end, I was the agent called in to investigate. It was my bad luck too, of course.

I judged him on the facts alone. Fortunately for Titus Flavius Domitianus, second son of Vespasian, as a mere informer I did not count. But we both knew what I thought. During his machinations, he was responsible for the murder of a young girl towards whom I had once felt some tenderness. `Responsible' is a diplomatic euphemism there.

Domitian knew that I held damning information, reinforced by well-stashed evidence. He had done his best to keep me down – so far only daring to delay my social promotion, though the threat of worse would always exist. So too, would a threat against him from me, of course. We both knew there was unfinished business between us.

This now promised to be a difficult evening. The uppity young Caesar had been demoted to running literary prizes. He seemed to judge them impartially – but it was unlikely that Domitian would be a friendly critic of my work.

Brushing off everyone else except Rutilius, the princeling swaggered by, in company with his glamorously tricked out wife, Domitia Lepida – the great general Corbulo's daughter, a spectacular prize whom Domitian had blatantly carried off from her former husband. He ignored me. I was getting used to that tonight.

In the excitement, the gatecrashers managed to gain entry, but it now seemed best to allow in the largest audience we could commandeer. Among the final comers I suddenly saw Maia; she made a typically swift arrival, her dark curls and self-possessed air turning heads. Petronius Longus made a move to escort her to a seat, but she squeezed through the press, bypassed both Petro and me, boldly made her way to the best position in the room, and forced herself a niche alongside Ma. The imperial party should have been ensconced in state there at the apsidal end, but they remained to one side. Courtiers hoicked themselves up onto shoulder-high wall ledges. Domitian deigned to sit on a portable bench. I recognised – as Rutilius may not have done – that this was a courtesy visit only; the royal troupe had dropped in to be gracious, but were leaving themselves space to make a getaway as soon as they grew bored.

By now it was clear that our planned intimate evening had been hijacked. `Rutilius and I had lost all control of events. The atmosphere of expectation grew. Physically, we had a very lopsided audience, for the prince and his party of flunkies loomed large on the left-hand side, encroaching on the free space we had wanted to preserve, and blocking the view for our private friends and family behind. Even Rutilius looked slightly annoyed. Total strangers were milling about in the body of the hall. Helena kissed me formally on the cheek; she and Petronius abandoned me to find seats somewhere.

We tried clearing our throats diffidently; nobody heard.

Then order somehow imposed itself. Rutilius was taking a last rattle through his scrolls, ready to start first. He had an armful, whereas I had only one, with my dubious opus copied out for me by my womenfolk; Helena and Maia believed bad handwriting would cause awkward pauses if they left me to my own devices with the original note-tablets. It was true that my efforts seemed to acquire a new dignity once they were written out in neat three-inch columns on regular papyrus. (Helena had invested in the papyrus as a gesture of support; Maia had wanted to economise by using the backs of old horse-medicine recipes, the only legacy her husband had left her.) I was twisting the copy, unwittingly tightening the roll on its roller to danger point, while pretending to grin encouragement at Rutilius. Then to our astonishment, the bearded man who was at the centre of the gatecrashers moved to the area in front of the terrace where we were intending to perform.

Now I got a better squint at him: grey hair bushing back from a square forehead, with coarse grey eyebrows too, although those looked as if they had been powdered with beanflour to make them match his silvered hair. He had a limp demeanour with knowing overtones – in personality a nobody, but a nobody who was used to getting in other people's way.

`Did you invite him? I hissed at Rutilius.

`No! I thought you must have done -'

Then without preamble the fellow began speaking. He saluted the young prince with an oozily unctuous welcome. I thought the fellow must be a court flunkey, with pre-arranged orders to thank royalty for attending. Domitian looked unmoved, however, and his attendants were openly muttering among themselves as if they too wondered who the interloper was.

We gathered the man was a regular at literary events in the Auditorium. He was taking over, and it was too late for us to intervene. He assumed everyone knew him – a true mark of mediocrity. For some astounding reason, he had appointed himself the task of formally introducing us. At the intimate event we had planned, this was out of proportion and as relevant as a pile of muleshit. Besides, it was soon clear he had no idea who we were or what we intended to read.

A speech by this drag-anchor reeked of disaster from the first word. Since he knew nothing about us, he started with that fine insult, `I admit I have not read their work', then followed up relentlessly, `I hear some people enjoy what they have to say.' Evidently he was not hoping for much. Finally, with the air of a man who was just rushing off to have a good dinner in a back room while everyone else suffered, he asked folk to welcome Dillius Braco and Rusticus Germanicus.

Rutilius took it better than I did. As a member of the Senate he expected to be muddled up and misrepresented, whereas an informer wants to be derided for his real misdeeds as if he is a scoundrel who counts. While I froze and itched to reach for a dagger, tetchiness fired up Rutilius for a racing start.

He read first. In fact, he read for hours. He treated us to extracts from a very long military epic; Domitian was supposed to enjoy that type of dreariness. The main problem was the old bummer: lack of worthwhile material. Homer had snaffled all the best mythical heroes and Virgil had then grabbed the home crowd's ancestors. Rutilius therefore invented characters of his own and his fellows fatally lacked push. He was also, as I had always suspected, a far from thrilling poet.

I remember a line that started `Lo, the Hyrcanean pard with bloodied jaws!' This was dangerously close to the lion that ripped up my brother-in-law – and it was awful poetry. At the first hint that a ‘Lo’ loomed, I clamped my molars tight and waited for oblivion. It was a long time coming. A competent runner could have made it from Marathon by the time my colleague drew his extracts to a close. Domitian Caesar had been a notable in Rome for four years – long enough to learn the art of the choreographed exit. He stepped forward to congratulate Rutilius; meanwhile his whole party swirled towards us, produced complimentary smiles, then flowed out through the doors with centrifugal smoothness. The young Caesar was sucked after them like a leaf down a drain. He vanished while Rutilius was still blushing at his polite comments. We heard pattering applause from the radically thinned-out crowd. They settled down.

It was my turn, and I could sense that I had best not read for long.

By now I had decided to leave out all my love poems. Some had already been weeded out by me at home, due to the fact that my Aglaia sequence had been written before I met Helena Justina and was possibly too personal to recite while she sat and glared at me. One or two more of my sexually specific odes had already ended up being used by her as old fish-bone wrappers. (Accidentally, no doubt.) I now realised it would be considerate to ditch the lot.

That left my satires. Helena reckoned they were good stuff. I had heard her giggling with Maia as they copied them out for me.

As I started to read, friends of Rutilius brought wine to refresh him after his ordeal; they were more decent than I had realised and some of the drink wandered my way. That may have encouraged me to forget which passages I was meaning to censor. Instead, when the audience seemed restless I jumped over what I now saw to be the boring, respectable bits. Funny how one's editorial judgement sharpens in front of real people.

They were grateful for something scurrilous. They even called for an encore. By that point I had run out of options unless I went back to Aglaia and revealed myself to have once harboured philosophical feelings for a slightly trashy circus dancer whose act was all suggestive squirms. Rifling to the end of the scroll, all I could find left were a few lines that I knew my sister Maia had once penned herself. She must have cheekily written them here on my scroll to try to catch me out.

Rutilius was beaming happily; now his ordeal was finished, he had swigged even more wine than I had. This evening had been intended as a refined diversion, a soiree where we would show ourselves to be well-rounded Romans: action men who cherished moments of thoughtful intellect. An ex-consul, one with high hopes, would not

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