficult birth of their youngest a few years ago, but one never knew with women - healthy as a horse one day and at death's door the next. Valeria seemed to be an exception so far, seemingly having a stronger constitution than most women, but for how long would the gods maintain their favour? "Oh, she's doing well. Grew chattier and more excited the closer we got to Rome, though you know she'd never admit it. That is, until we got word on the way here that her father was doing poorly, so she made a detour to go see him first - sends her deepest apologies to her beloved brother-in-law, of course, and hopes you can forgive her rudeness - and will join us later along with the children."
He smirked conspiratorially at Quintus. "So for now it's just us two brothers, eh?"
Titus was happy to notice he and Aulus shared a common reasoning; he often feared he acted too quickly, too rashly, and to have someone he saw as calm and pondered come to the same conclusions boosted his self-confidence significantly. He followed Aulus to the shade of the oak and motioned for the two men to sit down like he had been doing up until a few moments. A party of three travellers taking a break under a tree and chatting would attract less attention than if they were to keep standing by the roadside.
"I'm thinking of going to Ariminum. The harbour there is bigger and busier than Ancona's, so there must be more ships headed to Illyricum." There should also be better, more stable ships that would traverse the sea more quickly; if fishing boats were the only option, Titus was not sure he wouldn't turn back and ride on horseback across Histria and Dalmatia in order to keep his stomach inside his body. If the gods had intended for men to spend a big part of his life in water, they would have given them gills and fins - yet they hadn't, and Titus did not fancy testing their patience.
"Getting to Salona or Dyrrachium is my short-term goal. I'll probably just embark on whatever ship leaves first." From there on out, his plan was blurrier and the path less clear, but he was sure of one thing - maritime travel was only an option when choosing land over it would result in extreme delays. "What is your plan?" If Aulus had a better idea - which may very well be the case, as he had more experience -, then Titus was all ears.
The body slave had been quiet and withdrawn from conversation, and Titus wondered if he had sufficient notions of geography to know what they were discussing. He had shown himself to be loyal to his master, but was he educated? Time to find out. "Felix, wasn't it?" he asked, turning his head to face the slave. "How familiar are you with the Eastern provinces?"
His friend was far more generous than Titus deserved, giving away expensive wine like that. "Then they're already halfway to being civilised," he chuckled. The barbarians could sing their praises of beer all day long, but few things were more satisfactory than a cup of a fine vintage. Beer was best consumed in stews, anyway. "You have my thanks, Aulus. Let us drink it together and toast to the glory of Rome!" Good company made good wine even better. Maybe he should invite the other man and his wife over for dinner sometime soon; Valeria probably would like that.
"A year, huh? That's not too bad." Titus took a seat next to Aulus and sighed pensively. "I can't really complain. Returned from Dacia a couple of months ago. It's nice to be home and spend time with the wife and kids, but..." He pinched the bridge of his nose, secretly miffed at not being able to express himself as eloquently as he would like. "After four years away, I thought this was what I wanted, what I missed. To be back in the city, able to take part in Senate meetings again, stroll down the Aventine... But somehow, it's all become so dull." A few months in and the magic seemed to be dwindling fast already.
"To be completely honest with you, Aulus, I'm not sure what to do."
Titus expressed his delight at being recognised by flashing a toothy grin. "The very same," he confirmed. How kind of the gods to have Aulus' path cross with his own. The man had left a powerful impression on Titus some years prior, when they had both been stationed in Gallia, and would undoubtedly be a valuable ally on the way to the East.
"I was lucky to hear of the news in time. It would've been madness to try and head south, with Clemens' cronies out for blood." He spit on the ground with contempt. That same gesture would have been an unforgivable provocation in Rome, but here and now, between like-minded people, it illustrated just how little Titus thought of the usurper and his friends.
So the sturdy-looking man was Aulus' slave. Social conventions be damned, it was useful to know the slave was loyal to his master - which was more than could be said of Titus' quick-legged erstwhile servant. He nodded back his acknowledgment at Felix, figuring he owed the two men an explanation as to why he was alone.
"It has, haven't run into any trouble yet. Well, aside from my slave abandoning his duty already on the first night," he scowled. Hadn't it been for time being of the essence, Titus would have looked for the boy and shown him just how they handled deserters in the army, but that would be a matter for another time. "But I had to move on, and here I am. On the positive side, it's faster to travel alone." It was meagre consolation, but Titus was not one to dwell on what could have been; he preferred to direct his energies toward what actually could be done and put it into practice.
"Are you also headed to Ariminum? Or Ancona, perhaps?"
Hearing a voice call out his name, Titus whipped his head round with an intrigued look on his face. Coming across acquaintances happened all the time in the city, but he did not expect it to be the same in the gardens, especially in the peak of summer when an overwhelming part of the upper class retired to their villas in the country: to Baiae, Puteoli, Stabiae and a number of fashionable seaside resorts.
His inquisitive expression gave way to a broad smile when he recognised the man who had called out to him. "Mars Gradivus, if it isn't Aulus Calpurnius Praetextatus! " Titus hurried to the other man's side and greeted him with the customary kiss. How long had it since they had last seen each other? Years, certainly, not since after Aulus' stint as praetor came to an end. "And you!" he grinned genially. "The Raetians seem to have treated you well. Did you manage to get those bastards speaking proper Latin?"
He motioned for his friend to follow him to the pavilion so that they would have more privacy and not risk interruption from drinkers or other passersby. "More importantly, what would you have in exchange for an amphora or two of Raeticum?" Titus laughed, but he was only half-joking; the wines from that province were second to only Falernian vintages.
"Are you back in Rome for good? Or just passing through?" Titus asked as he took refuge from the unyielding sun under the pavilion's marble entablature. In hindsight it had been madness to go out in the middle of the day, but the gods had rewarded his daring feat with a reunion with a dear friend.
One of the men pointed to the oak, but the other seemed to hesitate. They'd probably had the same idea as Titus, and the fact that they wanted to take a break so close to the city had to mean they had been walking for a while, perhaps even the whole day. He understood why they were reluctant to approach; one never knew if fellow travellers could be trusted, and there was no shortage of gruesome stories about robbery and assault.
A friendly gesture would have been to share food and drink with the pair, but he was all out of both. Of course, there was the small chance that they weren't friendly at all, but for the time being they seemed to be more wary of Titus than he of them. Besides, he still had that nagging impression that he had seen the oldest's countenance before.
He made a decision. Titus rose slowly as not to alarm them and lifted his hands with palms facing the strangers; at the same time, his elbow pushed the cloak away to the side so the pugio was visible - a silent message that in spite of meaning no harm, he was neither harmless nor unarmed. A cautious smile played on his lips.
"No need to be suspicious, citizens. This oak is large enough for the three of us to sit under." One, two, three careful steps away from the tree and closer to the men. Close enough to see their features now. The younger man was a complete stranger, although his simple appearance belied a strong complexion. A quick examination of the older man, however, made Titus' eyes light up in recognition. "Sir... are you, per chance, Aulus Calpurnius Praetextatus, former tribune?"
If his guess were confirmed, Titus imagined he would feel very much like a glutton presented with a bowl of globi -or, in parlance of two millennia years later, like a child who'd seen Santa Claus.
Outskirts of Narnia, days after Clemens' proclamation
For nearly three days Titus had walked along the Via Flaminia, moving steadily away from Rome. News of the Praetorian Clemens declaring himself Caesar had spread through the city like a wildfire, and Titus, being the man of action he was, could not simply stay home and wait for the traitor's thirsty supporters to knock on his door. No, his first course of action had been to entrust the safety of his wife and daughter to his older brother. Quintus had always been good with words, a proper diplomat, and he would no doubt find a way to send Valeria and little Flacca to stay with his own wife Cornelia, at a sufficient distance from Rome.
His second course of action had been to change to his most nondescript tunica and cloak - one grey, the other brown and both unremarkable in every way save for the quality of the fabric and the attention put into the seams -, tuck his trusty pugio into his belt and grab a good amount of coin. He'd need it for the long journey to Cappadocia, and a larger amount than under ordinary circumstances. Silence and safe passage would have to be bought at some point, and perhaps a horse if he was feeling bold enough.
Laurus, his faithful body slave, was ordered to stay behind despite hearty protests. The man was getting up in age and his eyesight had been failing for some time, and Titus feared the slave would simply be too recognisable. Instead, Laurus was to stay and protect the house from looting and thieves, and the teenage son of the cook was to accompany Titus on his way to Quintus Alexander's legions. They would pretend to be a slave trader and his servant, making for Dacia to secure a new batch of conquered hands to sell in Rome.
It was a good plan at its inception, or so Titus thought. They would exit the capital from the north so as not to arouse suspicion; Clemens and his men would definitely expect the high-ranking class to take the Via Appia to the south, whether to seek refuge in their villae or to board a ship headed eastward, or attempt to escape via the port of Ostia. Taking the Via Flaminia toward the north-east through the mountains did not seem plausible enough to Clemens as a means of exiting Rome, as he did not seem to have increased his men's monitoring of it.
The first day had gone well. They had made good headway after leaving the city at nightfall, and the boy slave was quite adept at lighting a fire when Titus decided they had come far enough to get some rest. Too bad the boy had been gone by dawn, the dimension of his task too much for a boy of 13 who had never been out of the city previously. It was a minor setback, but the slave's presence had been far from crucial. Titus could start a fire easily too, and only having himself to worry about should there be a fight certainly made things easier. Sleep would have to be visited in short light bursts, but that was nothing his service hadn't trained him for.
The last milestone he had passed told him he was only three miles away from Narnia. Once there, he would have to opt to continue following the same road or making a detour through the Via Flaminia Nova, but given the lack of trouble thus far, Titus was inclined to stay on the main road. He was yet undecided as to his final destination on mainland Italia: Ancona had a more geographically favoured position, but the port of Ariminum was busier and more developed. From one of these cities Titus intended to cross the Adriatic to either Salona or Dyrrachium, and then make his way overland to Cappadocia. Another option was to sail to Tarsus in Cilicia and then cross the mountains to Caesarea, but Titus was not a fan of ships and preferred to stay on firm ground as much as possible. His stomach would thank him for it.
Despite the short distance left, Titus' feet were clamouring for some rest. The prickling of thirst in his throat was getting harder to ignore, too, and so he decided to make a quick stop. Just a couple of passi off the road was a great oak, and Titus wasted no time in accepting its silent invitation and nestling down between two big roots, back leaning against the trunk. He emptied his water skin and wiped off a few errant droplets with the back of his hand. There was no longer any bread left, but he could resupply in Narnia, perhaps buy some smoked sausage and dates too. And a horse, because at this rate - even at his good marching pace - it was going to take far too long to reach Quintus Alexander.
Over on the road a cart plodded along; even from this distance Titus could see the driver's fabulous red moustache, and immediately pegged him for a Gaul. Not far behind, two men followed the same path. There was nothing particularly eye-catching about them, but the older one's countenance seemed familiar. Titus squinted. It might not be wise to rise and approach them out of the blue just to get a better look; they might think him a thief or a roadside bandit. If only the oak had been a little closer to the road...
(Takes place about a week before the Senate meeting.)
The sweltering heat of Roman summer was a probation Titus had let himself grow unaccustomed to. The noxious odours emanating from the Tiber nauseated the whole city and gave way to legions of mosquitos out for the citizens' blood, sucking away their energy and leaving behind torpor, sickness and infernal itching. Rome was lethargic and its ennui spread to its inhabitants; Titus' household had been no exception. His wife, usually so agreeable, was keeping the slaves on their toes with sharp criticism of their fanning skills. Little Valeriana had scratched her legs raw thanks to mosquito stings and would take no comfort from anybody except her nanny. Flacca and Publius had engaged in a lively discussion about which sorbet was best that had yet to come to a conclusion, even after Titus had taken them out to buy some for the three of them (and conceded Flacca's point that strawberry ice was clearly superior to honey ice). It was getting to be just a bit too much, and claiming some vague meeting Titus slipped away from his stuffy residence.
The Gardens of Sallust were a veritable oasis in the city. Lush vegetation grew in all directions, displaying infinite shades of green. Venerable trees provided shade and a respite from the heat, their leaves murmuring in the summer breeze. To Titus it almost felt like being in Gaul again, where the weather had been milder and the nature wilder, rural as it still was. Dacia had the best summers, its mountains and forests keeping the temperature pleasant. Britannia hardly had summers to speak of, between the constant drizzling and the attacks of the natives. A wretched land, truly.
Titus strolled down the stone path at a leisurely pace, adjusting his gait here and there to stay in the shade. Some bird was singing in the distance, but Titus was not familiar with its cry and therefore could not identify it. He was too deep in thought, anyway. It had been half a year since his return to Rome, but he felt no closer to coming to a decision now than when he had arrived. At first it had been easy to delay the matter, for his family had kept in busy, and old acquaintances and clients required proper greetings; then he had had innumerable news and rumours to learn of, new information to acquire. Then came festivities, and Senate meetings, and dinner parties... And now it was summer already. Old man Chronus and his wheel waited for no one.
He stopped briefly to drink from a fountain and caught sight of a small pavilion. Perhaps contemplation of the building's simple colonnades would bring the clarity his mind sought.