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The Beast {Ursus}
#1
Late December, 62 AD

He had done his very best to avoid Ursus while working for Claudia Livia in the palace. He would rather not meet the man who was behind his former master’s downfall. Manius never trusted Ursus and he doubted that he ever would. There was just something off about the man, right from the beginning. Sure, Cyprianus and Ursus had a past that Manius knew little about, but just the sight of him made Manius want to wipe that odd smirk off the man’s face. For good.

But Manius had been very good at fighting this urge. He could appear quite cold if he had to and in this case… he did have to. He did not like Ursus and he did not like the fact that Ursus had married Claudia Livia. She was too good and kind and delicate for such a beast. And that’s what he was, wasn’t it? He was a beast that could not be trusted.

So he did what he could to appear as if he didn’t care about Ursus at all. And he did what he could to avoid the man too. He didn’t want to run into this one, definitely not in a dark alley and not in broad daylight either. Broad daylight might be safest though, if they had to meet, but for whom? If Manius was surprised by Ursus in a dark alley at night, nothing could be traced back to him. He could make sure of that. Manius had rarely killed anyone, but in this case, he would make an exception. Rome would be better off without Ursus.

Alas though, Manius could not decide such things. Instead he could, for now, show up for work before noon and look at whatever Claudia had planned for him. They would not always meet, but there would be a list of things and sometimes a slave to aid him too. He had it best when he was on his own though; besides, when he wasn't working he still seemed to deal with slaves. Trying to befriend one could even be painful, as the still healing scars on his back would prove, but he welcomed them and did not mind. Manius never minded pain. Today though, there were no friends, since he only had few. There was work and that was good; he liked to stay occupied. He was on his own and he picked up a few rolls of parchment and went to sit someplace quiet to read them. Manius was in his own thoughts, wandering through his old home as if it was just yesterday he lived here and then… then he stopped dead in his tracks.

Ursus was walking towards him and had, without a doubt, seen him too. Manius had really done his best to not run into the man, but right now it seemed unavoidable. He cursed within, because sidestepping now or turning around would only wake suspicion. And so Manius remained on the same spot, while the darkhaired Consul approached him. He hoped the other would just give him a nod and walk past him. But with his luck, he doubted that would happen.
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#2
It was undesirable. Manius Rutilius Gallus finding employment beneath his wife. Sextus was almost of the mind to order Claudia to cancel the arrangement, but she seemed insistent on it being advantageous. He was not sure what made her think she could control him. Gallus had carried out the orders to have Lucius Flavius Faustus Minor murdered. He had been Cyprianus' faithful servant.

Ursus did not doubt the bond between freedman and former master. Even if Cyprianus was not plotting anything, Gallus himself could certainly cause mischief on his own. With his departure to the East impending, Ursus could not leave without personally assessing the situation himself.

Locating Gallus proved a relatively easy matter; Gallus could be counted upon to skulk in the palace shadows like the roach he was, and the servants—those who remained after the upheaval of Clemens brief but brutal rule—knew him well. When he came upon the man, who was holding some scrolls, Ursus paused merely a second to observe and then approached him directly.

“Gallus, salve.” He stopped directly in front of him. Many months had passed since their last meeting. In those days, it had been Gallus approaching the consul, relaying secret messages between the latter and his patron in lieu of face-to-face meetings that would betray their ruse. He was a walking liability in that he knew the true nature of Ursus and Cyprianus’ relationship, dealings the public was oblivious to. That, along with his business with Claudia, marked the necessity of a personal assessment.

“I did not expect to see you again after our business was over, yet here you are.” Behind him, Sextus glanced casually over his shoulder as a pair of praetorians passed by, making their rounds. Returning his attention to Gallus, he leaned in and addressed in a lower murmur. “What do you say we have a little chat, hm? I am sure we have much to discuss.”
[Image: sextus3_zpsc797991c.jpg]
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#3
Manius certainly did not work for his former master anymore. The man had let him go, although with Manius’ return to Rome, he had let Cyprianus know that he was here and would be a forever loyal servant, should the other man need it. But it was not needed, it seemed. Cyprianus had not sent for him and they had not met since Manius returned from Pompeii. Of course though, he kept himself aware of what his former master was up to, the best he could. But he had a new employer now and a new duty to carry out… to most people, he would just be Claudia’s secretary. But Manius was so much more, yet only he knew.

… or, it was almost like that. Because just as Manius did not really approve of the husband she chose to marry, he knew that Ursus probably did not fancy the idea of Manius working here and for his wife. What a pity for him though; he could not change a thing about it. And Manius was not going anywhere. As far as he knew and the way he saw it, Claudia had been nothing but a pawn and had to do certain things for the sake of herself and her family. He doubted it was because she loved Ursus, that she married him. If Manius didn’t know any better, he’d think the other man had forced her to do it. And he did not know any better, to be honest.

Yet however hard he had tried to avoid Ursus, it was inevitable that the moment would come where they would face each other. And that moment was now, it seemed. Manius had kept to himself, but there was no way he could walk away now without it seeming odd and suspicious. He remained as the other man approached him, paused and then greeted him.

“Ursus.” Manius merely replied, short and simple. There was no reason to exchange more than a few words with this man, or Manius feared he might share too many. Or do something. But then of course Ursus spoke again. His very words were like poison! As if he thought Manius was that stupid!

“I have been here a while now.” A few weeks at least, but he was here and had been here and Ursus knew it. There was no way he could have expected to not see Manius again. He noticed the pause while the praetorians passed by… so Ursus did not want anyone to hear what they talked about. That could hardly be considered a good thing. And it wasn’t.

“Do we?” Manius asked, standing up straighter, his eyes hard, “I don’t know what we have to discuss. I don’t work for you.” And he never would. If the gods had any mercy, they would see him or preferably Ursus dead before Manius would ever do anything for that man.
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#4
“I have been here a while now.”

“Yes. You have.” Sextus kept his tone level, even as a palpable tension simmered between them. He had thought that, after his betrayal of Manius, that he had seen the last of Gallus, thinking the beat dog to have scurried off to lick his former master’s pride. That was before the freedman had wormed his way into Claudia's employ. It was inevitable, after Gallus’ return to the palace, that this encounter would happen, and they both expected as much.

Gallus’ straightening posture and hardening expression were a direct challenge to Ursus. Sextus responded in turn by squaring his shoulders and drawing in closer to encroach upon the other man’s space. Not once did his own gaze waver.

“Precisely. You work for my wife. That warrants a discussion more than anything, does it not?” It was not the least bit unusual for a Roman patriarch to keep tabs on his family’s affairs, and for all logical purposes he could defend his inquiry of Gallus quite easily. “My wife has her own clientele, and I do little to interfere with that… but it is my duty as her husband to investigate anything that might be a concern to her well-being. Tell me, Gallus, why I should not be concerned with you.” He tilted his head slightly, challenging the freedman to defend himself when his suspicion was fully warranted.

"...Or am I to believe you are no longer loyal to him?" They both knew this not to be true, that Gallus possessed too much of a slave mentality to turn against Cyprianus, even after the latter's luck had fallen. By that logic, Ursus had him pinned; Cyprianus was a convicted criminal, and any known associates of his were questionable by default.
[Image: sextus3_zpsc797991c.jpg]
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#5
He had not wormed his way in anywhere. He had the right connections and had heard that Claudia might need someone like him; and it just so happened that the little birds on the streets spoke the truth. She needed him, and more than she knew too. Especially with that husband she had gained, after Cyprianus’ fall. Manius knew how things ought to be. Or how they should have been… or would have been, in a perfect world. In a perfect world, a delicate woman like her would not have married any of them.

And now the traitor known as Ursus wanted to have a few words with Gallus? He had nothing to say to the man, or rather, nothing he thought was a good idea to say to the man. So he told it straight to the other man, with hard eyes and a indifferent tone.

But Ursus only seemed to come closer, keeping his eyes on Gallus as if it would be a bad idea to look away. And really it might be. Manius knew his own temper by now; and he knew how it sometimes flared up at the wrong times. If the gods were there, they better control him. But his eyes did not stray either, while the so-called bear spoke. Claiming that the fact that Gallus did work for his wife was a reason for them to talk.

He huffed when Ursus said that it was his duty to investigate into anything concerning her well-being. He just said that, didn’t he? He should be investigating himself then!

“Your wife has nothing to fear from me. She never had and she never will.” He promised the other, who then of course had to throw Cyprianus into the mix. Manius knew what to say though; he had given this some thought, after all. Ursus was right, but there was no need for him to know that, “I am no longer his. He set me free; completely. I even left Rome, in case you did not notice. I am loyal to my employer, whoever it is. Right now… it happens to not be you.”
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#6
Maybe Gallus personally might not harbor ill intent to the consul’s wife, but it was the man’s past devotion to his former patron that was the concern. One of Ursus' last encounters with Cyprianus gave him reason to believe that the latter was above petty revenge... but Gallus was an unknown. It was why Ursus was not very convinced when the latter tried to deny current ties or devotion to Cyprianus. The denial was said in a flat, no nonsense manner that might have been believable if the freedman’s past actions were not in themselves contradictions. Or... maybe, if that devotion remained, he would not be ordered to do anything problematic against the couple, although that did not yet remove Gallus as a liability for his knowledge alone. That he made his ill feelings towards the consul clear was all the more reason to watch him closely.

A thin smile spread. “No need for hostility, Gallus. I merely asked for reassurances that your obligations to your patron have indeed been severed, and that no conflicts of interest threaten the princess. But if you truly pledge loyalty to her, then I trust you will prove it by putting her interests above your own. And as her trusted employee, you surely know now that those interests are for the welfare of Rome, and for her family, which the stability of Rome depends upon.” What he spoke was true—the civil war and preceding chaos (all the fault of that one scheming man whom Gallus claimed himself to be no longer loyal to) were the results of an unstable imperial family. But Ursus was hinting subtly at something else… ‘Family’ was not just Claudia Livia’s link to her uncle the emperor, but encompassed her immediate family as well, including her husband.

It was a leash to place upon the dog, a dare for him to prove Ursus wrong and that his supposed newfound loyalty to Claudia outweighed any of Gallus’ personal agendas, whatever they might be.

Strike at me through her, and there will be consequences. Strike at me, and you betray her.

“If what you say is true, and she has nothing to fear from you, then I rest assured.” Then, after a thought, he added, "Serve her well, and I will have no issue with you." It was an offered truce. He would not have a reason to ever act against Gallus if the man did not give him one. That did not mean he would turn his back on him, trusting him to behave, but so long as Gallus would not cause trouble, then there would be no quarrel.
[Image: sextus3_zpsc797991c.jpg]
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