Eighteen months later
Caesar spun his bronze stylus through his fingers, twisting them around its unbending hardness and welcoming its soothing gelidity against his flesh. The pen had been moulded to fit his grip perfectly and was inlaid with silver – an extravagant belated birthday gift from his wife. He put an end to its acrobatics and began to scratch letters rapidly into the wax covering the last tablet in a small stack bound together with purple ribbon. Having pressed his seal ring with its intricate image of Venus Victorious into the wax beside the instruction, he snapped the tablets shut and handed them to the twelve-year-old boy who stood waiting. The lad was almost vibrating with eagerness.
'Have that sent to Argus at my house across the Tiber, Gaius, then you must go to your tutor. I've taken up too much of your time this morning. What are you reading at the moment?'
The boy's disappointed at being sent back to his lessons, brightened. 'Ennius, sir. We're comparing his Annales to the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes.'
'An odd mixture there: they're very different in subject and style. But what is your opinion?'
'Of the two, sir, I prefer Ennius, because he writes about Roman history, rather than just drawing on the same old Greek myths-' He cut himself off.
'But…?' prompted Caesar, patiently.
'I just don't think he's that good a poet.'
A snort erupted from the other man in the room, who had been poring over a papyrus scroll at a small desk in one corner of Caesar's shelf-lined study. He was thin-faced and bearded, his hands stained with ink. 'That's just arrogance, boy. Show me a better writer of epic poetry in Latin than Ennius.'
'But that's just the problem, Father, we don't have any others to compare him with. It's all short stuff nowadays. Epic is old hat.'
'Gaius Catullus wrote a number of longer poems, young Faberius,' said Caesar. He felt a twinge of grief: the early death of that vibrant, brilliant young man had saddened him profoundly. 'He even touches on the story of the Argo in one, but you're right in general: epic is out of fashion. Perhaps it will come around again in the future. Off you go. We'll talk about this again some time.' He flashed the boy a smile and he scampered off happily. 'He's coming along well, Titus. He has opinions!'
'Thinks he knows everything, you mean.'
Caesar smiled. 'Don't all twelve-year-old boys – and girls, come to think of it? How's his training going?'
'Reasonably well. He picked up shorthand quickly enough and he can produce a decent script when he writes longhand. His Greek's passable when he concentrates, although the way he forms his ξs is downright peculiar. He's supposed to be studying the personal details and careers of all your political associates and clients, but I haven't tested him on that yet.'
'Good. Three years until he comes of age, then he can join my permanent staff. I anticipate that his progress will be rapid.'
'I'm grateful, Caesar. And as soon as Gaius is ready, I'll be retiring,' Faberius reminded his patron.
'Yes, yes,' said Caesar. Did Faberius think he had forgotten the conversation they'd had just before they left Egypt? It had come as a complete surprise: he couldn't imagine why any healthy man would condemn himself to an inactive existence so far away from the capital. 'To the Bay of Neapolis to spend more time with your daughter and your grandson. I do remember, Titus, although it hardly seems possible that your elder son can be old enough to have produced progeny.'
'Barely, Caesar, at eighteen, but I'm glad he's settled. The baby's only half a year old, but he seems healthy enough and likely as any infant that age to live.'
Caesar assumed a mournful expression. 'You'll be almost impossible to replace, you know. In all sorts of ways.'
'Oh, don't start with all that. No man is indispensable, Caesar. To think otherwise would be hubris.'
'Careful, Titus. That almost sounds like philosophy.' Faberius snorted again. 'Actually, my friend,' continued Caesar, grinning now, 'since you'll be invited to all the most fashionable dinner parties at Baiae and Puteoli, perhaps you should start polishing your conversation: philosophy's just the thing.'
'What do you mean?' asked Faberius suspiciously. 'Why would I be invited to anyone's dinner party?'
Caesar's smile widened. 'Because every senator with a summer villa down there will assume you know all my secrets and be climbing over each other to meet you as soon as word gets around that you've arrived! Surely that's occurred to you, my dear Titus?'
Faberius looked as though he'd walked in an unplanned orgy in his atrium. 'That's ridiculous. They can invite me all they like – I'll refuse to go!'
Caesar held up a hand and began dramatically turning down his fingers. 'Then there's the baths, the forum, tabernas, festivals, public toilets, the theatre… Everywhere there will be senators or their agents seeking a private conversation, offering to do you favours in exchange for a useful nugget of information. Here in Rome, that doesn't happen, does it, because everyone knows you're not a man to be bought or manipulated, but once it's known you're "retired" and away from the dictator's eagle-eye, they might well assume differently. It'll be quite annoying, I would imagine.'
'Then I won't leave my house,' said Faberius, crossing his arms across his chest. He was the very picture of stubborn resistance. 'I'll sit in my very own study overlooking the Bay all day every day and write my scandalous memoirs. They'd make me a fortune. You can't make me change my mind, Caesar.'
'I'm sure you have space for Faberia and your son's family in that big house of yours, Titus. Why not move them all up here? Young Titus is in the spice trade, isn't he? Rather more business opportunities in Rome than a little town like Pompeii, I would have thought, particularly given the help I can give him.'
Faberius sighed. 'Forgive me, but working so closely alongside you is the problem, not my family's location. Yes, I'd certainly see more of them while I was in Rome, but how long are we likely to be here for this time? Cato and Metellus Scipio might be dead at last, but the sons of Pompeius are still out there causing trouble. You're planning to deal with them next spring, I assume?'
Caesar gamely allowed Faberius to change the subject, since he was of course right: Caesar preferred these days to be away from the mess that was Rome as much as possible. 'Yes. Back to Spain again, from what I hear. It won't be a long campaign, though. Those boys are woefully inexperienced and neither have yet shown any sign of their father's genius for organisation.'
'Another chance to write veni, vidi, vici in your official dispatch to the senate?'
'It would be fitting, since I used it on the first occasion to describe the defeat of a lesser son of a greater father, but repetition garners no admiration. We'll have to come up with something even wittier.'
'But then… Parthia? You've been thinking about that campaign for years.'
'Possibly. I need to shore up the treasury somehow.'
A sly smile crept onto Faberius's face. 'You could always conquer Egypt. Plenty of gold there.'
'I'll let you suggest that to Queen Cleopatra when she arrives, Titus!' Caesar absently rubbed the dagger wound in his chest, which had healed well apart from leaving another shiny scar and a lingering weakness in his left arm. He had never told Calpurnia quite how he had come by it – as far as she was concerned, it was just another battle wound, of which he had many.
'Oh? There's news, then?'
'Cleopatra's flotilla has finally been sighted off Misenum. Her flagship is a gaudily painted thing half-covered in gold, so it's quite hard to miss.'
'I hope she brought decent guards,' said Faberius. 'The scumbags who hang around the docks at Ostia'll have that gold off the hull within an hour of her landing otherwise.'
'I'll send down Alfius' century to look after her. I'm sure she'll appreciate seeing a familiar face and I trust him to escort her safely up the Via Ostiensis.'
Faberius raised a finger. 'I've been very slow. The note Gaius is dispatching – that's because the Queen will be staying on your estate across the Tiber, isn't it?'
'Just so. She's coming to see the treaty of alliance between Egypt and Rome drawn up and ratified in person. She's a typical Alexandrian in that respect: she trusts no one and doesn't consider an agreement confirmed until there's a bulging document signed and sealed in triplicate. She's going to adore our practice of inscribing the names of our official friends and allies on bronze plaques and nailing them up in the temple of Fides. Very permanent – very Egyptian.'
'Is she bringing the prince?'
Caesar's lips twitched themselves into a smile at Faberius' ambiguous choice of words. 'She is. The little chap can walk already and even talk a bit. I'm very much looking forward to meeting him.'
Faberius smiled warmly, suspending their habitual banter for a moment. 'I'm sure he's a fine boy. It's a wonderful thing to have sons, Caesar. They make you think you'll live forever. He's called Ptolemy, I suppose? Or did Cleopatra pick Alexander for a bit of variety?'
'Ptolemy. He'll be the fifteenth king of that name one day. But we're not much different in our own naming practices, you have to concede. What's your firstborn son's name again, Titus?'
'Alright, that's fair enough. Doesn't each Ptolemy usually have a nickname to distinguish him from the rest, though? Has the lad acquired one yet?'
'Actually, I advised that Cleopatra give him two names from birth.'
'He's officially named Ptolemy Caesar, but Cleopatra writes that the Alexandrians have given him a rather charming nickname of their own: he's known as Caesarion, apparently.'
Faberius' eyebrows nearly reached his hairline. '"Little Caesar?" You're allowing the boy to bear your own name, even though you can't make him your heir? Your fellow aristos will have a fit.'
Caesar picked up his pen and began twirling it under and over his fingers again, imagining the melodramatic reactions of some of the traditionalists who would indeed be horrified at the thought of his non-Roman baby son debasing his patrician Latin cognomen. 'Oh, let them, Titus. It's really none of their business. And you understand the point of it, of course? Cleopatra needs her people to know that she is fully supported by Rome – Caesarion's name and heritage are a very permanent reminder of that security. I would happily have enfranchised both of them, but Cleopatra rightly pointed out that the Alexandrians wouldn't tolerate a future king called "Gaius Julius Caesar Ptolemaios".'
Faberius nodded solemnly. 'I can see their point. Stinks of not-quite-underhand conquest.'
'Quite so. Anyway, we must return to the pressing business of my four triumphs. What's the latest from the carpenters on the tables for the public banquet?'
Faberius turned back to the papyrus on his desk.
And so they continued until Calpurnia sent a slave to announce the midday meal.
Author's Note: If anyone's wondering where Ptolemy XIV is, sorry, I left him out. I couldn't think of anything for him to do. So, we're done, unless I add another little bit somewhere to explain where the blue glass came from. Events rather overtook that detail, and so that part of the mystery was overlooked in the end. Anyone that bothered?
Thanks for reading. Please review!