'Didius Falco!' I had been announced by officials. It was impossible to tell from his greeting whether the young prince remembered me.
He wore purple; that was his privilege. His wreath was fairly plain and reposing on a cushion. There were no mounds of grapes or jewel-encrusted goblets, very few garlands and certainly no sinuous dancers writhing around the floor. He was attending to public business with the same seriousness as Vespasian and Titus. This was no debauched, paranoid Julio-Claudian. Yet I knew he was dangerous. He was dangerous-and I could prove it. But after so many years in the business, I should have known that did not make my own position safe.
The room was of course full of attendants. Slaves who looked as though they had work to do were, as always in the Flavian audience chamber, quietly proceeding with their business, apparently unsupervised. There was someone else there too. Domitian gestured to a figure on the sidelines.
'I have asked Anacrites to join us.' My request for an audience would have been relayed long before I was actually summoned; during the tedium of my long wait, this disaster had been arranged. Domitian thought I was there as an agent. He had sent for support. Anacrites was the Palace's official Chief Spy.
He was tight-lipped and tense; pale-eyed; obsessively neat; a man who had brought the undercover arts of suspicion and jealousy to new depths.
Of all the petty tyrants in the Palace secretariat he was the meanest, and of all the enemies I could have picked in Rome I hated him the most.
'Thanks, Caesar. We need not detain him. My business is personal.' Nobody reacted. Anacrites stayed.
'And your business is?'
I took a deep breath. My palms were sweating unaccountably. I kept my voice low and even. 'Some time ago your father made me a wager that if I could produce the financial qualifications, he would make me a member of the middle class. I have recently returned from Germany where I completed various actions on the state's behalf. I now wish to marry and settle to a quieter life. My elderly father agrees with this decision. He has deposited four hundred thousand sesterces with a land agent, for investment in my name. I have come to beg the honour which your father promised me.'
Very neat. So restrained. Domitian was even more restrained. He merely asked me, 'You are an informer, I believe?'
So much for polite rhetoric. I should have said, 'You're a rat and I can prove it. Sign this scroll, Caesar, or I'll spew the dirt from the Rostrum and finish you!'
His Caesarship did not look at Anacrites. Anacrites did not need to speak to him. Apart from the fact that everything must have been settled between them before I had even crossed the threshold for my fatal audience, the rules were quite clear. Domitian Caesar stated them: 'In reforming the Senatorial and Equestrian Orders, my father is concerned to provide reputable, meritworthy groups from whom he can draw future candidates for public posts. Are you,' he asked, in that measured tone with which I could not quarrel, 'proposing that informers should be regarded as reputable and meritworthy men?'
I opted for the worst kind of salvage: telling the truth. 'No, Caesar. It's a seedy, disgusting occupation, picking over secrets at the worst end of society. Informers trade in betrayal and misery. Informers live off other people's death and loss.'
Domitian stared. He had a tendency to be morose. 'Nevertheless, you have been useful to the state?'
'I hope so, Caesar.'
But the upshot was inevitable. He said, 'That may be. But I do not feel able to grant this request.'
I said, 'You have been most courteous. Thank you for your time.'
He added, with the diffidence that characterised the Flavians, 'If you feel an injustice has been done, you may wish to ask my brother or the Emperor to re-examine your case.'
I smiled bitterly. 'Caesar, you have given me a reasoned adjudication which conforms with the highest social principles.' Once Domitian had stacked the odds against me there was no point in exclaiming. Titus would probably refuse to interest himself. I knew without exposing myself to more sorrow that Vespasian would support his boy. As my own would say, what are fathers for?
I scoffed, 'Injustice I cannot accuse you of, Caesar-merely ingratitude. No doubt you will inform your father of my views, the next time he wants me for some stinking mission that exceeds the capabilities of your normal diplomats?'
We inclined heads politely, and I left the audience.
Anacrites followed me out. He seemed shocked. He even seemed to be calling upon some brotherhood of our trade. Well, he was a spy; he lied well. 'Falco, this had nothing to do with me!'
'Domitian Caesar called for me because he thought you wanted to talk about your work in Germany-'
'Oh I do like that,' I snarled. 'Since you had nothing at all to do with my achievements in Germany!'
The spy was still protesting. 'Even freed slaves can buy their way into the middle rank! Are you accepting this?' Spies are simple people.
'How can I quibble? He followed the rules. In his place, Anacrites, I would have done the same.' Then, knowing that Anacrites was probably a freedman, I added, 'Besides, who wants to rank with slaves?'
I walked from the Palace like a prisoner with a life sentence who had just heard he was to benefit from a national amnesty. I kept telling myself the decision was a relief.
Only as I plodded to collect Helena from Mother's did I gradually allow my spirits to sink under the knowledge that my losses today, which already included dignity and pride, now had to include ambition, trust and hope.
Not knowing how to face Helena Justina, I went to get drunk. At Flora's Caupona there were lamps along both counters. The new waiter was presiding with a care and attention which must already have lost several of the old lackadaisical customers. Not a crumb marred the mock-marble counters, which he flicked every few seconds with a cloth, while waiting eagerly for requests to serve the few nervous inebriates. What the caupona had gained in cleanliness it now lacked in atmosphere.
Still, that would change. The old dismal standards were too ingrained to stay under for long. After ten years, mediocrity would reassert itself.
I was pleased to see this new waiter was a man I recognised.
'Apollonius! Just filling in until you get the call back to education?'
'On the house!' he said proudly, placing a cup two inches from my elbow and following it with a neat little dish of exactly twenty nuts.
There was no way I could get drunk in such a pristine environment. Good manners forbade forcing this enraptured soul to hear my pathetic ramblings, let alone mop up after me. I managed a minute of small talk, then drained my cup. I was just leaving when a woman came in from the back room with her sleeves rolled up, drying her hands on a towel.
For a moment I thought it was Mother. She was small, tidy, and unexpectedly grey-haired. Her face was sharp, her eyes tired and suspicious of men.
I could have left even though she had seen me. Instead, I took a deep breath. 'You must be Flora.' She made no reply. 'I'm Falco.'
'Favonius's younger son.' I had to smile at the irony of my preposterous father running away to a 'new life' when even the woman he took with him insisted on using his old name.
She must be wondering whether I posed some sort of threat. Probably Festus when he was around had worried her; possibly she understood that I was different.
'May I ask you to give a message to my father? It's bad news, I'm afraid. Tell him I went to the Palace, but was turned down. I'm grateful, but his loan won't be required.'