FLIGHT OF THE EAGLE 9
On the tenth day of the expedition the Emperor’s entourage descended on Ravenna like a flock of locusts. Domitia’s officials requisitioned a fine house where she could stay the night and prepared a large room for a special banquet on the occasion of her thirty-seventh birthday. Tabitha was invited to attend as one of Domitia’s companions. She had little choice, though she dreaded the thought of being in close proximity to the Emperor who fostered such a visceral hatred for Valerius.
It quickly became apparent as they settled into their couches around an enormous gilt table that Domitian, though he sent his wife the blessings of the day, was too busy to make an appearance. Domitia showed no sign of displeasure at her husband's absence as she accepted the congratulations of her companions. They included two or three young men, the husbands of her particular friends, who took care to keep a chaste distance – Domitian was known to harbour a sometimes fatal jealousy. A couch to Domitia’s right remained empty and Tabitha wondered if it had some kind of symbolism to do with the Emperor. She looked away, and when she looked back she saw it had been filled. Her heart felt as if it had stopped.
That face. It still had the worn out, tormented nobility she remembered, though the jowls were heavier and the broad forehead lined and creased. He contrived to wear his thinning hair in the Judaean style, tight-curled and an unlikely shade of crow black given the white that shot through his cropped beard. Heavier in the chest and the belly, but that was hardly surprising after fifteen years. The last time she’d seen him was in the Great Temple of Jerusalem with flaming timbers falling around their ears while they tried to kill each other.
Joseph Ben Mahtityahu.
The man raised his head with a frown, as if the name had echoed through the room. Their eyes met and she saw her own shock mirrored there. They ignored each other for the rest of the meal.
As the banquet broke up, Domitia waved Tabitha across.
‘You have not met Josephus,’ she introduced the man beside her. ‘An exotic in a court of exotics. He was Vespasian’s prisoner, Titus’s pet, and, for some reason that escapes me entirely, he retains my husband’s favour.’
‘Emperor Domitianus treasures me for my wit and charm, as the lady Augusta knows full well,’ Josephus smiled. He bowed. ‘It is an honour to meet a fellow Judaean who has risen high in the Emperor’s favour.’
‘Of course,’ Domitia frowned. ‘I should have introduced you earlier.’
‘Perhaps I could have the pleasure of escorting the lady Tabitha back to her quarters. I long for news of my homeland and we may have acquaintances in common.’
Tabitha allowed Josephus to drape her cloak across her shoulders, though his touch made her flesh creep. Together they walked through the growing dusk towards the wagon lines, accompanied by two slave girls who hovered just out of hearing distance.
‘They say it is always the fattest rat that survives, I see that is true.’
“I prefer to think of myself as the most cunning,’ Josephus showed no resentment at the insult.
‘I’m sure the shades of Gamala’s defenders will be pleased to hear it.’ Josephus had been the commander of a Judaean fort besieged by the Romans and the unlikely sole survivor of a garrison who had all agreed to commit suicide. ‘What do you want of me? Is it my silence or my forgiveness?’
‘It is neither,’ Josephus said. ‘Anything you say cannot harm me and your forgiveness means nothing to me.’ He turned to her. ‘The court of Titus Flavius Caesar Domitianus Augustus can be a very dangerous place.’
‘Is that a threat?’
‘It is a statement of fact.’
‘Then what,’ Tabitha demanded.
‘A person cannot have too many friends in this place.’
‘You once stabbed a man who was a friend in the back.’
‘Allies then. ‘Josephus shrugged, not caring to remember the knife he had plunged into Serpentius. ‘We shall be allies.’