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Early January, 76AD

Lucius glanced over his shoulder at his daughter, gripping tightly to the hand of her slave, "Keep up." He ordered with the authority of a man speaking to the senate rather than a six year old girl. Gessilla hurried her pace as much as she could, as did the slave and Lucius flicked his head back around to in front of him, eyes scanning the almost-deserted streets. It was barely afternoon but nobody was about, odd. Then again, this high up the Quirinal, there were sparse few shops and eateries - only the domains of the uber-wealthy. It was also bloody miles from anywhere interesting which explained the distinct lack of plebs that usually could be found crowding the streets. 

It had been a short walk over from the Viminal where he lived, but it seemed like it had taken hours with his youngest daughter in tow. Gessilla had been adamant that she didn't want any trouble, and that she didn't even like the ornate shell necklace the other little girl had taken from her. Lucius didn't care given it had been a gift from Gessilla's mother - Lucius' ex-wife - and he wasn't going to become embroiled in another argument with the harpy because his daughter had been careless or foolish enough to give away a family gift. But unfortunately for the little girl, whose father he was striding up the street to see, he was now in a foul mood. He'd sent a slave over to the domus of Titus Sulpicius Rufus to claim back the lost shell necklace only for said slave to be turned away by one of Titus' own. Lucius' boy had been clear that the foreign slave in Titus' household (description - tall, scrawny, haughty, definitely not Italian) wouldn't even admit him, and reiterated that whatever the little domina had taken from Lucius' daughter was now the little domina's to keep. 

Slaves! Lucius was exasperated. He'd now had to take time out of his day to come all the way over here for what? A bloody, stupid necklace - gifted by one bitch and refused to be returned by another. It was enough to make him want to pull out his hair. 

Fortunately for Titus, Lucius was a master at schooling his expression and demeanour into something more polite than he felt as he knocked on the main door of the house and was hastily admitted to the atrium. The benefit of dressing finely and not being a slack-jawed slave boy, he supposed. He squinted in the light as he was admitted; it was a grey, drab day and the light in the domus wasn't much better. He could hear Gessilla fidgeting behind him with her nurse and Lucius cast a glance over his shoulder, raising a brow at her. She stopped immediately and stood still, respectfully. Another slave loomed into view and cast the trio a curious glance. "Salve sir, may I help you?" Lucius quirked his eyebrow again and gave the slave an appraising look. Gods, what idiots did he have in this house? Surely he should have fetched his master the moment he heard a Senator was in attendance?

"Yes." He managed neutrally, "Please fetch your dominus and his youngest daughter. Tell him Lucius Sempronius Atratinus is here to reclaim something that his sweet little thief took from my daughter." He said the latter words with a smile, which was sickly sweet. 

 

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Titus was quite sure he had no dutiful clients to listen to that morning, so when the slave came into the tablinium and interrupted his sneak preview of Landicus' latest opus to tell him he had visitors, he was a little surprised. When the slave told him the name of the visitor, he grew puzzled. And when the slave, wringing his hands, added that Atratinus was requesting not only his presence but also Valeriana's and why, Titus narrowed his eyes in distinct displeasure. Bold claims, but he would entertain the man's delusions for the sake of hospitality. He wouldn't bother to put on anything finer than the richly embroidered dark blue tunica he was wearing, though, and definitely not fetch his toga - best to show his unintended guest just how much importance he was accorded.

In the same vein, he would not go and get Valeriana before he knew what the fuss was all about. Either it was a matter for little girls to fix, or one for grown men, and he would find out which was it soon, Titus pondered as he joined his guests in the atrium. "Lucius Sempronius Atratinus, how unexpected." Titus shot the meek-looking child a kind smile, but she only clung harder to her nurse, avoiding eye contact. The poor thing had been dragged here by her father, then.

The slave from before popped back in, offering wine to the two men and water to the girl before slinking off to lean against a wall, in case more refreshments were needed. "My slave tells me you believe my daughter took something that belongs to yours. It's the first I hear of it," Titus took a slow sip at his wine, his tone one of slight amusement. "Would you care to enlighten me as to what has happened? Or perhaps the young lady herself would like to?" It was perhaps unfair to put the little girl on the spotlight like that, but Titus didn't take lightly to somebody dropping by uninvited and demanding his attention whilst at the same time calling Valeriana a thief.

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Well, at least the man had manners Lucius thought as the slave hurriedly brought out some refreshments. He took his cup with no thanks and offered a gracious smile to his host. Lucius wasted no time in allowing Gessilla to explain - she would have done so with a thousand 'ummms' and 'ahhhs' and it would have been painful. Judging by the slightly confused look Titus was giving him, the man wanted an explanation just as much as Lucius himself and there was no point relying on the story telling capabilities of a six year old. "My daughter was at the Gardens of Sallust yesterday with her nurse," He cast a flippant hand over his shoulder, gesturing to the slave girl that accompanied his child, "And I understand she happened across your own charming daughter, your youngest." He kept the polite smile on his face as she spoke although was growing increasingly irritated that his host hadn't offered him a seat. Manners cost nothing.

"And my daughter happened to have a silly little token, a necklace from her mother, which your youngest took a shine to and..." He tilted his head to the side, trying to phrase his words diplomatically, "Requested it for herself. Gessilla foolishly handed it over, expecting it back but alas...your daughter took flight and now it's in her possession." He laughed, as if lamenting the foolishness of girls and children both.

Taking another measured sip of his drink, he shrugged his shoulders - the folds of his pallium slipping ever so slightly. "It's nonsense really, but Gessilla's mother will be full of fury if the gift isn't returned, and I understand one of your slaves was...less than helpful when one of mine visited yesterday to retrieve it. Of course, it's not really a matter worthy of either of us but I thought I'd bring Gessilla herself to make amends with your daughter," He gestured to his youngest behind him who stared unblinkingly at Titus in the way that all young-children do, "And it's been too long since I last saw you Titus. What, it's got to be a few years at least - besides those dreadfully dull parties we all seem to frequent." 

 

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Given how very enthusiastic Atratinus seemed to be doing the talking for his daughter, Titus suspected this would take more than a couple of minutes to clear up. He would have to resume his literary critique some other time, but Landicus was an agreeable chap who knew better than to put any stock in Titus' reviews anyway. Nodding at regular intervals as the other man told the tale of some silly necklace, Titus felt his attention wane, his train of thought veering off in a different direction. Even though Florus was good, he was no match for the imperial slaves that tended to the famed gardens nearby, but maybe there were some tips to be had there...? He would have to speak to him and tell him to go make friends with his fellow gardeners. Tell Tranquillus to tag along, too, under the guise of teaching Florus about some new plant; Titus didn't need his body slave all the time.

Pulled back from his mental tangent, Titus blinked and pressed his jaw to stifle a yawn. Apollo and Diana, so many words to describe a tiff between two little girls. Whoever the 'less than helpful' slave was, they deserved a reward for shooing this sod away. "Ah, apologies for my slave's behaviour, it was not meant to offend you. They are trained to be as protective of my children as if they were their own," he gave a little shrug of his own, then signalled to the slave to go fetch Valeriana as the man, ever observant, dutifully refilled their visitor's cup. There was no escaping it now - Atratinus seemed to want to play at catching up, even if it was likely out of politeness rather than actual interest. And Titus, also out of politeness, would have to humour him. "But where are my manners?" he smiled pleasantly, directing the pair to a group of comfortable sofas. "You must forgive me, I was in the middle of something when I was informed of your presence and I'm afraid a small part of it is still on my mind." It figured that the one time in recent memory he actually was invested in a story, he would be so rudely taken from it halfway through.

Reclining with just the bare minimum of ceremony, Titus nicked a grape from a well-placed bowl and popped it into his mouth, appearing to chew thoughtfully before agreeing with Atratinus. "Indeed, it must have been what - six, seven years? I think I left for Dacia at about the same time as your father passed, if memory serves me right." And if it didn't, it was no skin off his nose anyway. "What have you been up to? I see Gessilla is doing well," - barring her lack of a spine, the poor thing - "is her mother in good health as well?"

He was fortunately saved from having to inquire about other relatives he barely remembered by Valeriana's cheerful appearance, her long-suffering nurse in tow. A shameless "Hi Silla!"  echoed in a childish voice, followed by "Hello Silla's papa and nurse!", and the five-year-old climbed up on to Titus' sofa to become little spoon, helping herself to a grape on the way. "Had you met Valeriana before?" Titus inquired, running his hand through his daughter's blonde locks to her giggling delight. If not, there was no time like the present.

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"No offence taken, slaves will be slaves." He smiled blandly and followed his host to a set of sofas, reclining on one. Every inch the little Roman matron, Gessilla moved to sit next to her papa with practiced grace that really was more unnerving that anything in a six year old. Such was the household that he kept, alas. "Probably around that time." He shrugged limply and sipped at his wine. There was no need to down it like an oaf, he had manners. "Her mother is her mother," He managed a wry smile - maybe trying to find some common ground although he'd heard Titus was happily married, Lucius was dubious that the institution of marriage could ever really be happy, "We divorced some time ago. But my children are well thank you and I-" was interrupted. 

The little girl was all boundless energy and silly, gummy smiles. He had no patience for it, not really - but he wasn't a man of stone and could see how much Titus cared for his offspring judging by the way he caressed her head softly. He felt similarly for his own children, of course, he wasn't a monster, but love and discipline should go hand in hand. Evidently they did not in this household, judging by Valeriana's actions. 

"I haven't had the pleasure." He commented with a hint of amusement and without prompting Gessilla greeted her playmate with an animated smile (finally) and a timid: "Hello Val-Valeriana." He reclined back on the sofa, that self-satisfied smile seeping into his features try as he might to keep it at bay. "We were just discussing the day you had yesterday, at the Gardens of Sallust, Valeriana." He arched a brow at Titus, enquiring in a glance, whether he wanted to broach the topic with his daughter or would let Lucius do the honours. He rather hoped it'd be the former, he had no taste for disciplining the unruly children of past acquaintances. 

 

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It sounded as though there was no love lost between Atratinus and his daughter's mother, even though they were no longer bound my marriage. Hadn't they learnt to be civil to one another? Or maybe this was what civility looked like. How fortunate Titus was not to know. "I'm sorry to hear it. But the most important thing is that you're all in good health." Both of his guests looked well, even if the little girl was very (too?) prim and proper. Again Titus contemplated the fact that maybe it was his family that was the outlier, but he'd rather have a boisterous child running about than a little lamb like young Gessilla. 

Time to interrogate said boisterous child, then, and do what Atratinus' raised brow was bidding him even if he honestly couldn't care less. Schooling his expression into a more serious one for the other senator's sake, Titus gently lifted his daughter's chin so she would look up at him. "You met Gessilla and had a fun time playing together, didn't you?" Valeriana uh-huhed in agreement. "But did you forget to return her necklace when you said goodbye?" Big blue eyes widened with the kiddie variant of indignation. "No! She lent it to me!" Titus narrowed his eyes a fraction. "And until when was that?" Valeriana didn't miss a beat. "Until the next time we met." 

He suppressed a sigh. A 'he said, she said' story and whilst Atratinus probably had the right version of the facts, Titus wasn't any more willing to doubt his daughter in front of an audience than the man his own offspring. Taking advantage of her father's momentary distraction and slackened grip, Valeriana turned to blink innocently at her friend, tacking on a charming smile. "That's what you said Silla, isn't it? But I can go get it, since now is the next time." To Titus this sounded like a very sensible resolution, and it was his turn to shoot Atratinus an inquiring look. Hopefully his fellow senator would be satisfied too.

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Atatinus had no doubt that the little blonde haired imp was lying. He had a natural suspicion of most people, but with her big blue eyes and curious expression, this one most definitely warranted it. Still, all things considered, this was not an argument he wanted to be having. It was ridiculous and he felt embarrassment creep through his body like a an ivy vine.

Gessilla looked momentarily confused, as if she was struggling for words. She was a naturally quiet child (or she had been made into one), but this dumfounded silence was a stretch even for her. Diplomatically, she finally spoke: "I...I don't think I said that, b-but it's fine." The little girl swallowed and Lucius felt the tension in the air and his little one's body even at the words, "Can we go get it now? And maybe we play?" Gessilla asked nobody in particular, and Lucius waved his hand as if to allow it. 

The nurse dutifully held out her hand for the little girl to take and follow the lead of Valeriana, who seems slightly peeved at the whole situation. Lucius turned and arched a brow at Titus, a light smirk on his lips. "Girls, eh?" He shrugged, "Lets hope they grow out of such petty squabbles by the time they're women." He'd known too many women who never shook off the naivety and foolishness of girlhood and carried it with them in their adult lives in giggles and melodrama. He wanted none of that for his daughters. 

"She's your only daughter?" 

 

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Atratinus' little girl was going to make somebody a perfect Lucretia some day, if the way both her father and other little girls bent her will to theirs was anything to go by. Titus knew as well as both Sempronii who was in the right, but a stern talking to and subsequent punishment was to come later, in private. He watched the two girls for a few seconds as they left with their nurses, thinking to himself they'd be on good terms again when Gessilla and her father eventually left, necklace back in their possession. Atratinus' statement went acknowledged with a minute nod and a hum that could have meant anything.

"No, I've got another one who turns fifteen this year. And then a boy in the middle. But Valeriana is the most spirited of them," Titus smiled diplomatically, although his tone belied a degree of amusement. "All credit to their mother, though, since I wasn't always around. You know how it is." Or did he? They hadn't crossed paths anywhere Titus had been, and he couldn't recall his guest's allegiance during the civil war - if he ever even knew it in the first place.

He popped another grape into his mouth. "I was lucky to have them close by when I was in Dacia, however. Might also explain why my youngest is so lively," he chuckled. More freedom from the pressures and expectations of society for the mother and a lot more quality time for the baby, who naturally learnt mostly through mimicry; hence Valeriana's flair for theatrics. It would be probably squashed out in time as she grew up, but for the time being, Titus didn't want to set that particular process in motion just yet.

Time to do the polite thing again and turn the conversation back to Atratinus; Titus wasn't deep enough into politics that he could just harangue sanctimoniously about his own family. "Are Gessilla's siblings as polite and tactful as she?"

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Lucius arched his brow. "Gods you must have married young." He chuckled. Oddly young, if Sulpicius Rufus already had a daughter in womanhood. "But I wish them good health, it must be an odd feeling to have to start vetting future husbands for her." She couldn't remain unmarried for long, surely? It'd be a poor father that let his daughter get much older without so much of a hint of a betrothal. "My eldest is twelve, Gaius. I fortunately haven't been apart from them for any extended period of time, I suspect that's why their manners are pristine." He chuckled. Had he left them in Gessia's care he suspected they'd barely be able to read at this point. 

But his interest was piqued. He knew some of his contemporaries had been abroad as legates and such, but having not had the pleasure of such an esteemed position himself, he only had a rudimentary understanding of how it worked. He quirked a brow. "You took them with you?" It was odd. Why would you subject your family to the inclement weather and brutish locals? Selfishness? He said no more on it but instead just reclined on his sofa as Titus politely turned conversations back to pastures already trodden. 

"Yes, yes they are. Gaius, Sempronia and Gessilla. Or those are the ones that have made it thus far." Infant mortality was just a fact of life, but it didn't make it any less painful. He swallowed the lump in his throat and exhaled sharply through his nose. "But come, children are dull to tall about -" He offered a wry smile, "You must be planning on making some sort of mark now you're back from Dacia? Like Senator Praetextatus, planning those enormous great baths of his." 

 

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"Yes, earlier than usual. I was in my early twenties. Looking back, I think it has its merits." No great ideological gap, for instance, although women weren't really expected or supposed to have strong political opinions. No burden of care for either party either, since both had been in mostly good health since - barring his handful of souvenir scars and the dangerous business that was childbirth. And there had been other benefits not intended for disclosure in polite company. Speaking of which, Atratinus deserved to squirm a little for sticking his nose in others's business. "You know, my wife was older than my daughter is now when we got married. I'm sure you didn't mean to imply my father.in-law didn't do a good enough job there," Titus innocently suggested, taking a sip of his wine before shooting his guest a sardonic smile. "Or were you perhaps putting your eldest forward...? Although that is a bit too young. Younger than me, even," he added, stifling a mean chuckle with more drink. The man did have a point - one so valid that it was exactly why Titus had been waffling on the subject. How could he even start thinking of suitable husbands when the would-be bride was still a child in his eyes (and, he suspected, would always be)?

His fellow patrician's next question left Titus a little puzzled by the perceived scepticism. Jealously? Hardly, given the distance in Atratinus' behaviour with his young daughter. "Because I wished to have them near and was in a position to do so," he explained with an almost inquisitive lilt, as if the answer was obvious. They were his family, how could he not miss them? "My wife enjoyed the change of scenery too, said it provided inspiration for her writings. Mind, they were quite safe and away from the troublesome areas. It was no emulation of Germanicus and Agrippina, if that is what you were thinking of." All right, maybe it had been in an instance or two - but Publius had been so excited to see a whole legion and an actual camp, and the men didn't seem to have minded fielded his excited, puerile questions; they were probably picturing their own boys doing the same.

Titus raised his cup in a quick, silent toast to the deceased young Sempronii and formulated an equally quick and silent thanks to the gods that such pain was alien to him. "My apologies. I didn't intend to bring up unpleasant memories." The change in topic saved him from more awkwardness, but he did wish Atratinus would have chosen a different subject. It was a question he had asked himself over a thousand times in the past year, and although he had mostly made peace with the conclusion he had reached, he still wasn't sure it was the right one, or if there even was one. But such musings were best kept to himself, or gingerly shared with his faithful body slave after much imbibing. "I'm not nearly as ambitious as my good friend Aulus Calpurnius Praetextatus," Titus acknowledged, drumming his fingers on his half-full cup, "but I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy my time in Dacia. I don't think I would say no to another commission, whether there or in another province. And in the mean time, it's been entertaining to watch the fray from the sidelines and catch up with all that's happened while I was away. What would you say has been the juiciest development?"

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Atratinus wasn't easily baited and merely shrugged at his company's insinuations on his daughter's age. "No, not putting her forward. I have time yet, and intend to make an excellent match for her." Of course Atratinus' views on what constituted excellent were rapidly changing. At first it had been that he wanted her to marry into an old, strong family - not dissimilar to his own. But now the political landscape had shifted (in his estimation at least) and perhaps marrying her into a family that had Caesar's favour was a better bet? Even if they were slightly less prestigious? He had much to mull over, but fortunately wasn't weighed down with any soppy considerations of a love match or other nonsense. He wanted his daughter to be happy, of course, he wasn't a monster, but that happiness had to come secondary and fortunately his children understood that. 

They talked in pleasantries as the conversation limped on, with the correct 'mhmm's' and 'of course's' being added here and there by Atratinus. That Titus was friends with Aulus was no surprise, he'd heard they had their little cabal with the oaf Longinus and Horatius Justinus in the mix as well. A quad of ambitious men - but all so different from one another. Peculiar friendships, really. Maybe it was just built on a common desire for social or political advancement? 

"Ah," Atratinus said finally as he broke his musings. "So you're interested in the military rather than the civilian posts?" Quite different to himself who had never flourished in the legions and found the whole ordeal rather archaic. "And not a lot of gossip, I'm afraid. I leave such things to my ex-wife." He chuckled and narrowed his eyes as he heard the girls excitedly squeal about something in another room. Most unbecoming. "But of course, there's the usual; social climbers falling from grace, others being elevated up. There's also a betting group going on around which of the Prince's our good Caesar will choose when the time comes." He sipped again, "Your family are close to the Imperials, are they not? Would you place a bet on such a thing?" 

 

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What a bore. Attratinus didn't take the bait, much as Titus expected he wouldn't, and deftly navigated any implications surrounding possible matches for his daughter. It dawned on Titus with a hint of alarm that he had possibly been spending too much time round Longinus if he had grown used to every interaction being so... animated. "It is as you say, there is plenty of time. I'm sure you will select an appropriate candidate when the time comes," he agreed in a conciliatory manner, taking another sip of his wine.

Mars Ultor, why did acquaintances have to be so interested in his political inclinations? Sharing his opinions amongst friends was one thing; doing the same with a near stranger who could or could not end up being trustworthy was quite another. What did he expect Titus to do, proclaim a plan to enter the Senate and go on a stabbing spree? None of this could exactly be expressed out loud, of course, but he had a duty to entertain his guest and that included humouring such topics. He shifted slightly in the sofa to get more comfortable. "I used to love playing with toy soldiers as a child, guess that part of me still lives on," Titus chuckled, his humour genuine. "I find it all quite exciting, to tell the truth. There are those who think it's nothing more than men with swords and shields hacking away at each other, but it teaches you a lot. Discipline, strategy, resilience, how to think like your enemy and see through their subterfuges. Tests your mettle. Wouldn't you say those skills are useful in a civilian career as well?" The circles they moved in were as much of a battlefield as the edges of the empire - only rumours and intrigue were the weapons of choice. 

And if this little piggy was sniffing for rumour fodder, he would find none. Titus let the loose half-smile on his lips disappear into his usual resting bitch face as the girls' happy squeals sounded in the background. "Indeed. My sister-in-law is a first cousin to our esteemed emperor," he expanded drily, all previous traces of cheer gone. "I would not, I'm afraid. I'm not a betting man, much less one to question Caesar's judgement of young men he knows better than you or I could ever aspire to." His cup had run empty, and a quick glance at the attending slave saw it promptly refilled along with Attratinus' cup. "Would you place a bet?" Titus rather thought the man already had.

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Atratinus smothered his scoff and forced a polite smile. "Alas, I fail to see the equivalence. Sorting out supply lines in Dacia - was it? Dacia," He nodded, remembering the mans history, "And putting down resistance fighters - it can teach you resilience but politics is so much more than that. I cannot imagine a life in the legions teaches you how to deftly manoeuvre between different factions of the senate - but then again," He sipped his wine and offered the man a smirk and a nod of his head, "I have never reached your career height, so I am more than happy to be proven wrong, of course." How a man like Titus Sulpicius Rufus had done so well was absolutely beyond him. He wondered which Gods the man had bribed, and with what. 

He waved a hand dismissively, "I wasn't questioning our Emperor's judgement, you misunderstand me." He added a laugh to try and make his words seem less scolding than they really were. "I was merely interested. We all remember what happened last time there was a change in power," He sighed and placed down his cup on the table with a clatter, "I was just trying to see which way the wind is blowing. Can you blame me?" The conversation was turning personal, but ultimately he was still clean. If this conversation became public, he'd merely say he was trying to gauge the loyalties and allegiances of the Senate. A perfectly proper thing to do. He had no machinations with the information. 

"Nonetheless, lets hope whatever happens is smooth. I shouldn't want our children to face what our generation did." He said as the sounds of squealing young girls reverberated around the domus as they came skidding back into the room with rosy cheeks and mischevious grins on their faces. 

 

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