Face claimToby Kebbell
Titus had not expect the Dacian to reply so quickly, or at all. Either the other man was in a bargaining mood, in desperate want of information, or he wanted to engage in a war of words and insults as the only weapons now available to him. The glare did not let up, however even as he spoke; the man was not easily intimidated... or figured he had nothing left to lose.
"Clever. I like you already," Titus chuckled derisively. At least this one had some notion of what futility was. And there it was: a request for news of his kin. The Dacian would have it sound like a demand, but that was so far away from reality that it wasn't even funny. "I've got no clue who they are or what happened to them." The answer was brutal in its frankness, but there was no undertone of spite or malice to Titus' voice. He was just stating the facts as he knew them (or in this case, knew not), as painful as they might turn out to be. The truth hurt more often than not.
He stared dispassionately at the Dacian, trying to get a read on him. The prisoner did not seem the type to grieve in public, and there was naturally no telling just how attached he was to the family he spoke of. Perhaps he would welcome news of their deaths, glad that they would be spared from slavery. Or maybe the uncertainty of their fates would consume his thoughts every waking hour and terrorise his dreams when he slept.
Not that it mattered, anyway. "Bet you'd like me to find out, eh?" Titus curled his lip for a fraction of a second before falling back into his usual serious expression. "But why should I do that? Or what's the point, really? Chances are you won't be seeing them again regardless."
The three of them seemed to be on the same page as to punishment: very public, so that others knew better than to try and concoct similar hare-brained schemes. "Whoever the mastermind is, I hope he will regret his actions by the end of the day and that any who might have thought to do the same reconsiders their life choices." Fustuarium was no slap on the wrist like spending a night outside the safety of camp. If Gaius or Mantius or both managed to escape, the blue-faced natives would finish the job their comrades had started. "For what it's worth, I agree with your... selection." Executing men for cheating the treasury, while effective, might be a mite too much.
Before they could discuss what to do with Tabnit Longinus' tribune arrived and introductions were quickly made. 'This'. Relegated to the nobodies, was he? Just a background figure, an afterthought, eh? Most of Titus' newly-found goodwill evaporated on the spot just like that in spite of Aulus' now wasted efforts. Well, 'this' could cause a world of trouble for a certain cocky legatus when his report was due. And for all Longinus liked to gloat about his rank, out of the men inside the tent it was Titus who had the quickest way to the proconsul's office... and ears. He had proven himself reliable so far, so their commanding officer in the province would have no reason at all to suspect that any less beneficial comments amounted to simple, satisfying, extremely petty revenge. Seething in silence, he made as if the dismissive gesture didn't concern him and looked up at the perplexed tribune. The lad did not cut an impressive figure, but he was owed a greeting anyway. "Ave, Tribune," he echoed as neutrally as possible. For all his lack of gravitas, the tribune was quick on the uptake and wasted no time in going back out to fulfil the task he'd been assigned.
"Reasonably content, yes," he confirmed, nodding at Longinus before turning to Aulus. "And your services would be very much appreciated. You've demonstrated well enough how important it is to have the voice of reason speak up when needed." Too bad said voice tended to be drowned out fairly quickly by less charitable thoughts. "Though I can't say whether it would be more useful to do it before or after Longinus is done with them." He cast the man a sneer. "Do it before and they will likely hold on to the farce of denial, do it after and they've got nothing left to lose but their lives." Which all men valued differently, anyway - and barring the slave trader, the guilty parties in this shoddy scheme knew fully well that theirs might be forfeit in their service of Rome.
"I'll leave it up to legate Longinus to decide. I don't wish to impose on his plans; mine can certainly fit around them." He would take what he could get, be it soldiers full of bravado or whatever was left of them after being disciplined. Titus took a sip of wine and peered pensively into his cup. Despite all the jibes and thinly-veiled insults, the affair seemed to have wrapped up surprisingly fast; he had not expected to see its conclusion after only some hours. Aulus demonstrated time and again what a good, clear head he had on his shoulders, and for all his insufferable arrogance and conceited smiles, Longinus had caught on quickly and jumped into action practically at once. All things considered, they made a rather good team.
Titus came back to what they'd been about to discuss before the interruption. "Right, what about the Syrian slaver? I reckon he's not a citizen?" A malevolent smirk played on his lips. Peregrini civilians were not exempt from torture or whipping. "His property could be confiscated, and his right to do business with the legions revoked in perpetuity. Bet that would have him crying and pleading." Those mercantile types from the Levant seemed to value trading and money-making above all else, and prohibiting one such man from buying and selling his wares might be as strong a blow to his pride as a proper flogging would be to his body.
They could busy themselves with that discussion whilst the tribune went and rounded up the culprits.
If Longinus was confident Rabirius was their man, then Titus would go along with it. If his friend turned out to be wrong and apprehended the wrong man, that would be on him and him alone, and his reputation amongst the troops would suffer a lethal blow. But Titus was not the legate of this legion and so he would suffer no consequences if things went wrong - and although he would never admit it, not even to himself, a small, salty part of him actually wanted to see Longinus fail spectacularly and gain some humility in the process. He shooed the thought away as quickly as it had appeared, suddenly ashamed of his innermost selfish desires. They were unmanly and unbecoming and would not - could not - be entertained again, not even for a fraction of an instant. Titus steeled his jaw in self-directed displeasure, oblivious as to how ill-advised it was to return Longinus' uneasy smile with such a gesture.
And then with Aulus' gracious speech, he felt even guiltier about his short-lived spite. Even if he could not remember the last time somebody spoke of him in such commendable terms, he did not deserve such praise. If he'd had a mirror, Titus would have been able to see a hint of red colouring his cheeks, but even without one, the warm flush was embarrassing enough. "And you, my friend, are without a doubt the wisest of us," he told Aulus, offering a small yet genuine smile for the first time that day. "We are lucky to have you here to speak some sense to us." Aulus' diplomatic ways were a stark yet much-needed reminder of how much growth Titus still had left to do. If he wanted to be taken seriously, he needed to act the part too and not let pettiness have free reign over him.
Finding that his mood had lifted somewhat, Titus changed the topic slightly. "And once they're all rounded up, then what?" He glanced at the two officers in turn. "Public or private punishment?"
In a faithful imitation of his friend, Titus too listened carefully, though he had no problem sitting still or remained as focused as his state allowed him for as long as Varus' explanation went on. It was what he had expected to hear: one didn't need to be an actual lawyer, but it would be wise to have some notions of due proceedings. He nodded in between sips, finally downing what was left of the tisane. By the last gulps, he had grown mostly immune to the mind-blowing amount of pepper in it.
Leaning back and waiting for the agricultural income to materialise and fund their lifestyle might be a life goal for a good number of senators, but as far as Titus was concerned, few things could be as unbearably dull. Wait a number of years for a tree to bear fruit, harvest produce only a few weeks a year, and being entirely reliant on adequate weather, competent works and unblighted crops... Honest and necessary work, but so, so dull. Too slow-paced. Duller than poring through treaties on law and past verdicts; those were, if nothing else, a finite quantity. And not too different from reading intelligence reports or tellings of past war encounters - perhaps a little drier in form, but not entirely unrelated. He turned to face Longinus with a malicious smirk. "Maybe as much work as preparing a campaign, just a different kind of battle." A more civilised one, many would argue. But exactly how much paperwork Longinus would have gone through each time in preparation for various moves was anybody's guess - and Titus' guess was probably not a lot. He knew his friend favoured swift action above many things.
"How very noble of you to finally show some consideration and sympathy, dear friend." Titus' tone was jocose, but inwardly he was appreciative of the lull in the conversation. His concentration was waning and he felt he wasn't able to get as much out of the encounter as he should. Probably best to sleep off this bloody fever and try again another day - maybe under the guise of bringing Publius for a play date. He gave Varus a sheepish, apologetic look. "As much as it vexes me to admit it, good Longinus here is right. I do hope I won't offend you by retreating earlier..." Titus cast Longinus a quick, wry glance, but its impact was minimised by a sudden coughing fit, as if to emphasise his earlier statement. "Do feel free to carry on without me, though."
He was at his wits’ end.
He had gone through every trick in the book. Tickling had borne no success: she had twisted and turned and batted his hand away with her tiny chubby ones while crying all the while. She wasn’t hungry, either – Valeria had seen to that not even an hour earlier. Bouncing her on his knee while making clicking sounds resembling a horse’s trotting was effective for all of two minutes, during which Sulpicia stopped her wailing and looked up and around with watery eyes, waving her arms up and down excitedly and squealing in delight before whatever was bothering her won out again and the crying resumed. Rocking and shushing her to try and get her to sleep was as futile as teaching a monkey to read, and making goofy faces or cooing distracted her only for a few seconds. What else was he supposed to try?
Holding Sulpicia against his chest as he paced the room, Titus was beginning to feel like he too wanted to cry out in exasperation. Seeing his baby like that, ruddy-faced and eyes scrunched up in discomfort, if not pain, whilst tears ran down her plump cheeks and drool dribbled down her chin, was no crowning moment of parenthood. In fact, he felt like the most incompetent person in the world.
Could she be thirsty? She was a bit too warm too, Titus concluded as he softly pressed his lips to her forehead – but that could easily be thanks to this fuss she had worked herself into. A slave brought a small cup of water as commanded and made a respectful retreat. Sulpicia took only a few sips before turning her face away and starting to squall again. Titus put the cup down with a defeated sigh and bit his lower lip, willing his stumped brain to please come up with one more thing, or two, or ten.
It did not oblige. Defeated, Titus frowned and poked his daughter gently on the tip of the nose. “Are you hungry after all? Hmm? Do you want your mama?” Sulpicia replied with unintelligible pained babbling before grabbing his finger in a vice grip and bringing it to her mouth. When she began to chew on it with all the might and abandon of a starving man, Titus experienced an eureka moment.
Teething. The more he thought about, the more obvious it seemed. Babies were born without teeth – as they very sensibly should be. According to bits and pieces he had heard, they would usually make an appearance during the second half of the baby’s first year of life, should baby survive that long. Seemed as clear as V + V = X.
The second sudden realisation that followed the first one only lent it more strength: how could a baby’s gums be so hard and exert such force? Fearing for the integrity of his finger, Titus removed his spit-covered index from Sulpicia’s mouth before she chewed it to the bone. She gave him a puzzled, slightly betrayed look before knitting her brow and expressing her displeasure quite loudly.
Let it not be said he was a man who did not learn from his mistakes. Eager for silence to return, he offered her his pinky, vanquished yet relieved that the cause of her stroppiness had come to light. As Sulpicia bit and chomped away at his finger in delight, Titus wondered what could be a suitable victim instead. Soft leather? Wool? He might have to defer to the women in the family, and do it soon. He only had ten fingers, after all.
Early May, 74AD - the day after the events of 'A Dacian fable'
Dawn had brought with it a new day, one of more subdued excitement and a return to everyday discipline, though spirits naturally still ran high in the camp. After a wet night of drinking and celebration, the morning sun was oddly unwelcome by many, but the soldiers powered through hangovers and soon the camp was bustling with noise and life. Titus had not drunk to the same excess as most of his men, having learnt his lesson long ago, and so he left his tent and trod through the drying mud unbothered to get a proper look at some of their new captives. He had passable information of who was who in that ragtag tribe, but wanted to get a feeling for himself on who might yet cause trouble and who would go down quicker.
Inside one of the smaller tents were a couple of higher-profile prisoners, and Titus immediately focused on a tall, well-built man, still dirty from the fighting. They'd had been given a little water to drink, but not anywhere near enough for a measly clean-up. His right arm looked to be in very bad shape, and the pain must have been agonising; should it regain some function, it would still probably never be strong enough to hold sword, spear or shield again. The warrior in Titus could sympathise - to many a man, death would have been preferable to such an injury. The more pragmatic side of him saw it for the good fortune it was for the Roman side: one less fighter to worry about, as he would not be able to take up arms against the Eagles now or in the future, nor train their youths to do it for him. And this one, with his uncowed gaze, would have been very capable of doing just that.
Even now, though he was was restrained by tight ropes sturdily wound round his wrists, ankles and neck, the Dacian managed to affect a smug, prideful air not unlike that of his tribeswoman Titus had dealt with the previous day. Perhaps they were related, although he had no knowledge of this one sporting such fine gold on him, or even a particularly ornate weapon. But the man before him would crack sooner or later, like that wench would if she had not already. Exactly how that would happen was yet to be seen, but Titus wasn't overly concerned; if he did not find the chink in the armour himself, someone else or Saturn as the lord of time would.
With a frown on his face Titus studied the other man for a few moments, appraising him as he would a ware. Those instants were enough to form a first opinion, but he would allow the Dacian a chance to make his own case.
"What shall I do with you, with your arm like that?"
At last this little enterprise was bearing fruit. Three men identified and hopefully unsuspecting of what awaited them, one more to go. Though he was too cross at everything and everyone for a number of more or less explainable reasons, Titus silently approved of Longinus' note-taking; about fucking time, too. "Yeah, don't want to tip them off." Word travelled fast in close quarters, and contrary to the solid image they projected, bored legionaries were as willing and able as old widows when it came to gossip and wagging tongues. He would like to stick around to see if the culprits would be appropriately punished, but time was a scarce commodity as of late. If the affair came to a conclusion soon, then maybe he could linger a little while longer.
And yet again Aulus displayed the benefits of keeping a cool head: it stood to reason that the men could not have been strangers to each other, but rather the opposite. Perhaps even tent mates. "All right, let's see..." Titus muttered, more to himself than to the other men in the tent. A cursory glance yielded no results, but he'd only been looking for capital Gs and the penmanship could definitely use some work. It could also be the case that the man in question favoured the older spelling, and so Titus studied the list more carefully. "One Caius Volusenus..." Into view came a very misshapen G, but one nonetheless. Even his daughter could do better. "Gaius Rabirius..." And another one, further down the list. "Gaius Curius... And that's it for this one."
He lifted his gaze from the list and let it flit about expectantly, hoping one of the names had sparked a flash of recognition. Otherwise, they might as well order all the Gaii in the whole bloody legion to line up against a wall and have their balls chopped off one by one until a little piggy lost his bravado and squealed.
Listening with only half a mind to the other two's conversation, Titus silently concurred that it wasn't everyone's fate to join the Eagles, and Barbatius' inheritance of his father's business made much sense. He had been taught well in Titus' opinion, and better to celebrate a good barber than to mourn the loss of a soldier that never was - and just what kind of soldier Barbatius would have made, Titus wasn't keen to find out. And as to women and slaves doing the work, well - many imperial slaves were administrating the minutiae of running the empire on a daily basis, and Titus trusted his own body slave to make sounder decisions than many of the old coots in the Senate. But the order of things was as it was and should not be changed.
Titus ran both hands through his now completely smooth cheeks after the tickling brush was put away and nodded his approval as he looked in a small mirror, doing his best to ignore the obscene whistling coming out of Longinus' lips - partial hearing loss had its blessings, he noted not for the first time. "Very satisfied, good Barbatius. As usual," he added with a smile. He pondered making a curt and barbed comment about having a wife to impress in the first place, but decided to be the better man - his best friend was a widower, not a divorced man, and had had no part in Antonia's untimely death, unlike a certain barber to his slaves, according to his suspicions... "Why thank you, for once I hope you're right." Impressed was probably not the right word - the sight would be nothing new to Valeria. Relieved? Grateful? Indifferent? There were certain times and occasions on which stubble was a nuisance. But Titus couldn't recall her ever having expressed a preference, perhaps because she knew how ultimately futile it would be.
He stood up from his seat and approached his friend, making a show of whispering low enough that it would seem like he was indeed trying to be discreet, and loud enough that Barbatius would hear. "You should have told me you were in difficulties, Longinus. Of course I'll pay for you." The concerned tone with which he mollified the other patrician was betrayed by a sardonic twinkle in his hazel eyes; his poker face held thanks to years of practice and a natural disposition for it.
Titus fished some coins out of his money purse and handed them to Barbatius' right-hand slave. There was more than enough there to cover both cuts and shaves plus the wine and grapes that glutton Longinus had helped himself to, but he motioned for the slave not to bother with change with a lazy, dismissive gesture. Once payment was out of the way, Titus turned to Longinus with a questioning look. "Shall we be on our way? Or was there anything else?"
How was he supposed to trust the words of a barbarian wench who up until a few seconds ago was alternating between insulting him and attacking him? Parenthood might just about be the only thing they had in common, but that would not make Titus let his guard down. Just because she looked at him with surprise in her tear-streaked face now did not mean she would go back on her affirmation later. Since she thought him capable of harming her child, she might eventually decide to return the favour - and if she were daft enough to try in the wake of the turmoil, crucifixion would be a merciful punishment compared to what he would inflict on her. "Good," Titus stated with finality. He didn't need to tell her to remember that.
Again completely unfazed by the heavy mood, Valeriana giggled, then nodded with a knowing look. "Me too, when I was little! Then I got a tummy ache." She looked up at Titus for confirmation, who couldn't help but give her a small amused smile. "When you were little, pip? Are you grown up now?" The little girl nodded again, her fine blonde locks bobbing up and down. "Well, grown-ups need to help with packing. Have you put your toys away?" This time she shook her head with a "Nuh-uh", and realising she'd been had, let go of her father's legs and sped off towards the house, probably to collect her precious playthings before a zealous slave hid them too well.
Turning his attention back to the Zia, Titus nodded stiffly as he looked down on the woman, giving her silent permission to go get cleaned up. She would probably not get any sleep that night - might even keep other slaves awake with her sobbing, he reckoned -, but resting her body would be wise given the month-long journey ahead of them. He raised his voice to call for a nearby slave with an 'Oi!' and seconds later a woman trotted up to them, her round face glistening with sweat. "Find this one a bucket and a cloth and a vacant cot. She may have some bread and cheese too." Unsure of what sustenance the Dacian had been provided in camp, Titus thought it better to have her reasonably fed for a meal or two; the last thing he needed was for her to pass out from hunger and delay the journey in its early stages.
The moon-faced slave muttered the customary 'yes, domine' and motioned for Zia to follow her into the house. Titus watched the two women walk away and disappear into the building, a pensive look on his face. Had it been the right thing to do, to keep this Dacian cunt and her man and a few of their wretched kin alive? Only time would tell, and if it had been the wrong call... They were all slaves now, and slaves were property.
Property was easy to dispose of if needed.
Thanks for this emotional rollercoaster of a thread!
Now she was back down on the dusty ground - where she belonged and would learn to stay. The punch hadn't been premeditated, or even one of his best moments, but Titus be damned if he was going to stand there and let her take her fury out on him in front of an audience of slaves. It would most likely leave a mark and turn an ugly shade of purple in the next few hours, but he wasn't keeping her for her looks.
Then again, he couldn't really say that this was marginally better, the pathetic way she spat out blood and cried and shook and sobbed. Somewhere, very deep down inside, Titus felt sorry for her: the pain must have been unlike anything she'd ever imagined. But he squashed that spark of sympathy like a bug and looked on dispassionately, telling himself that she had brought it upon herself. If the woman had cooperated that day a month earlier in his tent, she could have had it so much easier - doing menial housekeeping tasks, maybe even kept her son close by. But she had chosen differently, and so the consequences were hers to bear, then as now. He would not commiserate over an arrogant Dacian slave who was finally understanding her place.
"That's a new slave, pip." Valeriana dropped her pointing finger and simply gave an "Okay", content with the answer. To Zia, Titus replied in Latin. "One of them." He would not give her the mercy of using her pig language, and definitely not in front of a very impressionable four-year-old who soaked up new words like a sponge. Said child hid behind her father's legs and poked out her head, watching Zia curiously from a safe distance. Titus had half a mind to lead her back into the house given the Dacian's instability, but let it be since she was staying close to him. The slave seemed to have regained part of her bearings, although her red-rimmed eyes betrayed her suffering; she should be steady enough to receive and obey orders. He dropped his voice to a sharp, deadly whisper. "If you so much as think about harming a hair on her head it will be the last thing you ever do."
Oblivious to the tense exchange overhead, the little girl continued her visual examination of the new slave from behind the safety of Titus' legs.
"Papa, her mouth is blue. Did she eat too many blueberries?"