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Sestia found herself, for the second time that week, driven to exasperation at the ineptitude of her slaves. More specifically, those tasked with her transportation. To her, it seemed like the simplest of simple tasks: you pick up the litter, you walk with the litter, you pick up the mistress at the appointed hour, at the appointed place, and you carry said mistress and said litter back home. The bearers themselves were dusky Nubians whose grasp of Latin was, at best, tenuous – so they could be forgiven. However, they were supervised – for this very reason – by Fronto, a fat Syrian who spoke Latin and Greek perfectly and whose job it was to ensure that those of the mistress’ staff who did not, should properly understand.

 

Given that Rome’s streets were a traffic nightmare, it was not the case that in public places, such as the Arena, the litter and its bearers could be parked ad infinitum until it was required. Sooner or later some job’s-worth vigils patrol would saunter up and slap them with a ticket for blocking a thoroughfare. Sestia could appreciate that and plans were normally made for such an eventuality. The litter should return to the Domus Afinii Gallii, ideally, and come back at the time agreed. This was simple stuff. You did not have to be the Urban Praetor or a Treasury Quaestor to wrap your head around this. All it required was an ability to follow orders and have a general conception of the passing of time and basic urban geography. She would have ordered Fronto’s beating if she thought him so stupid as to fail to understand this. However, she was very much afraid that he might actually be clever…too clever. Her suspicions – not yet any more than this – was that the wily Syrian was using her litter as a private taxi service during the hours she was engaged elsewhere. Presumably he and the bearers pocketed the proceeds. How else could you explain his fine clothes and ability to put on weight so quickly? She made a mental note to find one of her slaves who had a single honest bone in their body and use them to get to the bottom of what was going on.

 

All of this, however, did not change the current situation. Sestia had made it clear to Fronto that she required collecting from the entrance of the Arena an hour before the end of the day’s events. The point was that she would thereby be saved from the crush of drunken revellers released after the final event, hurrying off to popinas, bars, brothels and homes. They would avoid the inevitable traffic jams on the way home. In short, a whole lot of stress and difficulty could be easily avoided.

 

Yet, here she was, stood in the central entrance arch as the crowds streamed past her, barging and buffeting her and Brysias like flotsam in a choppy stream, and there was no litter in sight. Well, there were litters in sight, plenty of them, just not hers! Brysias was being driven to distraction, forever looked about her and Sestia and their belongings to ensure that no light-fingered cutpurse or thief could get at them.

 

Another group of revellers practically charged down the hallway, cheering and whooping, clearly three sails to the wind, full of drink. Several women of ill repute laughed and joked with them, pawed at by their drunken companions. One cheered as he smashed a clay cup against the wall whilst another stopped to empty the contents of his stomach against the wall whilst his friends laughed. They barged past, almost knocking Sestia off her feet. Admittedly, the soles of her sandals had an unnecessarily large and bolstered wooden heel on them so her footing was precarious at the best of times. Only just recovering from this barging, the pair were officiously chivvied out of the way as a troupe of Arena cleaning slaves hustled past with mops and buckets to start their work.

 

Crowds were still pouring down the internal staircases and cramming into the entrance hall, slowly pushing and shoving their way out to be disgorged onto the street as if from the belly of a great beast.

 

I swear by Juno I will have Fronto whipped until he can’t walk for a month,” Sestia said, with a small hint of rising panic in her voice.

@Liv

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The day's games were coming to an end, with only two or three utterly uninteresting matches remaining.  Watching prisoners or no-name gladiators club themselves to death was not that fun, though little Publius begged to differ. For a young boy who had spent a great deal of his childhood in the relative calm of a countryside villa in Dacia, all that Rome had to offer was amazing, and the bloodier and more savage the better. It was therefore under protest that he followed his father out of the arena, enthusiastically discussing previous matches while Titus 'uh-huh'ed and 'right'ed at more or less frequent intervals. He just wanted to navigate past the growing number of people who all seemed to have the same brilliant idea of leaving before the crowds became unbearable - once they were out, then he could actually pay attention to what his son was saying.

In a less busy occasion, they would have walked home and turned the stroll into a lesson on the topography and landmarks of Rome, but given how every single soul in the capital had seemingly come out to watch the games, arranging a litter beforehand hadn't sounded like such a bad idea. At least it would keep their feet free of vomit and awful wine. Like before, plenty of others had had the same flash of inspiration, and while Titus glanced about, trying to spot their litter, a panicked yet furious-sounding complaint came from his left, naturally drawing his attention.

Whoever this Fronto fellow was, he would regret angering his mistress by the looks of it, and for good reason - being buffeted by boisterous crowds would test the patience of even the most hardcore of stoics. Fortunately, Titus - and Publius by extension - had suffered no such indignation yet, as it turned out his toga, broad-striped tunic and resting bitch face all combined prevented even the most inebriated idiot from getting too close.

He schooled his face into what he hoped was a friendly smile, nudged Publius to walk in front of him but stay close, and approached the pair of women. With no helpful slave to mumble who they might be (and going by the fine garments on the angriest of the two, she probably was someone), no spark of recognition went off in his head.

"Apologies, I could not help but overhear.. May I be of help where this Fronto of yours has failed you?" 

She probably just wanted to hitch a lift.

@Lauren

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Sestia, still fuming, turned as she heard a comment addressed to her. Her initial reaction had been to ignore it because, as a woman unaccompanied by a man, stood loitering in the entrance porch of a public Arena, several (mostly drunken, but by no means all) males had accosted her thinking she was perhaps the type of women who prowled for masculine company in return for coin. Albeit, she supposed and took a little comfort from – she would surely be the better sort that the average plebeian could not afford. No, come to think of it, that was actually no comfort at all.

 

She tended to blame her distant Punic ancestry for many things. She blamed it for her dense mass of curls which were the very Hell to comb, straighten or do anything with. She blamed it for the darker colour of her skin which made her stick out like a sore thumb amidst the milky white faces of her fellow senatorial female peers. She even – and without any reason at all – blamed it for her inability to stand cold weather. One thing she did, however, blame it on was her temper. When fired up she was almost powerless to calm down for – oh – a good long while. Her brown eyes burnt with righteous indignation and her body was taut with stress: back rigid, chest high up and out, fists clenched.

 

Yet turn to face her interlocutor she did. From the attire with its stripe and the tell-tale ring on his finger he was clearly a senator. He had a boy – presumably his son? – shepherded carefully in front of him. If he was going to ask her to turn a trick (as urban slang had it) then to ask such in front of his own son was a shocking affront. Using Fronto’s name, he had clearly overheard her angry comment to Brysias. The latter had moved protectively closer to her mistress. In a strop, Sestia reached round and gave her a none-too-gentle thump to push her back again. Brysias was a predictable as the bloody calendar: she always gathered about her like a watchdog whenever a man came near her. Did she think she was that flighty? Had she not been nothing but chaste and prudent for…what…all her life? Receiving her physical blow of chastisement (however furtively given) with the silent resentment she was used to, Brysias stepped back.

 

If you want to be of service then you can call on the vigiles and Prefect of the Urban Cohorts to put out a wanted poster for him as a runaway slave and, if found, summarily nail him to the nearest bit of wood available. Wanted: one overweight, Syrian fool, last seen abusing his privileged position. Most likely to be found searching for catamites or drinking in the worst sort of bars. If found, do not return to his long-suffering mistress or, if you must, return him short of a head.”

 

The gentleman, who had clearly (and she well knew this) intended on being nothing more than polite, was also clearly taken aback by this tirade. She softened a little. It was not fair to belabour the ears of genuinely helpful people with her childish tantrums for her own inability to manage her slaves. She realised as well that there was the child in front of him. Suddenly she felt sheepish for talking that way in front of the young and impressionable.

 

I am sorry. If you could, I should be very grateful. My bearers have either got lost or, more likely, neglected to do any bearing whatsoever. If you have your own means of helping us get to the Domus Afinii Gallii on the Esquiline, I would be most grateful and can pay my way – in coin,” she hastily added.

@Liv

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Titus' eyes grew progressively wider as the woman went on an inflamed tirade. Only a patrician could act this entitled and mean it. His son seemed to be similarly surprised as his head turned back and forth, looking at the lady with some apprehension, then at Titus and finally scooting two inches closer to him as if fearing aggression. He waited for her to finish, biting the inside of his lower lip in a herculean effort not to burst out laughing in her face. 

"I would be delighted to, but I doubt it'll go anywhere today. The city's come to a halt because of the games." It was more than a little odd that she would request him, a perfect stranger, to do legal business for her, but the whole meeting was turning out to be more than a little odd. Between the fiery dark-skinned lady and her sour-faced companion - a body slave, probably -, Titus almost regretted speaking up.  The aforementioned feeling only increased when Publius, ever curious, peered up at him.

"Dad, what are catamites?"

He opened his mouth to answer, closed it, then opened it again to delay the inevitable. "I'll tell you when we get home, right now we are helping this lady." Said lady looked a tad sheepish now, likely having realised her choice of words hadn't been the most adequate in the presence of a child. Still, she backtracked and apologised and seemed contrite enough, and it would have been petty to withdraw his offer to help on account of a (rather justified) outburst.

"Of course. Our litter should be..." he paused, squinting over the crowd and trying to catch a glimpse of it, "... right there." He gestured to the far left and gave his son a  gentle push on the shoulder, signalling for him to start walking. The Afinii Gallii on the Esquiline... It should have perhaps rung a bell, but it did not. It was a detour, but it wasn't like they had anywhere special to be. "No payment whatsoever is necessary, please." It was almost offensive to offer coin for something so simple - it would be more useful to eventually have the favour repaid by an action or gesture in the future.

He gestured for the pair to come with, making sure to keep a respectable distance. "Forgive me, I seem to have left my manners in the arena today. Titus Sulpicius Rufus, and this is my son, Publius," he smiled sheepishly as he eyed the two women. The companion still didn't look convinced he wasn't going to lead them off into a narrow back alley and slice their throats, but unlike her mistress, her disapproval was silent. "We live on the Quirinalis, not too far from the gardens of Sallust." Small talk should put them both more at ease... hopefully.

@Lauren

Edited by Liv
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Hearing what the young boy asked his father, Sestia blushed deeper, bringing more rich colour to her cheeks. At times, she really did have the petulant attitude of a teenage girl. This was something that Brysias often chided her with and generally was said before Sestia hurled a sandal, slipper or small pot in her direction, ironically proving the point. It was noble of the gentleman to still stick fast to his offer of help considering he now likely thought that she was slightly unhinged.

 

“Thank you so much,” she simpered in her most feminine way, attempting to salve the still fresh error of etiquette, batting her eyelashes as she followed the senator and his son through the crowds, nimbly dodging the press of persons and traffic to reach the palanquin. A sturdy and well put together piece, it was pleasingly decorated and carved and was sure to be worth a substantial sum of money. Her litter, a relic that had served her husband’s family seemingly since the days of Sulla given its antique taste, was thoroughly put to shame by it. She let the boy clamber in first and smiled as the senator let her in next. She poked her head out and looked to Brysias, “you can walk, keep an eye out for Fronto, yes?” The Parthian gave a scowl which said more than her lisping Latin could ever have conveyed. Sestia happily let the ornate patterned curtain fall back and, for now, blocked out the face of her self-appointed Parthian conscience.

 

“How kind of you,” she repeated again, delicately tucking her feet under her. The litter was spacious but, even so, with three people in it, it may be a little cosy. “Such a lovely vehicle!” She made a mental note to add restoring her clapped out contraption to her list of things to change. Currently, the wholesale modernisation of the Domus Afinii Gallii was her primary preoccupation but, if she was to go visiting others more often, she ought to at least arrive in fitting style. The cushioned seating was mercifully soft on her rear which ached from the uncomfortable arena seating. She wiggled herself down into it with a little sigh.

 

The senator’s name had tinkled a mental bell but she couldn’t quite place it. She had received letters from some of her friends whilst she had been away in Carthage. Usually these were filled with page after page of tiresome gossip and Roman high society news, involving an ever whirling cast of great and lesser names, rising, falling, marrying, dying, breeding and so forth that soon the names all came to be jogged together. The constant comings and goings on postings and tours of duty meant that, even having lived in Rome for many years, lots of the names were new to her. However, the Sulpicii were a noble clan, very much so. Yet there was something more that betokened there was something else she had heard of this gentleman besides the great and noble name. Had he won a victory? Who was he married to? Had he served with her father? She couldn’t quite place it.

 

She gave him an enquiring look – in a nice way, of course – almost sizing him up but more using his face as a spur to possible memory. “You must forgive me, Titus Sulpicius, but I cannot help but think I have heard your name before but I cannot think where or in what context! Sestia Vaticana,” she said, returning the formality. “Widow of the late Lucius Afinius Gallus.” Personally, she hated having to follow giving her name with a list of male-orientated facts that “set her in context” – widow of X, daughter of Y, sister of Z. Still, it was a man’s world…

 

“Oh, I hope the detour is not a bother? The Qurinial is such a lovely area, I am most jealous. My late husband’s house was built back when the Esquiline was fashionable for the rich which shows, I think, quite how old the place is! Proper Republican Republican times! The place shows its age and, given a chance, I would move us all somewhere more fitting but it is part of my son’s heritage so I daren’t do so! Instead, I just spend a small fortune doing the place up to liven it of its glum colours and trappings.”

 

The litter lurched into the air although, with the press of traffic, progress was going to be slow. If the Imperial entourage was on its way back to the Palace, they would be stuck for ages whilst cordons of Praetorians held up the traffic with devilish delight and self-importance.

 

Addressing both of them but smiling sweetly at the boy, “so, have you enjoyed the Games?"

@Liv

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Even if the woman had the decency to blush a fiery strawberry red, the damage was done. Publius would not forget it, and although he was generally an obedient kid, he was also very curious. As the three of them crawled into the litter Titus debated the pros and cons of leaving the promised explanation to his wife: she might go about it in a convoluted way that would bore their son out of his mind, or she might find it the funniest thing ever and delve into explicit clarifications far beyond his level. Knowing Valeria, both were equally likely, and there just were some things a nine-year-old of either gender had no business knowing. No, he'd have to take care of this one himself.

The companion didn't seem pleased to be told to walk home, but did as she was ordered anyway - she had wisely not expected Titus to overrule her mistress and invite her inside. Slaves had legs, they could walk. Said mistress seemed to be impressed with the size and decoration of the litter now taking them through the busy streets at a leisurely place, and Titus regretted for a split second that he nearly always tuned out the minutiae of it the few times it had come up. "Thank you. It was a wedding present from my wife's parents. Ebony from Aksum beyond the Nile, if I recall correctly," he offered with a somewhat uncertain smile. Publius bobbed his head up and down, confirming its origins. "Avus said it's the prettiest and blackest wood there is! And that it comes from really big trees very far away, farther than Egypt! He told mum to have it polished and varnished again, so she did, and it looks all nice now." He puffed out his small chest, very proud of himself for having conveyed such important information.

Titus ruffled his son's hair affectionately and leaned back into the cushions. If there had been no extra passenger, he would have been stretching and yawning like a cat, but that hardly seemed appropriate in her presence. He was slightly surprised to find himself on the receiving end of a very inquisitive look, and was starting to wonder if she'd make him an offer for the litter when she voiced her thoughts - nope, she was just wondering if they knew each other. "No need for forgiveness," he chuckled, carefully omitting that he too had the same problem whilst at the same time trying to figure out where he had heard 'Sestia Vaticana' before. Fortunately it didn't take long before a faint spark of recognition lit up his face. Afinius Gallus, wasn't that the decrepit senator who'd married a woman young enough to be his granddaughter? He seemed to recall Valeria mentioning her and a move to Africa many, many years prior. He'd been away from Rome at the same so the memories were quite fuzzy, but he resolved to risk it anyway.

"Hmm, correct me if I'm wrong, but you may know my wife, Valeria Flacca?" It was probably wise to leave off the part about her geriatric, now-deceased husband. "I seem to recall her mentioning your name, and something about Africa or Mauretania a few years ago?" He gave her a small, self-conscious smile. Hopefully he wasn't too far off the mark. "Please excuse my terrible memory, in the past decade I've spent more time outside Rome than here." It was hopeless to try and keep up with who lived, died, got married, divorced, had children or was exiled.

"The Esquiline is still a very fine neighbourhood, plenty of illustrious neighbours." Thinking back to his visit with Longinus to Varus' house, it was the exact opposite of dilapidated and unfashionable. "But whether you move later on or not, a house should be both liveable and comfortable." Surely her son wouldn't begrudge his mother renovating a little.

Publius beamed at the question and immediately launched himself into a small tirade, barely pausing to breathe. "They were amazing! Did you see how Ascanius killed that prisioner? He never stood a chance! Ascanius is the best," he concluded triumphantly. Titus cast his son an amused look and shrugged at Sestia, as if saying 'there you have it'.

He was about to ask her the same when the litter came to a halt with a lurch. Frowning, he mouthed 'one moment' to the other two and poked his head out of the curtain, ready to ask the slaves what was going on, when the reason unfolded itself right before his eyes. A bearded man launched himself at a younger one and pounded him with his fists, and amidst all the yelling he accused the youth of having felt up his daughter. The jeering and the commotion went up a notch, and now they could be heard inside the litter as well.

@Lauren

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Ebony from Axum indeed! Well, someone was doing very well. Both the family of the senator’s wife for having the facilities to make this a dower gift and the senator himself for having the facilities to get a wife of such endowed family. She ran a finger along the pleasingly dark wood appraisingly. She must certainly get some for her own vehicle – when the time came to change it! Gods only knew how much it would cost but you cannot often put a price on distinction and this conveyance conveyed that concisely. She smiled at the boy as thanks for his important confirmation of the subject matter.

 

She smiled when he mentioned Valeria. That set tinder to the unlit torch of memory. “A-ha!” she said with a degree of triumph, “that is it! Yes, oh, yes, Valeria Flacca! Now that is an old name! I have not seen her in…well…a very long time. My late husband was not fond of entertaining and then decamping to Africa rather did a number somewhat on my ability to properly keep in touch with people. The Imperial post is very good but I could never tell whether my father could be bothered to slip my letters into the correct satchel. Knowing him they’re probably still sat on a shelf somewhere, gathering dust.”

 

She sat and thought for a moment, taking a trip down the winding lanes of her memory to the sunnier days in the valley of youth. The memories, however, weren’t altogether pleasant ones. In those days, before her marriage, she had been just one of many young girls of senatorial families who moved in an ever-sliding kaleidoscope of mutual interactions – family visits, social functions and the like. She had been living under the stern, traditionalist aegis of her father who rarely, if ever, let her embrace her youth and have fun in a wild fashion. She had known the girls like Valeria and her gang who, to her, seemed so alive and buzzing with fun. Whilst she knew them, she was not able to run around with them or ever be more than an acquaintance, looking on in envy at their escapades. It made sense that she should marry well and presumably now lived in fine and decadent style, moving in the same circles as before, save for now the soft edges of childhood had rounded and matured to more alluring and experiences curves of adulthood. What different paths life could lead you down?

 

“Yes, well…my late husband was forced to leave Rome for his health.” For what little good it had done him. You may as well have cancer in Rome as in Campania for all the difference it made. “When he passed, as my sons are still boys, it fell to my father to take over the mantle of guardianship of me and them. After the civil war, Caesar had moved him over to be his man on the ground in Africa so off we trotted to our family’s estates there. Lovely place but not home, really.”

 

As usual, she was unsure how much to share of her reasons for returning. A description of heated family arguments and an older man’s descent into addiction and resentment were hardly the appropriate form of litter talk.

 

“My father decided that it was wise that the boys return to Rome to finish their education here before their majority.” She couldn’t help but add “and a wise decision that was too because I was only too happy to return.”

 

The idea of sharing her father’s dismal provincial exile (albeit dressed up with the veneer of public service) had, and still did, fill her with dread.

 

She was laughing at the boys comments about the day when the commotion broke outside. “You know far more than me, young man! I struggle still to tell the difference between a retiarius and a secutor. My sons, I am sure, wish to disown me for it but I am sure you and they may have trouble in telling the difference between a palla and a stolla so I think maybe it is just one of those things that separates men from women,” she joked.

 

Sestia gave a quizzical look as the litter lurched to a stop and then came the clump as it was set down. Her host poked his head out of the curtains and, almost at that instant, the noise of a fight broke outside. Swearing, shouting and the unmistakeable sounds of physical violence. Sestia gasped and sat bolt upright, almost knocking her head on the roof. She was worried for a moment that the person being hit was Titus Sulpicius. “Gods, what’s going on!” she said worriedly as the noise grew louder. The rumpus was clearly moving closer as she felt the litter lurch and bump as though something, or someone, was hurled against it.

@Liv

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Titus breathed a mental sigh of relief as his suspicions were confirmed. The embarrassment if he had guessed wrong would have been enormous, and not for the first time he was glad that Valeria's gregarious nature allowed him to maintain a modicum of sociability. Sestia's admission that they hadn't seen each other in quite some time was also to his advantage, as there was now no risk of boring her with old news and, for once, he could be the one to come home with juicy new stories to tell.

Sestia seemed like the type who had suffered more than one mismatch in her life, from the way she spoke dismissively of both her late husband and her father. A lively woman chained down to and by dull old men for years, like so many before and after her. Valeria might have been as miserable if he'd dragged her here and there across the provinces. Now that she was free from their reach by death and distance, she was probably wanting to make up for lost time. An invitation to a dinner party would be in order at some point, he reasoned, if only to respect social niceties if it turned out his wife wasn't particularly keen on reconnecting. "Then you haven't heard her tales from Dacia yet! We were there for four years, but don't worry, I'll leave it to her to tell you all about it," he chuckled, certain that her stories would be much more entertaining than his, which consisted mostly of camp stuff or teaching the natives a lesson, and sometimes both at once.

"How old are your sons now? Too old to enjoy the games?" he joked, sharing a look with a slightly confused Publius who did not understand how anyone who was a boy could not like to watch the fights. From Sestia's passing remarks Titus gathered they - or at least one of them - might be fast approaching maturity, to the point where her apparently domineering father felt comfortable letting her out of his reach. Publius was about to embark on a tirade about the differences between a retiarius and a secutor, but started by first admitting that he actually knew what set a palla apart from a stola, "because I heard mum tell our slave about it. She's still a new slave, and she's from Britannia, so she doesn't know much. But we're all teaching her! And when we get home I'm going to tell her about the gladiators, and catamites too, right dad?" He gazed up hopefully at Titus, who merely coughed and gave a noncommittal nod. 

Any further explanations were cut short by the scuffle outside. Titus briefly considered stepping out and asking the plebs to take their dispute to a side street, but narrowly missed having his head bashed in by a young woman - perhaps the felt-up daughter - that had collided with the litter and then run off in an attempt to escape the situation. Fortunately, he was spared from having to do anything about it by the arrival of the vigiles, whose presence quickly dispelled the crowd as the two quarrelling men were taken into their custody.

Within a few seconds normalcy had returned, and as the slaves set about resuming their journey Titus came back inside, two worried faces immediately on him. "Some plebs having a row about a woman. The vigiles are hard at work, do you want to take the chance and tell them about your rotund Syrian?" he joked to Sestia, hoping to lighten the tense mood now that the ruckus was over and done with.

@Lauren

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Fortunately the fracas was soon past. She sighed, relieved. “It is the problem with public games,” she said in measured tones, “gives the plebs an excuse for a day off and the opportunity to drink for free. What do people expect? I imagine the Watch will have a busy night ahead of them.” She was just grateful it was nothing more serious. The mixture of blood-filled games and free flowing drink was rarely a mix designed to placate people. Not for the first time she wondered whether the government’s policy was really correct? Did these spectacles really placate the masses? It was a thin line between keeping them happy and instead riling them up. The events just now showed how quickly petty criminality could spring up when people were pumped up and drunk.

 

Oh, I wouldn’t waste their time on Fronto,” she said, smiling along with the joke, “if he has any sense then knowing the trouble he will be in he will now be halfway to Ostia to board the next ship for Syria. Sadly I am no stranger to this. I am sure he will slink home later tonight, hoping I am asleep and then will bother me with abject wailing and excuses in the morning until I relent. He plays off the fact I am too lazy to find another to replace him and demote him to somewhere more appropriate like one of our rural estates…or sell him off to the mines.”

 

She was conscious of saying nothing further, knowing how quickly the boy picked up on words and ideas, as evidenced by him repeating of the previous faux-pas.

 

“Dacia,” she said, “how wild! Now that is properly untamed country, so I hear?” One of the Empire’s more recent conquests, this mineral rich province formed a dangerously exposed salient of territory, thrust like a spear into the belly of the frozen, forested vastness inhabited by ferocious barbarians. Not just the bearded, brutal Germanic savages found along the Rhine frontier but the more mysterious and equally brutal Sarmatian steppe horsemen. From what she had read, the Dacians themselves had been a tough nut to crack. Bull necked savages, armed with fearsome flaxes, they fought half naked with only drunken valour to protect them. Even defeated they still posed a threat to the Empire and showed a distinct reluctance to be civilised. The province was held down more with force of arms than any other, save perhaps Britannia. Few were the cities and wonders of civic life that had grown up there. “Was it not awfully dangerous?

 

She thought back to her meeting with Governor Praetextatus earlier that day. His province of Rhaetia had been set back from the frontier. Calmer. Enjoying the fruits of civic virtue and progress. A place he had felt happy bringing his family to. She thought also of her father in the long-owned province of Proconsularis. It was so pacified that it was seen as an extension of Italia. Funny, considering it had once been the heartland of Rome’s greatest enemy. “I assume you did not bring your family there?

 

She couldn’t imagine the Valeria she knew being willing to abandon the luxurious trappings of the capital for a berth in a wind-swept Dacian barracks with icicles hanging off the bedposts and nothing to do but count trees.

 

How is Valeria,” she finally asked outright, her curiosity getting the better of her. “Do you have any more children besides this adorable one?”

@Liv

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Sestia was unfortunately right in her evaluation of what a day of rest and excess meant for the lower classes, and they would be lucky if this was the only incident they came across until they reached their final destination. She also seemed to have picked up on just how curious Publius could be, and spoke in vague terms of the punishment that awaited her Syrian slave. Good for him that his mistress was, by her own admission, too lazy to replace him with a more competent slave.

"Actually, I did. Not right away, though, it took some time to get settled." The element of novelty in both province and rank had been paramount in staving off the unexpected loneliness, and it was only after he felt a good enough foothold had been established that he had flouted the idea to his wife; besides, it would have been utter madness to have a pregnant woman make the month-long journey, many miles away from any sort of decent medical care that wasn't directed to combat injuries. "But four years is a long time to be without your loved ones," he admitted bashfully, ruffling his son's brown hair in an affectionate gesture at the same time. "I liked Dacia," the boy piped up. "But there's more things to do in Rome, so I like it better."

It hadn't been that dangerous. After all, the province had been officially conquered for over twenty years, and even though they strongly disagreed about that, the natives were cleverer and less reckless than for example the Britons, and preferred to wear out the legions with raids and skirmishes and cause localised disturbances rather than cover themselves in blue paint and idiotically face the Roman soldiers head on. "A little bit. The Dacians are a feisty lot, and they do not like us at all," he chuckled mirthlessly. "The farther inland we reach, the less happy they grow. They don't want to give up their mines, which is understandable. I wouldn't mind another posting there, though. Their wine is surprisingly decent." Oh, how nice it would be to resume unfinished business and tie any ends that might have loosened since his departure in the previous summer... in another two or three years, and provided the Augustus wished it so.

"Publius here has two sisters: Sulpicia, who turns fourteen this year, and Valeriana, who'll be five." Next to him, the boy was suddenly looking uncharacteristically miffed, and Titus thought he had an inkling as to why: in spite of his son's usually sunny disposition, no nine-year-old liked to be described as 'adorable'. Strong, smart or brave? Absolutely. Adorable? That was something saved for babies and blushing brides! Titus briefly pondered consoling him with praise of the less cutesy type before deciding against it; Publius would just have to learn to take things in stride, especially when they were well-meant like now, and the present time provided a marvellous opportunity to begin that lesson.

"She's been doing well. Very pleased to be back, as you can imagine." Not that she'd ever complained about her Dacian retreat of sorts, but there was only so much inspiration to be drawn from bucolic landscapes and retellings of what the pesky natives had been up to and how the great XI Claudia squashed their plans like bugs before dying of boredom. "Rome's a lot livelier, it suits her much better." And though he'd be hard-pressed to admit it readily to a near stranger, he preferred seeing his wife like this, all dolled up and running back and forth between parties and colloquies in between sessions of furious scribbling. "Our youngest doesn't quite feel the same way, though..." Titus sighed, scratching the side of his head. "She essentially spent her whole life there, and she had much more freedom to run about there, that much is true. I keep waiting for the day she finally gets over it." There had been progress made in the last few months, but every now and then she still clamoured after their old, temporary home. He would have to make sure that haughty witch wasn't putting ideas into Valeriana's head.

He smiled at Sestia, judging the moment to be adequate to make an invitation. "You should join us for dinner sometime soon. Valeria would be so glad to see you, and between the five of us there's enough tales from Dacia to cover an entire meal." Publius nodded, a little more enthusiastically. "Your sons are invited too, of course," he hastened to add lest she think him rude. "Though I don't know if they're the type to enjoy those stories. How are they finding Rome? Are they happy to be back, or do they call Africa home now?"

@Lauren

 

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Gosh, how brave. How exciting everyone else's life seemed to be, Sestia thought. Or maybe she had just be unfortunate. An older husband, bound to dull rural estates and then swooped off by her father to live under his watchful eye in Carthage which was basically just Rome but warmer and with more exotic animals. So the senator had brought his family all the way into those quasi-untamed lands. No matter how he may seemed to do it down, it was still at the rough end of things and far more likely to get heated than..say...Cisalpine Gaul?

She smile and nodded. "They are glad to be back. I think the only thing they liked about living with my father in Carthage is the licence he gave them to run amok amongst the province's garrison legion and auxilia. I suppose I should be grateful. It is rare that centurions take on childcare duties and it freed me up greatly! If I'd ever wonder where they were they would surely be shadowing some wizened old officer, mimicking his stomping along and being over-indulged by the men. I expect your boy is quite the same? All mad keen on taking their turn under the colours? Father was - in his own mind, anyway - born under the colours and so was only too happy to let them drink in camp life. I, however, had my doubts..."

Whilst the rank and file - particularly in a dull posting like Africa - were only too happy to spend their time making them miniature kits and having them run around with them, they were still lower class infantry at the end of the day. They drank heavily, they gambled, they swore, fought and fornicated with whores - the latter of which had an alarmingly easy habit of entering the camp and staying there for weeks on end. It was when she had gone looking for her boys one day to find them singing marching songs around a fire with half-drunken soldiers and bare-breasted whores that she had ensured that that was the end of that. The boys hadn't spoken to her for weeks afterwards.

"That is a very kind offer, thank you. Providing your wife is happy to as well, I should be delighted to come and bring my boys. By youngest is only a little older than your son. Although both could certainly benefit from knowing more boys around their own age now they are back."

"So, how do you occupy yourself now that you are back in civilian life? No imminent posting to rush off to again?"

@Liv

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If he had to be honest, Titus sympathised a great deal with Sestia's sons, herded away as they had been in Carthage. Peace could be so tedious, even with all the exciting tales the soldiers shared and the entertainment a big city provided. Even Rome, with its million inhabitants, could sometimes be as monotonous as a backwater Sicilian village, depending on what one's taste for entertainment was; gossip and scandal were never in short supply, but for action lovers it was either the games or the races. And for real action lovers, the legions were the way to go, and it seemed like Sestia's boys were eager to eventually follow the eagles. "I should hope so," Titus replied in a tone of false uncertainty as he cast a playful glance at his son. Publius did not appreciate being doubted and nodded indignantly, explaining to Sestia that he would 'when he was old enough'. 

"Not for the time being," Titus admitted with a somewhat wistful smile. It was a blessing and a curse, the relative idleness that the return to Rome had brought, and while there had been a lot to do, he hadn't been busy in the way he wanted: with tasks big and small to attend to and a sense of accomplishment when he completed them and the double-edged sword of being held accountable for good or bad decisions and the subsequent fates of many. But despite the political clout Sestia's father carried, even in his peaceful province of Africa, Titus didn't feel entirely comfortable putting all cards on the table with her - though she was by all means pleasant, eloquent and poised when not provoked by lazy Syrian slaves, he still did not know her very well, and it would be premature to say the least to immediately share his ambitions and plans.

How, indeed, did he occupy his time so as not to die of boredom? In a number of not-very-exciting ways. "I'm afraid civilian life is a bit... boring, to put it mildly. Besides the occasional senate meetings, I've been catching up with people I hadn't seen in years, visiting friends and family-" Titus tactfully omitted getting inebriated with said friends, or the find-a-bride quest he felt partially responsible for - "attending games and races, meeting with clients..." he trailed off, thinking not for the first time that it sounded even more inane when he put it into words. Privileged, yes, but inane.

Unusually, Publius pulled a sullen face at him. "We go swimming, too. And we fight," the boy mumbled, looking rather peeved that his father did not accord the same importance to these activities he did. "My apologies, of course we do," Titus corrected himself, sharing a look of parental understanding with Sestia. Play fights, obviously, but still very important fights! "When you get to my age, son, your memory'll be just as bad." The little boy giggled, his momentary bad mood dissipating. To a nine-year-old, anybody older than fifteen was ancient, especially his parents.

It would be good for his son to have new playmates, Titus mused, especially ones from far away, with stories of elephants and other exotic beasts. Experience told him the acquaintance would very likely be followed by an almost obsessive search for all there was to know about elephants, before Publius moved on to whatever subject next struck his fancy. He'd probably want elephant miniatures to play with, too. With any luck, one or both of Sestia's boys would have similar inclinations and they would get along well instead of getting on each other's nerves. 

The litter was now getting closer to its first stop, the bearers moving steadily up the hill. "So, when you're not attending the games, being invited to dinner or being let down by your good Fronto, what keeps you busy?" Thus far, he had a good impression of Sestia Vaticana, and he hoped Valeria would share it. She seemed to be a sharp woman with a life and interests beyond her children, and if it turned out that she too also had a fondness for the arts, then there was a good chance she and Valeria would get on like a house on fire.

@Lauren

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The litter was now drawing closer to her home, it would not be long now. The traffic was thinning as they got further away from the Arena. Although it was uphill, the burly bearers only slowed a fraction and continued to carry the litter with practised ease. After a long day and one on which she had drunk slightly more than usual, the swaying and rolling motion of its movement was having a lulling effect on her and she found herself growing sleepy. It had been a long time since she had spent the entire day at the Games. How much more exhausting would it have been if she had brought her children!

 

It was funny to hear him say how civilian life could be a little…becalmed. Ordinarily she did not expect men of her class to feel like that as they had such a larger degree of personal liberty to enjoy the delights of the city. Then again, she supposed that it was not long before such delights lost their charm. She was no Stoic philosopher, although she had read several of their prominent works. In these, the philosophers of that School had written of how the pursuit of pleasure was itself a prison: pleasures were fleeting and, in order to fill the void, humans were forever chasing them which itself brought suffering. If you accepted such a theory as fact then it was clear how quickly doing the rounds of Rome’s standard upper class pleasures soon lost their lustre. One party was much the same as another. One set of baths almost identical to another. The games and races were the same. Still, if Titus thought that his daily routine now home was restricting then he should consider how Roman women might feel!

 

“I can see how that could be the case. All too soon the novel becomes the familiar. There are too many eyes keeping people under close scrutiny here. I imagine – and I can say from experience – that you can avoid a lot of that out in the provinces. Live a little less restricted.”

 

So, yes, if he thought that his round of activities may be on the dull side, he should probably consider hers! It was shameful that a day like today should constitute something out of the ordinary for her! She longed to be able to list off a ream of intriguing and different things she was involved in but she was decidedly too deeply dyed in the wool of traditional Roman womanhood. She was not a follower of any bizarre cults. She did not have a lover, or army of them. She did not splurge her inherited money with public aplomb. How very dull!

 

“Oh, I fear that if you find your current round of activities on the dull side then you would surely think the same of mine! I must run the estate of my late husband on behalf of my sons and, added to that, keep an eye of that of my father’s whilst he is in Africa. There is the education of the children to look after and the running of our home. Gods, now that is all very tedious! It is a miracle that I haven’t taken to drink…yet! I jest. I get a decent amount of time to myself, it is true. I read a lot these days, a pleasure denied to me before as my late husband was not a man to share his library. If his shade has any problems with me flouting that rule now, he has not made himself known. But I suppose life here is much what you make of it? I am trying to find more outlets for being myself.”

@Liv

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Sestia seemed to have some strong opinions about the trappings of life in the public eye. Things were indeed more relaxed in the provinces - the worse connected to Rome, the calmer it got -, but all the upsides and downsides of polite company were still there, only more limited in scope. Rumours still got out, fashion still got in, and word travelled - and if you'd done anything especially outrageous, it travelled faster than Mercury himself!

Objectively, though, she had a point. Women were subject to more scrutiny and higher expectations than men, and reaped fewer and less publicly-acknowledged rewards for what they did accomplish. Yet, if he took a look at the women in his life, and Sestia for good measure, lack of drive or intelligence was definitely not the problem. Perhaps it was the rewards themselves that were insufficient... Or that the men in their families did not approve of them striving for something in the first place. Sestia's mention of not being allowed to peruse her husband's books in his lifetime hinted at that.

"You're quite right. As dull as I find my current activities, I wouldn't trade them for yours," he chuckled, putting up a leisurely hand as if to admit defeat and ask for clemency at the same time. "Though I cannot fathom why your late husband would not see it fit to share his library with you. Reading is essential to learning."

And for women especially, who did not have the same practical education a boy would eventually acquire, it was even more paramount, in Titus' opinion. A pretty woman with no knowledge of anything would serve as eye-candy only as long as her youth lasted; a learned woman of no remarkable physical charms could capture a man's attention even in her twilight days. Not to mention the impact her own education would have on her children's: would the Gracchi have turned out as they did if Cornelia hadn't been such a devoted mother?

"It sounds like you've got a lot on your plate already, however tedious it may be. Though I can't possibly claim to know what outlets you could explore aside from the obvious pair of literature and philosophy." In truth, Titus had more than a couple ideas, stemming from the prime example at home, but whatever Sestia ended up dedicating her time to was none of his business; he'd leave that for her father. Still, and taking into account the spirit she had shown since exiting the arena, she seemed like she could take a tongue-in-cheek joke. Titus couldn't help himself and gave her a small, crooked smile.

"However, and if you'll allow me to be so bold, you could always sponsor a gladiator or charioteer just for the fun of it. Give them old wagging tongues something to busy themselves with while you find more interesting activities to pursuit."

 

@Lauren

________

I'm so sorry, thought I had replied to this but my brain was fooling me!

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"Perhaps he just did not want me to see the sort of things he kept in there?" she joked. "Not that I think he had anything of an adult nature, shall we say? Most likely he probably had books of dare doing and adventure and thought that his reputation for being dull and cantankerous would be undone forever if people knew he liked that sort of thing!"

If it had been the former, it wouldn't have shocked her. Since receiving her "liberty", as she saw it, she had taken with gusto to renovating the family home in a more modern manner which included certain statues and pictures which verged on the more racy side of the artistic spectrum. This was not from harlotry on her side but more used as a symbol of her own freedom from the moral strictures of the patriarchy. If she wanted matching statues of well proportioned male nd female forms, then so be it.

She laughed at his last comment, a gentle, tinkling sound, throwing her head back and making the beads of her necklace jingle and shift across her bosom. It was, of course, one of the stock vignettes of scurrilous plays and poetry. The randy widow, investing her late husband's hard earned money, into a myriad network of slow horses and fast men with the ravenous appetite of a Gorgon. Like all good stereotypes there were those who conformed to it in its entirety. Most did so with a shameless abandon. She could recall one young widow she had met in Carthage who had fended off the attempts of her family to return home or remarry and had instead taken up with a series of louche young men, both free and servile, and had a habit of changing them as often as her outfit. Often she kept several at once. Her exploits were the talk of the city and, although she was so thoroughly set now beyond the bounds of polite society, she had not cared a single jot.

The idea of her taking up a similar lifestyle amused her. In reality it would never go anywhere. The first whiff of scandal and her father would either come back himself or else dispatch his minions to kidnap her and bring her back under his roof. Family dignity was worth that much to him. Part of the "deal" of her being allowed to return to Rome was to avoid anything which hinted at scandal. To use the phrase of the deified Caesar, she must be above suspicion.

"Well, the thought is enticing! I wouldn't know the first thing about either of those sports but I suppose, in the circumstances, that isn't exactly what someone in that position hopes to get out of it?"

The litter was now grinding its way through familiar streets and they were shortly to arrive at her domus.

"Titus Sulpicius, I really must thank you and your son again for being so gallant and helping a lady in need. Especially when it took you so out of your way! You both, and your wife of course, must do me the honour of a visit."

@Liv

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Jupiter and Mars above. Titus didn't quite fancy himself a prude, but Sestia's brand of libertarianism wasn't giving him a lot of options as far as Publius was concerned. Were her own boys already so enlightened in adult themes that she thought nothing of alluding to them in their presence? Not all were mature enough to handle 'the talk' yet, and if her sons were, all the more power to her; Publius definitely was not. And there was still the catamite thing to explain when they got home... Very much entrapped by morals, Titus could only look on in resignation and pray that his son didn't suddenly request a clarification as to what 'adult nature' was.

Forgiveness came in the form of her musical laughter, and Titus too found himself chuckling. He wouldn't hold her lack of self-censorship against her as long as she didn't hold his little joke against him, and as of that moment they seemed to be quite even. "If you're looking to supplement your income, it might be useful to get at least superficially acquainted with the most successful ludi and stables... If you were to do it for your own entertainment, I reckon prior knowledge isn't so important." Maybe he was wrong, but Sestia seemed to him like the type who would do such a thing just to confuse people - if it did not warrant a swift ear pulling from her esteemed father.

To Sestia's gracious thanks Titus replied with a polite dismissal. "Oh, don't mention it. A detour's nice on, especially in such pleasant company." Publius wasn't quite sure he knew what 'gallant' meant and made a note to ask his mother instead of his tutor - who would doubtlessly be less than impressed - but grinned just the same. "We'd be more than happy to. Name the time and day, and we'll be there."

The litter came to a halt, presumably in front of Sestia's house. Time did seem to go by faster when you were enjoying yourself.

@Lauren

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The curtains were drawn aside by a glum-looking Brysias who gave her mistress her hand to help her ease her way out of the litter. As she left she gave a wave to the young boy who smiled in reply. Titus had got out, as politeness dictated, to bid her farewell properly. She inclined her head in thanks. The exterior of the domus Afinii Gallii was not much to look at. Like most Roman mansions, the exterior was deliberately bland to give the impression of rustic virtue, whilst the interior could be as fancy as one liked. The porter, seeing her return, was opening the small door set within the larger trade entrance. By the sounds of the calls from the inside, the household slave team were being notified of the domina's return and were hurrying to their stations. The flow of human traffic in the street was mercifully much lighter here. You could actually hear the evening birdsong.

"Well, I will not labour my thanks then, Titus Sulpicius, if you were just doing your duty like a proper Roman. Send my regards to your wife and I can promise that an invitation will surely be with your family shortly."

With that and a final smile, she turned and headed indoors to see what awaited her.

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