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Early May, 74CE

Zia grinned at her son, holding his hand firmly but letting his little legs wander as he took in the sights and the smells of the military camp. To a child, what had happened and where they were now was some great, drawn out adventure. To Luto's four year old mind there was nothing sinister in all the men in their red cloaks, nothing malevolent in the tent in which they were hurriedly stored in with all of the other women and children. His big brown eyes took it all in as if he were living one of the great tales of heroism his father and grandfathers had told him. Little Luto even went so far as to wave at a few of the passing legionaries as they were escorted through the maze of straight lines to, what she presumed, was the commander's tent. Her smile was in part for the energy of her son, but also for the thought he'd be sleeping in a tent like the rest of them during this very uncharacteristic May rain which drizzled down on them, soaking man and woman alike to the bone. 

She'd not told anybody who she was since her arrival in this place, but presumed somebody else had spilled the beans. Probably Diegis, the idiot. She had considered it safer to be an anonymous woman and boy caught up in the chaos of the skirmish than one of its architects. That anonymity, clearly, was not to last. She'd not seen her husband since he was bundled away under a swathe of red cloaked men in stupid helmets, but she knew he'd seen his father and brothers fates. A small part of her ignited at the thought that it left him as the chief, a bigger part hoped he wouldn't prattle on about it too much. She'd heard rumours about what had happened to the chieftains of occupied provinces; paraded through the streets of Rome in chains. She hoped her husband had more sense than to prattle on about his family. 

Finally drawing to the tent she cast a dismissive glance over it, her nose wrinkling in displeasure. This was where the great and the good of Rome lived? She was a little horrified. Shunted through the flaps, her hand still clasping her sons, she blinked into the dim light. It was barely dawn outside, and the candles that lit up the canvas made it smoky and hard to see. She didn't recognise the man sat in front of her, but then they all looked the same in their silly little outfits to her. Luto, however, unfettered grinned at him and pointed at the crested helmet set aside, beaming whilst he asked in Dacian; "Can I play with it?" Zia yanked back his arm as he moved to touch it and reminded herself to drill some sense into her boy at the next opportune moment. 

She said nothing to the man and instead just arched a brow, waiting for his big speech. 

 

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Come to Dacia, they said. The wine is good and the weather mild, they said. The first part Titus could vouch for, the second - well, most of the time it was quite pleasant, but this annoying rain reminded him of dreary Britannia, and he longed for the spring sun to make an appearance again. It could be the handiwork of the natives, praying to their gods that the heavens would open up to drown their conquerors, but it took far, far more than a drizzle to stop the well-oiled destruction machine that was the XI Claudia. The Dacians were stubborn and hardy and had inflicted more than just a few casualties over the last years with their sabotage attempts and lightning-fast raids, but like so many other tribes before them, it was now the Ratacenses' turn to bow down and submit. With their leaders dead or captured, what was left of the tribe would suffer grim fates; slavery was probably the best they could hope for.

After all the dead and injured on both sides were accounted for, some groundwork remained. Breaking the chain of command where it still existed was one of the tasks, best achieved by separating husbands from wives, fathers from sons, siblings from cousins. The man who was now the leader of those yet alive - Diegis, as Titus' tribune had helpfully informed him - had witnessed the violent deaths of his father and brother, and if he wasn't totally defeated yet, he would be very soon. In both flesh and spirit.

Titus was pulled from his musings about the warrior's fate by the arrival of his disobliging guests: a tall, haughty-looking Dacian woman holding by the hand a small boy of three or four, whose attention was immediately captured by the crested helmet set aside, the metal gleaming in the dim candlelight. He gave the two a quick, dispassionate once-over and stood up from his seat, closing the distance to the pair with a few steps.

"Not today. You like it?" he asked the little boy in Dacian as he crouched in front of him, smiling back and enjoying the look of wonder in the child's face and the glances he kept stealing at the helmet with those wide brown eyes. "Even a little kid is awed by the might of Rome, as he very well should. He'll grow up under it." He switched to Latin and raised himself to full height again, turning the smile into a smirk directed at the woman. She looked supremely displeased that he had had the nerve to have her brought into the tent. Still clinging to whatever strands of tribal pride remained within her, Titus presumed, but slavery would beat it out of her in time. He turned his back on mother and child and sat back down behind his desk, all hints of leniency gone as he examined them with steely eyes, chin resting on his hand.

"Humour me," he continued. "You're the wife of the sod who's now theoretically chief and this is his son and heir. Correct?" The defeated Dacian chieftain had not said anything about who was left of his kin, but he did not need to: the desperate looks he had cast this pair when they'd been shepherded into the enclosure where women and children were originally kept and the subsequent relief and submission when he saw they were unharmed had spoken volumes. 

A wicked smile played on his lips. "So why should I spare you?" He would give her the chance to grovel and beg for their lives - at least the boy's, if not her own. Titus found that the humiliation of no longer being master of their fate broke these arrogant types better than any whip.

@Sara

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Zia only eyed him with a mixture of displeasure and apathy. Was he trying to be menacing? As he retreated back to his desk she shifted on her feet and let a hand move to run through Luto's dark curls both in a gesture of genuine maternal affection and to prompt him to stop looking at that bloody helmet. She listened to him but kept her face perfectly still, with zero reaction. She spoke Latin well enough; one couldn't really escape it anymore in Dacia and she'd found it useful. That wasn't to say she was prepared to speak it to him though and at the end of his question she just gave him a quizzical look and a shrug, as if she hadn't understood the question. 

But she couldn't keep the hint of concern that crossed her face at his second question. It belied that she did understand him and she looked down at the top of her sons hair before flicking hazel eyes back up to the man. 

She spoke in Dacian, refusing to use their language unless forced. "My son is four," She ran a hand through his hair again and the little boy giggled. "Would you club him to death? Cut  his throat? Crucify him?" She arched a brow in challenge at the man and knelt down so she was her sons height. She pinched his cheeks, prompting another giggle from him. "Luto, this man wants to hurt you." She glanced back at Titus and with a roll of her eyes, switched to Latin if only to prevent her boy from understanding, "Would you like to tell him how he's going to die?"

 

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For all her efforts at looking unbothered and unfazed, the alarm that flashed through the woman's face betrayed just how well she had understood him - yet another little piece of evidence to clinch his suspicions. A nobody of a Dacian matron with a dozen children and sagging tits would have just kept staring woodenly at him, but this one was too wise for that. The affectionate, protective gestures she lavished on the boy might under more favourable circumstances been endearing to witness, but in the there and then they displayed more helplessness than anything: like any good doting mother, she was trying to reassure her child when protection was no longer an option.

"That's up to you," he said simply with a shrug. Children were more valuable alive as slaves than dead as food for vultures, but if there was a risk of them growing up with their heads and ears poisoned against Rome, ready to take up arms against it when they became men... well, children were also very vulnerable. Fell prey to all sorts of illnesses. Titus would not personally torture a little boy - much less one the same age as his youngest, a could-have-been playmate if the world had been a different place -, but he would give the order and make the parents watch if they didn't see reason first. "Contrary to what you may think, I don't take any sick pleasure from having him killed. What Rome wants is peace - on our terms, of course," he smirked again, wanting to rile her up to the point where she would raise her voice and call him names and shatter the pretence of the dignified royal matron.

He crossed his arms, keeping his tone as unaffected as if he were discussing the weather. "So if having your boy gutted alive and pulled apart by oxen carts until his limbs tear from his body and he has no strength or tears left to cry anymore is what it will take for your little tribe to push aside your pathetic aspirations of dissuading Rome from expansion... well, what are we sitting here for?" Titus shook his head and made to stand, like a tutor fed up with a daft pupil. Would she take the bait? "I hope you can sleep at night, knowing his death is on you and your pride."

@Sara

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She listened to him, a little relieved that he kept going in Latin. Luto hadn't been taught it and so just stared blankly at the man, his big brown eyes reverting to the helmet every now and again like a magpie with some shiny trinket. But she understood him, and she wasn't impressed. She'd seen Diegis and her father before him make similar threats. She'd seen women cower in the years before Rome's expansion as their brats were taken off of them. She'd even had one of her own slaves blubber and cry and ask for news of her son, who had died a few months before and nobody had bothered to tell her. This little act, she knew, had real consequences for her son but she was not cowed and broken, crying hysterically. She faced him with a straight back and that mask women of rank so often wore; cold, stern and haughty. 

Shrugging at his threats, as if she was utterly unfazed by them (and only the slight tightening of her grip on Lutos hand said otherwise), she countered in Dacian; "I'm flattered you think a woman has such influence!" She scoffed and shook her head. Of course she did, but that was largely due to the novel nature of her relationship. 

It was always sensible to rely on the 'poor, simple woman' trope with men who liked to assert their authority she'd found. This was a prime opportunity and she sighed, her hand resuming its gentle stroking of Luto's brunette curls, "I suggest you speak with my husband," She narrowed her eyes on him a little - well, she wasn't going to pretend to be completely simple, "I presume you know who he is, why else would you bring us here?" She gestured around the tent, "I'm just his wife, and this is just his son. If you want peace I suggest you take it up with him." Diegis was a strong man, and a frighteningly effective leader. She doubted he'd cow to peace unless forced and the slight bubble of anxiety in her chest grew - who knew what would force his hand?

 

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Titus rose from his seat, taking leisurely steps towards the duo with his hands behind his back. She had guts, he would admit it, and her stubborn refusal to switch to Latin both amused and irritated him. He, on the other hand, was done stopping down to her level. "Have you ever heard of Fulvia or the deified Livia Augusta? Cleopatra?" History itself had proven three times in the last two centuries that women could and did have such influence. It would be foolish to discard the possibility simply because she was a barbarian. Yet a barbarian would likely have no knowledge of the events Titus was referring to; their education was focused on the practical and essential, and that lack of worldliness was also why all of them would inevitably fall under the eagle standards. 

"Oh, I know who he is. Diegis of the Ratacenses, son of Oroles, and now nothing but a powerless prisoner like so many others. Quick to rise, but quicker to fall." He stopped by the pair, smiling benevolently down on the boy before grabbing the arm the woman was caressing the child's head with by the wrist. "And I also know that if it hadn't been for your wheedling he would have seen the futility of your tribe's resistance a long time ago." He squeezed tighter, forcing her arm upwards until it was several inches above the child's head. Titus put his free hand on the boy's shoulder and gently but firmly pulled him away from his mother and closer to him. The little boy, uncomprehending, let himself be steered and merely looked at the two adults in turn.

So she was still playing innocent, despite having been made aware of how high the stakes were. "I had you brought here to see if we could come to a mutual understanding." Titus shrugged with one arm, finally letting go of hers. "You've had your chance. A shame you didn't take it." Still pushing the boy in front of him by the shoulders, he briefly stepped out of the tent, calling for his tribune Servilius as he did so. A whispered exchange saw the child delivered to Servilius, and it was only then that the poor thing realised something might be wrong. "Mama!" was his last desperate cry before the tribune yanked on his arm and dragged him off to somewhere else only the Gods knew.

If that didn't elicit a reaction from the woman, nothing would. There was the small chance that the boy was not hers and had just been given to her to bring up for her husband, but very few people could feel nothing at seeing a child they'd raised from a young age being dragged away by whom they knew to be the enemy. On the other hand, she might very well try to take off after the boy and retrieve him, and for that very reason Titus stood blocking her path out of the feebly-lit tent, arms folded across his chest with finality.

There was no more negotiating now.

"You should go and tell your husband how you lost his son. Wonder how he'll take the news..." 

@Sara

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That Zia managed to hold herself together until the last moment was a testament to her strength of character and viciously stubborn personality. It was only when her little Luto was being guided out of the tent and she had heard his cry for his mother that something in her snapped. The humiliation of being manhandled herself by this Roman brute was easy to bare, being looked down upon less so, but her son being abused ignited something primal in her, as it would for mothers the world over. She instinctively moved to rush out of the tent, and even as her path was blocked she tried to push him out of the way with all the force her frame could provide. "L-Luto!" She hit him square in the arm, and may well have caught his face as she tried to shove him out the way to reach her son whose crying could be heard drifting into the sounds of the camp.

 She pushed and pushed until she realised the futility of her endeavour and slunk back, kicking anything she could find on the floor of the tent in abject frustration and misery as she ignored his jibe. "He's my son!" She choked in Dacian, tears pricking her eyes, "He's a boy! Do you not have children? Are you that monstrous?" She spat at him in Dacian as her eyes flitted over his tent. She wanted to make him hurt, to make him suffer as she was suffering. Her eyes caught on the eating knife that lay discarded on his desk and she stowed that piece of information for later.

Shaking her head and desperately trying to keep from crying she sunk to her knees on the floor. Diegis would never forgive her, she knew that. She didn't know if she could forgive herself and shook her head, muttering under her breath in Dacian: "If you touch one hair on his head I will..." She'd what? Stab him and end up nailed on a cross somewhere, choking to death? Curse him? She'd what? She didn't know and fell silent. Spending a few moments, silently collecting herself, she finally turned hazel eyes up at him with a look of such hatred it was as if she was trying to make him explode from her anger; "What do you want from me?"

 

TAG: @Liv

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The woman's reaction was what he had hoped for, but not quite dared to expect. Only when her son cried for her and vanished out of sight did she crack, and violently. The strength behind her blows came from desperation, and though Titus barely flinched, he felt them wherever she managed to land them: arm, upper chest, jaw. In a few hours a purple bruise or two might make an appearance. Had he known it would turn out like this, he would have kept his armour on just for the petty pleasure of hearing her hands smash against the hard metal.

Titus said nothing as the woman gave up leaving the tent and started taking out her anger on his possessions. He didn't understand that last question - 'monstrous' had never made to his mental compendium of the Dacian language -, but her tone belied what she thought of him. Yes, he did have children. He had a son, too. And that was why he had suddenly changed his mind, bluffed his hand; if the same results could be achieved by simply hiding the little boy away for a while, saving him for later use as a bargaining chip if needed... a four-year-old posed no threat and could still be easily moulded into a fine slave. But the woman had no need to know that just yet.

More sadistic men might have felt the urge to kick the woman while she was down or pull her roughly by the hair and force her to stand. Stepping closer to her and stopping about two feet away, Titus had no such inclination; given the level of her despair, that sort of physical punishment would probably not have registered with her.  He stared at her impassively, eyes searching for any further signs of defeat as she knelt on the dusty floor. If looks could kill, Titus would have been painfully murdered a thousand times over in those few seconds.

"The same as I want from your man and the rest of your kin. Complete and utter submission." A stop to the skirmishes, to the raids, to the furtive attacks, to the traps laid by newly-built Roman roads, to the fight for domination of the land.  The woman looked broken and defeated - either that or she was an awfully good actress -, but was she really ready to surrender? 

"Do I have that from you now?"

@Sara

 

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Zia had to concentrate on his words. The blood humming in her veins and the furious beating of her heart almost drowned him out. Submission. It was an almost alien word to her. She'd been born into the lap of luxury (by Dacian standards at least) and her father had encouraged and indulged her intrigues and schemes. The first years of her marriage had been difficult and fraught with fiery tempers, but come the last few years her husband never asked for her submission. And now she had to give it, to a man that had dragged her son away as if he were a child's doll. 

Her mind fleetingly went back to the knife. She could, perhaps, reach it before he stopped her. She supposed even a small incision into her throat would do the trick, or one quick thrust through her chest. The idea that she could use it against him was expunged; to take her own life was honourable, to die nailed to a cross choking and suffocating was not. But then what of Diegis? What of Luto, if he had not already been dispatched? The latter was the only thing that made her hesitate. 

It had been several minutes of quiet contemplation when she finally spoke again. This time, she spoke in Latin; surely a positive sign for him. "Yes." She said with a lump in her throat which she could barely swallow, but reached down a hand to push herself up on wobbly legs. When she was at her full height she swayed, almost as if drunk, as if the raw emotion in her was making her quiver. "If Luto lives, you have my submission and you will have my husbands." Diegis would listen to reason. There would be opportunities, ways to make them pay. But what would be the point if his heir was dead and buried? Her mind worked over all the possible outcomes of this, and settled on that submission was the only option should he agree to her terms. "You keep him safe and," She shrugged her shoulders and sighed with a slump, "You have the Ratacenses. You agree?" She eyed him, fury mixed with complete and utter desolation. But beneath it, there was a fire. She would find a way out of this, for everybody. 

 

TAG: @Liv

Edited by Sara
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He could almost see the cogs and wheels turning inside her head, weighing the pros and cons of his demand. On one side of the scale, the life and well-being of her son; on the other, the very identity of her people and her own as chieftain's wife. From what he had seen thus far, Titus reckoned she had made up her mind quickly, only pretending to be stalling in an attempt to annoy him. 

Titus debated reminding the woman that she was in no position to make demands, that he could have her little family torn apart and crucified within minutes with only a few words... but that would have been playing into her hand, confirming her ideas of the eagle legions' brutality. Best to keep her guessing - if she used her brain to try and see ahead of his next move, it would be too busy to plot some useless but bothersome uprising.

"Good. I'm glad we could come to an agreement," Titus replied dispassionately, choosing to disregard the outwardly signs of the storm that brewed inside her as she pushed herself up to face him at her full height. How much of it was pain and how much of it was pride, he frankly did not care. "Your people dispel your silly notions of resistance once and for all, and Luto will be safe. You'll have to take my word for it, though," he taunted, a sardonic smile dancing on his lips. She would indisputably like nothing less than to put her trust in a filthy Roman, but she had no other viable choice when her son's life depended on it. He nodded faintly, more to himself than at the woman, and stepped back to lean his lower back against his desk, not letting the captive out of his visual field. She might think him appeased and try to do something reckless, and that was not an option.

Another line of thought was already running parallel to this inside his head: what to do with the boy. In Dacia he would be too great a liability, far too close to his parents' sphere of influence. No, he would be sent to Rome, where he could be taught all the makings of a civilised man and have any remaining sense of barbarian pride stripped from him; he was just at the perfect age for that, too. An educated slave, perhaps? From what little Titus had seen, Luto had been curious but trusting and well-behaved; he would adapt quickly to his new circumstances, whatever they ended up being.

Even if the boy's fate was more or less decided, his mother's was a different story, and Titus had a couple of ideas in mind - but he would let her reactions sway his judgement like some morbid game of cat and mouse. He bit a fingernail, pretending to be deep in thought, and eyed her with a predatory smirk. 

"Should we go and tell your husband the good news now? Or would you rather wait until I've figured out what to do with you?"

@Sara

Edited by Liv
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Zia's shoulders slumped a little as he agreed to her terms, partly in relief and partly out of defeat. For all her intelligence she had never foreseen (or at least not contemplated seriously) that there would come a time where she willingly made a deal with a Roman. she had always hoped they'd win, disrupting the Roman's occupation to the point they withdrew. And if they didn't succeed? She always thought she'd have the strength to end her own life before allowing herself to be forced into this position. What she had not factored into her planning, of course, was that deeply primal urge of motherhood. Her little Luto had never been threatened before and she'd never have to consider how it would make her feel. She felt humiliated, that it had impacted her quite so much, but Diegis would understand. Luto was his heir, and whether this Roman understood it or not, their people would consider him their leader years after she, her husband and even the Roman himself was dead and buried. He needed to be preserved, at all costs. 

Eyeing him, she scoffed and folded her arms over her chest defensively. "You know what you will do with me already." She shook  her head as she spoke in accented, but good Latin, "You play games with captives to make yourself feel important, that is not the sign of a powerful man." She added with revulsion. 

But a thought entered her mind and she tipped her head to the side, studying him. "You have my submission - you'll have my husband's but it means nothing if you keep us here." She shrugged her shoulders and tapped her fingers against her folded arms, "What point is there in getting the submission of captives? If you want my," She hesitated before adding, "My husband's people to stop then you need to put him back with his people." She swallowed and added, "And I want to see my son. To ensure his welfare." She didn't trust this tosser as far as she could throw him and as much as the thought made bile rise in her throat, her son could already be dead and cold. If the tables had been turned, and she had been stood there so imperiously, this one's children would already be in the afterlife and she'd not have hesitated even a moment. 

 

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Deep down, in his heart of hearts, he knew there was a sliver of truth to what she accused him of. Yes, it was an ego boost to be acknowledged, respected even if it came from rank and hierarchy, listened to - important. But this, Titus felt, was far from being the main reason why he had been taunting her. Plainly and simply put, it was fun. She had come into his tent all haughty and arrogant, and forcing down her mood to a more appropriate level had turned out to be its own little kind of gladiator match, only they'd been been sparring with words and threats rather than swords or tridents.

He would clarify things for her lest she labour under the illusion that his pride was as easy to deflate as hers. "You're mistaken," Titus countered mirthfully, unable to keep his mouth from widening into a grin. "I play these games because they amuse me." And the harder the struggle, the sweeter the victory. If she had cooperated right from the start, things would have come to a close a lot more quickly, but they also would not have been nearly as entertaining. 

She raised a good point, though. Nothing like parading the chief captives in chains and shackles to make the other captives understand what awaited them - and whilst he very much would have liked to make this woman and that dog Diegis do like Vercingetorix with a little procession through the camp while his men jeered and booed (and might still do), there was another punishment he could think of that would gain favour among soldiers and officers alike. He wanted to rile her up a bit more before handing her over.

"In case you have forgotten - as you seem to have -, you don't get to dictate anything around here anymore," Titus stated in a soft, patronising tone as if he were dealing with a particularly thick person or a spooked beast. "I can put him back with your kind, as you suggest, absent tongue, eyes or both arms. Or you can bite your tongue and suffocate in your own blood for all I care, and never know if your son lives or dies. It's all the same to me," he explained, illustrating just how little he thought of them all with a carefree, sweeping hand gesture. "I already gave you my word he will be safe. It hardly surprises me that for you barbarians that means nothing, but we Romans take these promises very seriously." Until said promises stopped being convenient, but that was neither here nor there.

Patience finally wearing thin, he slid off the desk and stood up straight, eyeing the woman with finality. He was done arguing with her; the more time he allotted her, the more she would think she had a say in what would happen, and he thought she was already delusional enough as it was. "Out. In front of me." Titus motioned to the entrance to the tent with his head and the stark look on his face told her this was not a suggestion or a request. If she dallied or refused, he would manhandle her out of there and humiliate her even further in front of the many eyes that would doubtlessly turn their way when they went outside. Her choice, really.

@Sara 

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She listened to him, the muscles in her jaw and neck working as she grit her teeth. Gods this man was insufferable. She tried to let the dismissiveness of his words and tone roll off of her, but at his affirmation she would not be seeing her son, her face fleetingly fell into despair. Whilst she was largely angry now rather than upset, any mention of poor little Luto felt like hands squeezing her heart like a vice. "If you break your word..." She muttered with a glare, her eyes flashing with danger. The rest of the threat was left unsaid but he should be under no pretence that if even one hair on his head was broken, she'd make sure he suffered to his very last breath. 

Still not understanding his plan, given it seemed completely nonsensical to her (why take captives if you wanted submission? What use would that serve in the domination of the free survivors of her tribes?) she reluctantly glanced at the opening at the tent at his barked command. 

Pushing her hair over her shoulder, she took her time to adjust the fine dress she'd donned for the festivities last night (which was now, to her displeasure, streaked in the mud and grime of the camp). At least the ornate jewellery she wore around her throat and wrists - given her position in the tribe - was still gleaming in the dim light of the tent. She had been surprised they had yet to be confiscated, but it had only been a few hours since the late night raid and she suspected, with annoyance, that they'd be adorning some ugly little Roman woman by the close of the day. 

Hesitantly, but trying to hide her nerves, she move to stride out of the tent, letting the flap hit Titus behind her as she did so. What was the meaning of this? Walking to her death, probably, but why toy with her so if that was the case? She mustered up enough courage to look unphased as she blinked into the early morning light. She'd go to her Gods with strength and pride, not cowering and afraid. At least that was the plan, she couldn't help the flutter of her heart against her chest. She tried to ignore the grunt of, "Oi, oi!" as she stood waiting for direction. 

 

TAG: @Liv

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If he broke his word, then what? Would she, this conceited shrew of a woman, unleash terrible punishment upon him? Even if she had been a priestess with a direct channel to the gods, and Titus very much doubted that was the case, all she had were empty threats and no conceivable way to make good on them, unless she went as far as to cut off her nose to spite her face. 

But she wasn't entirely stupid, and so she obeyed and left the tent after composing herself, though there was less certainty in her step than she pretended. He followed close behind to make sure she wouldn't try and leg it - a very foolish decision given the place where they were, but cornered beasts hardly thought logically. Unfortunately he failed to account for petty aggression tactics in the very short distance that separated them, and caught a face full of soggy leather as the tent flap smacked loudly against his skin and left it smarting. Bitch.

Well, if she wanted to be petty, so could he.  Busy as she was schooling her posture into looking unaffected, she never noticed him skulking up right behind her and shoving the tip of his boot into the bend of her knee (or where he thought it was, hidden from view by her clothes). The result was as expected: a glorious face-plant onto the muddy ground, and her clothes, ornaments and face instantly stained a mucky brown - and a cacophony of laughing sounds from men passing by or watching from a respectful distance. "Watch your step. It's slippery." He sidestepped her prone form with ease and raised a hand half in greeting, half in request to wait at the camp prefect that was just walking by a few yards away. The middle-aged man stopped in his tracks and let out a hearty guffaw at the sight of their captive covered in mud. Not even the battle-hardened prefect was above childish humour, especially after a night as tense as the previous. 

He approached the prefect and cast a dubious glance at the Dacian woman, letting the other man know what would be the subject of the conversation. "I want every single piece on her written down and accounted for, and signed by two unrelated men." Although it had happened almost a decade ago, that little episode in Britannia during his time as quaestor had imparted the significance of irreprehensible bookkeeping, and though he may have many shortcomings, that would not be one of them. "Gold or silver, big or small, don't let anyone get their hands on them until we've tallied up everything." The prefect nodded his assent, knowing that obeying his orders might just net him a larger pool of spoils as reward for his loyalty. 

Titus then raised his voice so the woman would hear them, but didn't bother to look at her. "What are you called, Dacian?" Not that it really mattered, chances were she was getting a new name anyway. He turned his attention back to the prefect. "Think she's good enough for the lads?"

The middle-aged man's bushy eyebrows raised in suggestion and he gave a lewd smile from which a couple of teeth were missing. "A new face's always popular, legatus, and she's not half-bad looking. Might clean up nicely behind all that mud."

Titus gave a chuckle of his own and turned his head to glance at the woman. "You hear that? You'll be making lots of new friends from today on, starting with good Lurius here."

The prefect's brows shot up into his forehead, almost reaching his receding hairline. "Truly, sir? First pickings for me? I-I mean, sec-- no, thirds, after you and tribune Servilius, sir!!" The man flustered a ruddier red than his rank should permit, evidently elated at the prospect. 

"Oh, I've already had my fun," Titus merely smirked enigmatically, eyeing the woman with a mean twinkle in his eye.

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Zia lay prone in the mud, mouth open in shock, feeling the colour rise in her cheeks. She lay there for a moment, gathering her mental fortitude and listening to the laughs echoing around her from the men that milled about in the camp. Unsteadily, she pushed herself up, her hands slipping in the mud until she was kneeling. She felt humiliated, but most of all she was furious. Nobody humiliated Zia, daughter of Brindis, Chief of the Appuli, wife of Diegis. At least they never used to. She wiped her muddy hands on the back of her dress, mercifully still clean, and then set about removing as much of the rancid muck from her mouth and face as she could. She paid no attention to Titus beyond shooting a glower up at him as he asked her name. "Zia." She spat back at him, literally, trying to remove the mud from her lips. 

But the second time he spoke, she couldn't help the quizzical frown that creased her brow as she looked, panicked, between the hideous little man and the Roman who had humiliated her. "Wh...what?" Her eyes widened a little and she fought, hard, the urge to bolt. There was nowhere to run. She had anticipated death, she had not anticipated being cast as a whore. He was good, she begrudgingly admitted, he evidently knew what she would find the most repulsive, the hardest thing to endure. "And if I refuse?" She choked out, but the ramifications were implicit and she regretted asking; undoubtedly Luto would be in for it, as would Diegis and herself. 

Lurius, undeterred by the panic in her eyes and her stubbornness in refusing to stand, yanked her up by her arm which made her wince, and started pushing her towards a cluster of tents a little way off. When there - she wobbled a little on the spot as she was summarily stripped of her valuables and dress, before a hastily fetched bucket of water was dumped over her in an effort to rid her of the mud. Whilst she stood there chattering but at least clean, the men in the tent set to counting out the value of her jewellery. She glanced to the flap of the tent, open and fluttering in the wind and wondered how far she'd get before they caught up with her. She'd hardly be a subtle absconded - naked and female - and the thought ended almost as soon as it begun. Keep going for Luto, you have to do this for Luto.

With that in mind, she let herself be pushed down to the floor by Lurius once the others had left, and screwed her eyes shut, trying desperately to think of happier times.

 

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June, 74 AD

Titus took in his surroundings, filtering out the hubbub of furniture being dragged and moved and trunks being filled amidst the shouted orders of the most senior slaves. Although he had only spent a fraction of his time in Dacia in the villa, it was bittersweet to see it coming to an end and say goodbye to the place his family had called home for four years. By the time the next month came to an end they would be back in their real home - Rome. Not all were equally pleased by the move, but it was happening, and the only thing that remained was tying a few loose ends. As if on cue, a guard came into the courtyard and announced his presence with a salute, presenting one of said loose ends to Titus as he turned around and returned the salute. He smirked at the woman the guard had brought and dismissed the man, who went back to his post, leaving the two to stand in the large open space, an island of stillness among the commotion caused by preparations for the move.

"Long time no see, Dacian. Fia, right? Or was it Zia?" Provided she hadn't been given a new moniker yet. A slave's name was whatever its master wanted it to be, anyway. Titus seized her up with a clinical look as if he were appraising a horse or a new supply of weapons. "It seems like you had a good time with my legion. I heard rave reviews of your performance." She looked a little less haughty now, just as he had hoped she would, but the fire of defiance in her gaze had not been fully extinguished yet, despite the ordeals she had endured in captivity. But that was all right - he had a trick up his sleeve of an entirely different variety from what the legionaries had been producing from under their subligacula that he was keen to show her, if she insisted on keeping up the petulant act.

"I've got news for you. What would you like to hear first, the good or the bad?"

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Zia blinked around the courtyard of the villa, taking it in. After a month and a bit of living in a dark, muddy tent and the camp this place - whatever it was - looked like a palace to her. She'd not been told where she was going but she had a strong suspicion. She was glad of the use of the cart that had brought her here; the soldiers who had accompanied her evidently understanding that her wobbly legs after weeks of sitting (or lying) still and the trek to villa would take her far too long. Still, the relief of being pulled via cart didn't much help her appearance. Gone were the ornate jewels and fine dress, instead she had been given a tunica that resembled a sack far more than a dress, itch included. Her hair was matted and an ugly blue bruise spread across her jaw to her split lip from a particular legionary who took her submission as a challenge rather than a given. 

When the Roman whose name she'd been able to establish through conversation with the other girls, was Titus...something, appeared she stood up a bit straighter. The weeks led on her back had been hard, emotionally and physically (the ache between her thighs hadn't dissipated despite the cart ride) but she was still Zia, and she was still proud. 

She only stared him down as he spoke and arched a brow at his jibes. Speaking in Dacian she shrugged her shoulders, "Ah well, it is easy to please when their cocks are the size of my finger." That might have been a touch too far but she wasn't about to take a knee for him or mutter placidly and she was determined to not show just how hard it had been on her, even if the slight unsteadiness on her feet and the tightening of her bruised jaw was a sign it had been. If he wanted to needle her, then she'd do so back. Still, as she surveyed the courtyard as he spoke she waved a hand, "The good please, Titus." 

 

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He bit his lip to keep himself from chuckling. "Well, I can see why you'd say that, suppose they all feel like that when you're that loose." The bruise on her face might be the newest of many, the old ones now healed, or it might be a standalone thing; either way, it was proof that the legionaries had not accorded her particularly favourable treatment on account of whatever status she had previously held. With her middling clothes and unkempt hair, this Zia was now a fair cry from the defiant woman who had walked into his tent over a month before.

His eyes narrowed and all traces of humour vanished from his expression as a wave of chilly, self-possessed anger washed over him. So she fancied herself a comic, this barbarian cunt. How satisfying it would have been to slap away that arrogant look of hers, make the blood spurt again from her mouth like a flower in bloom... but she was the type to relish the knowledge that she'd got under his skin, and so Titus opted to swallow his ire instead, the feeling like bile pooling on his stomach. He would let her have her fun once and not a single time more. "Say that again and I'll have your tongue cut off. It's not like you'll need it where you're going, anyway." 

Time to break the news, then. He faced her unblinkingly, only a very light suggestion of amusement in his otherwise stern tone. "I'm going back to Rome, and you're coming with. Need a few more household slaves." Plus, he wanted to keep an eye on her, just like the saying recommended - friends close and enemies closer still. "That's the first piece. The second is that your husband's coming too, but don't count on a happy reunion - actually, don't count on a reunion at all," he added quickly before looking her over from head to toe slowly, stopping at her face and waist for a fraction of a second longer as he curled his lip in disgust, as if the Dacian were a steaming pile of dog shit ruining a morning stroll. "Doubt he'll want anything to do with you now."

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She curled her lip in revulsion at his jibe. Although she supposed it was better he thought her used up in that capacity than the reverse. She honestly couldn't imagine anything worse than being led prone under his sweaty form as he pounded away. Well, besides perhaps Lurius who had been a frequent visitor and on two occasions had caused her to violently wretch after the act. 

What she hadn't been expecting, however, was his very obvious irritation at being called his name. She couldn't help the smile on her lips, even as the threat left his own and she only held up her hands as in mock defence, "I thought it was your name!" She explained in Latin, feigning ignorance (although the mischievous glint in her eye and smirk on her lips told otherwise). "The other girls used it when they were talking about you, so I just assumed." Good. Let him wonder just what the camp whores said about him. "What is your name? If you don't wish me to call you..." She narrowed her eyes, enjoying every second of this, "That.

But as the conversation rolled onto the news he so clearly wished to impart into her, she found herself folding her arms over her chest almost protectively - a barrier to keep him out, even if his words got in. A household slave. She couldn't, much as she might like to, mask the disgust that extended over her features. Not two months ago she'd had her own slaves, a whole menagerie of them, and now she was to take their place. If they could hear this, she was under no illusion that they would have been delighted and gleeful. That Diegis was going with her was an enormous relief and despite him saying there was no hope for a reunion, she was a woman of ways and means. She frowned though, although concern lingered for her cousin Tarbus, there was a bigger omission in the names he listed (or failed to). She ignored his jibe about her again and waved a hand as if dismissing him, before it returned to fold across her chest. She felt the molten hot weight of dread sink like a stone in her stomach as she ventured; "And the bad news?"

 

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He was willing to bet pure gold that this wench had never been innocent in her life, not even as a newborn babe. Whether she was used to fooling most men with her wiles, Titus couldn't tell, but he found it very hard to see anything in her other than a snake permanently readying its next strike, ready to inject its venom into less-advised victims. It would not outside the realm of possibility that under the cover of her gender, the Dacian had conspired with her husband and his family to cause trouble for Rome. From their interactions thus far, she certainly seemed to be calculating enough for that, and that bastard Diegis had some measure of concern for her... This was an insight worth diving deeper into, if only to keep an even closer eye on her when she joined the other slaves in his household.

"Don't act all coy, we both know it's not who you are." And no matter how hard she tried to bait him with her sneaky words, his pride won over curiosity - he had no interest in knowing just what 'the other girls' had been saying about him. It wouldn't have been anything nice or worth knowing, anyway. Women were prone to wagging their tongues at leisure and good things seldom came out of such gossiping sessions; he couldn't imagine that a ragtag band of camp whores would fare any better. "You will call me dominus." Titus ignored her question; she knew the answer already, and if she had any wits about her she would hear what was left unsaid and drop the subject. If she didn't, he would have to make good on his threat.

Try as she might to hide it, to a reasonably trained eye the signs of unease were easy to spot to the point of obviousness. Folded arms, pretence of control, clear displeasure  - and, maybe, just a very small hint of panic - in her expression. She was not liking this one bit, and Titus allowed himself to savour the moment, an eerie calm before the storm came crashing down upon her. He schooled his face into a carefully impassive one, more adequate to what he was about to say. The gravity of the message would hit her much harder and faster than if he were laughing like a madman. Its delivery was as flat as the packed dirt beneath their feet. All that was left was for her mask to drop.

"Luto... is no more."

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To Zia, the earth was spinning out of control; slipping out from under her feat, whirring past her head at speeds incalculable and the only thing that remained solid in her field of vision was him. Him. She fell to her knees on the packed dirt, her tunica dirtied beyond its already sad state as she placed her palms into the mud and wept. Her sobbing was so inconsolable that for a brief moment - not that she heard it - the sounds emanating around her stopped as slaves paused their tasks to look out on the scene in the courtyard with a mix of curiosity and concern. "Y-You promised." She spat through her sobbing, and finally turned a tear streaked face up at him.

Whilst usually a master of restraint, every aspect of her life carefully planned and orchestrated with detailed planning, the guttural pain that felt like a white hot sword through her stomach was too much for her. Without thinking, she pushed herself up from the dirt and closed the gap between her and Titus. Whilst shorter - she was nonetheless statuesque for a woman and could meet his eyes. She moved to firmly push him back, wide hazel eyes desperate but filled with an uncontrollable agony. 

"HE WAS A BOY." She shoved him again, as much as her slight frame would allow, her voice commanding and gathering strength. The noises around them stopped again as slaves stopped to observe. "He was my son, he was four." She spat her words at him and didn't move to wipe her eyes which were still streaming tears. She didn't notice that she was already talking about her son, her precious little Luto in the past tense. 

"I...I need to see him, where is he?" The desperation in her voice was stinging.

 

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Titus almost regretted his words with the heartbreaking show the woman was putting on. He really had thought the self-satisfaction of hitting her where it hurt the most would not feel this... bitter, but he had turned out to be wrong. Maybe it was because he too was a parent and could relate to everything the Dacian was going through and had overestimated his ability to distance himself from that fact. As it was, his single comfort was knowing that the scenario had robbed her of the will to resist, for the time being at least. The future had suddenly become difficult to predict, but Titus hoped there would be no revenge in the form of rebellion in it. 

The ruse had achieved the desired result, though, and so it would have to be kept up until moods had calmed and behaviours had changed, however long it took. Titus's face remained a wax mask, even under the watchful eyes of other slaves, distracted from their tasks by Zia's pitiful sobbing. "Only the gods have power against disease, not mortal men." In a metropolis like Rome, all sorts of pestilence claimed lives on the daily - it would be nothing out of the ordinary to add a little boy to the statistics. Best to let her and the rest of her ilk think he'd perished to swamp fever or dysentery. By Mars, for all Titus knew, the boy might have even fallen ill for real since the last letter he had received from his associate in the capital. 

First shock, now anger. He watched wordlessly as she pushed herself up, the very picture of anguish with her wide eyes and untold pain swimming in them.  The first shove caught Titus by surprise, making him take a step back to regain his balance. He had not expected her to do that nor had he expected her newfound strength, undoubtedly born out of despair. The second time he was not so passive, and returned her pushing and angry words with a punch to the jaw that connected very satisfactorily with the bone underneath and sent her reeling. 

The world around them was silent for a split second, and as if directed by an invisible conductor, the slaves suddenly returned to their tasks all at once, some a deal louder than they had been before. The taut string had snapped, the tension had come and gone, and life could resume its pace. For some.

"You can't. He's not here." Let her think he'd already been buried or cremated or whatever it was these people did. That would have to suffice.

Amidst the background cacophony, a familiar sound grew louder and nearer - the pitter patter of small feet running at full speed towards them before coming to a sudden halt as outstretched arms made contact with Titus' leg in a poor mimicry of a braking mechanism. His youngest daughter looked up at him, then at the slave woman, and astutely summed up the situation in a single childish word.

"Ouch."

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Zia's mouth filled with blood as she bit down on her tongue - mid speech - at his punch. The blow sent her stumbling until she sat back in the dust of the compacted dirt courtyard, blinking against the pain and shock. It occurred to her that he had never directly, physically hurt her and she had bet on the fact he wasn't the type to - rather he seemed a man to outsource misery; one could sleep soundly at night if they weren't themselves raping a woman, but instead allowed a horde of legionaries to. Not that it mattered much, the ache of her jaw and tongue as she spat blood into the dirt was a minor pain compared to the despair eating away at her. 

Fury well and truly dampened like a flame and wet fingers, she instead retook to crying. Her shoulders jerked uneasily as she sat crumpled in the dust, tears streaming down her cheeks. Her voice - hoarse and speech lisped at the bite on her tongue was pathetic; "He was a boy..." Was all she could muster, sobbing to herself. He was a boy, a sweet, utterly innocent child who was now as cold as marble and alone. The thought of him, afraid, calling for his mama in his last breaths sent her head into her hands, wracked with pain. And now she would't even be able to see him, to say goodbye. 

The pitter patter of childish feet didn't rouse her, nor did the 'ouch'. Her head lay crumpled in her hands, shoulder shaking. When finally she did look up, at the sound of childish curiosity and a "Papa, who is that?" She found herself at the receiving end of a finger thrust in her general direction. It was a little girl, of an age similar if not identical to her sons. Fortunately for Zia, the blonde haired little girl looked nothing like her son and that was a small mercy - lest she think for a moment that it had been some horrible mistake and Luto was standing before her. 

Turning bloodshot, watery eyes up to Titus - still standing above her she sighed with crumpled features and spoke quietly, resigned, in Dacian; "Your daughter?" 

 

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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?" 

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One of them. So the Gods had blessed this monster with more than one child, whilst hers lay dead and cold without her. Where was the Gods mercy? Their sense of righteousness? But as he leaned closer she felt herself flinch backwards, as if her body was involuntarily afraid of another hit, physical or verbal. Confusion crossed her face, genuinely dazed at the intonation she would do anything; "I...I wouldn't, s-she's a child." She replied in Latin. It didn't dawn on her that in years gone by, she would have caused mothers pain. The raids she had helped organise that stripped the life from Romans, the slaves she separated for her own household...but that was different, she would never, herself, cause pain to a girl or boy.

As the little girl spoke again, Zia raised her fingers self consciously to try and wipe away the blood that smeared her lips but she must be talking about the blossoming bruise across one side of her jaw, and the rapidly forming one on the other side. "I-I did. Too many bl-blueberries." She said to the girl, swallowing and looking up at Titus as if for affirmation. She felt so...defeated. So destroyed, she didn't have the fight in her for a witty retort. 

Instead she just looked up at him with red eyes and mumbled; "I need to wash and sleep...please." Her time in the camp had hardly been restful and the ache between her thighs only compounded the pain of her jaw and the hollowness that seeped in and pooled in her stomach. There was no fight left in her, for now.

 

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