Prefect Vitellius looked up from Cato's report. 'He gave us two months?'
Vitellius closed his eyes and thought aloud.'That gives us enough time to send a message back to Rome, and for Narcissus to make a decision about his offer, and send us a reply to pass on to Telemachus.'
'Excuse me, sir, but do you think it's likely that the Imperial Secretary will top the opposition's offer?'
'Oh, yes. He has to. If the scrolls fall into the wrong hands, they could make life very difficult for Rome…' Vitellius looked up and saw Cato shake his head.'You don't believe me.'
'How can I, sir? I have no idea what's in these scrolls. It all seems too far-fetched.'
'You don't have to worry about it. You're a soldier, and you must obey orders. That's all you do. Your superiors can deal with the finer details.'
Vitellius glanced back at the wax tablets. 'Now, to this other matter. The tribute he's demanding for not attacking our colonies. That's his first big mistake.'
'Telemachus is getting too greedy. The scrolls are one thing, but this demand for tribute is quite another. There's no question of us paying it. The Emperor would never stand for it.'
'Why not, sir? We already pay off any number of tribes in Germany to keep the peace.' Cato was struggling to work through the logic of the situation. Rome would pay upwards of twenty million sestertians for some scrolls, yet balk at half that for saving the lives of thousands of her people and dozens of her colonies.
'That's different. The Germans act as a buffer between the Empire and other barbarians of an even more violent and distasteful disposition. Pirates are different – no more than a gang of thieves and murderers.'
'It would seem they have grown to become more than just a gang, sir.'
'True. But I can tell you now that Claudius will not demean himself by permitting these pirates to run a protection racket. He'll give orders for them to be found and destroyed, and we'll not be allowed to rest until that has been carried out.'
'Even at the risk of losing the scrolls, sir?'
'Maybe we can combine the two tasks.' The prefect rose from his chair and crossed the office to the map. Cato followed him. Vitellius stared at the Illyricum coastline for a moment before he spoke.
'Centurion, where would you position your base if you were Telemachus?'
Cato concentrated on the detailed map as he collected his thoughts, and then offered an answer. 'Going on what you've let me read of the intelligence reports, it would have to be somewhere off the trade routes, by land and sea. He couldn't afford to be near any spot where a passing merchant vessel might beach for the night. So that rules out the Liburnian coastline, and there, further to the south, in Macedonia – far too many colonies and ports. At the same time he needs to be sufficiently close to the trade routes to prey on them. Some of his ships carry oarsmen. If he provisions his ships like we do then that gives him an operating radius of five or six days' sailing at most. That places him somewhere between Flanona and, say, Dyrrachium. Most probably in one of those inlets, or on one of the small islands just off the coast. Could be hundreds of them.' Cato turned from the map. 'That's my best guess, based on the information I've seen, sir.'
Prefect Vitellius nodded. 'I agree. So that's where we'll start looking for them. We'll leave a garrison here, and I'll take the fleet over to Illyricum and establish a base near…' his eyes scanned the map,'Birnisium. Looks sheltered enough and we can draw supplies from that cluster of colonies nearby. Birnisium, then.' He glanced round at Cato.'I'll brief all the officers at noon tomorrow. You may go, Centurion. Send my chief clerk to me on the way out.'
Cato saluted and marched out of the office, leaving the prefect to ponder on his plans.
Cato returned to the officers' quarters, changed into a fresh tunic and made for the bath house. As he entered the caldarium he saw Macro sitting on one of the marble benches. His friend looked up and smiled with genuine relief. 'Cato! Good to see you. How did it go?'
Macro listened attentively as Cato recounted the meeting with the pirates, and when he had finished Macro dabbed at his face with a sponge, then turned back to Cato.
'This Telemachus, what was he like?'
Cato described his appearance, shutting his eyes for a moment as he recollected as much as possible of the details of the encounter. 'He seemed capable enough. Tough and fast with a blade. And his ships seemed to perform well. Of course, I'm no judge of seamanship, but that's what Decimus reckoned. And he's ruthless.' Cato shuddered as he recalled the memory of Vitellius ordering a marine to empty the casket on to the wharf when the bireme had returned to Ravenna shortly after noon. Cato shook off the image as he carried on talking to Macro. 'Certainly his men seemed afraid of him.'
'Sounds like a tough nut to crack,' Macro mused.'They'll put up quite a fight.'
'Maybe,' Cato shrugged. 'But, as I've always said, men fight hardest for the things they believe in, not for what they fear.'
Macro smiled, dipped the sponge in a tub of water and lobbed it at Cato's face, dowsing his friend. 'Honestly, Cato, now you think you're an expert on what motivates men.'
Cato wiped the water and sweat from his brow.'I believe I have some idea of what works.'
'All right then,' Macro conceded, 'some idea. But I'm telling you, these pirates are like us. Harsh discipline is the best motivation for fighting men. Inspiration, ideas, they're for artists and those pansy philosophers like…'
Macro shrugged. 'You said it. Now don't go and sulk on me.'
Macro laughed. 'Come on, let's go.'
'For a drink. We're meeting Anobarbus and Minucius in the port.'
'Are we?' Cato was a little put out by his friend's presumption. 'I'm tired. I just came in here to relax, not to be roped into one of your all-night benders.'
'It won't be like that. We're going to be respectable tonight. Minucius is taking us to meet his woman. She owns a tavern.' Macro smiled. 'Every soldier's dream girl.' He looked round at Cato. 'Any normal soldier's dream girl, I should say.'
'Just fuck off, eh?'
Macro slapped him on the shoulder and laughed. 'That's my boy. Come on then, we're wasting good drinking time.'
They borrowed some plain tunics and capes from stores rather than wear their distinctive red military tunics. With popular feeling in Ravenna being the way it was, neither man was keen to draw attention to himself. They slipped out of a side gate and followed Minucius' directions through the narrow streets to a run-down area of the port that was filled with taverns, brothels and cheap tenements. The streets were packed with drunken noisy sailors and marines from the naval base, but the local men looked hard and hostile as they clustered together around the public drinking fountains. A handful of provosts patrolled the area, keeping a wary eye on proceedings.
'Feels like a fight's going to break out at any moment,' Cato muttered. 'We should have stayed back at the barracks.'
'Oh, come on!' Macro elbowed him.'Not frightened of a few surly teenagers, are you?'
'Yes, I am,' Cato readily confessed. 'These ones at least. They look as if they'd kill to start a fight.'
'Ooooh,' Macro pretended to shiver. 'Better find shelter quickly then… Here we are. Crab Lane.'
He turned into a wide thoroughfare, every foot of it given over to taverns. The drunken din of their customers assaulted Cato's ears. Macro shouted something to him and pointed across the street to a brightly painted sign, high up a grimy wall.
' "The Dancing Dolphin – we don't water our wine…" ' Cato muttered to himself. 'Cute name.'
The two centurions pushed their way across the street and through the arch that led into the tavern. Inside, the air was thick with cheap incense and dimly lit by just enough lamps for the clientele to see their way up to the bar, or out the back to the latrine. Two well-built and tough-looking men were working behind the bar, together with a tall, grey-haired woman who had her back to the entrance as she dealt with a drunken customer who was trying to grope her. Cato watched as one of the barmen leaned over and floored the drunk with a quick upper cut.
The centre of the tavern was packed with benches and trestle tables, at which large groups of rowdy men were drinking, or chatting up the local tarts and negotiating a rate for their transaction. To the side of the tavern were a number of alcoves with curtains that could be drawn across for a degree of privacy.
The two centurions turned towards the sound and saw Minucius beckoning them to the alcove in the far corner, closest to the bar. Opposite him sat Anobarbus, who smiled a greeting as Macro and Cato squeezed through the drinkers towards them. They slipped on to the benches either side of the battered table, and Minucius immediately filled two leather cups and pushed them towards Macro and Cato, sloshing some of the wine over the brims.
'Thought you weren't coming.'
'Wouldn't miss it for the world,' Macro replied. 'Looks like we've got a bit of catching-up to do. Cheers!' He raised his cup and took a gulp.
Cato was sitting next to Anobarbus and turned towards him. 'How are the injuries healing?'
'Not bad. Still a bit painful. Skin on my chest feels like it's shrunk to fit a man half my size.'
Cato nodded. 'I know. I've had some burns. You'll be all right. Give it time.'
'That's what the quack says. Cheers.'
They tapped cups together and took a sip. Cato noted, with approval, that Anobarbus was a kindred spirit and merely sipped at his wine rather than gulping it down like there was no tomorrow, as was the case on the other side of the table. Anobarbus lowered his cup.
'Minucius tells me you've already been out with the navy.'
Cato glanced up at him. 'That's right. A patrol.'
Anobarbus smiled. 'So, how have you taken to a life on the ocean waves?'
'Not at all. I was sick as a dog for most of the trip.'
'Where did they take you?'
'Just a patrol,' Cato said carefully. 'Over to the coast of Illyricum and back.'
'Really?' Anobarbus looked surprised. 'I wouldn't have thought it was safe to venture that side of the sea with all these pirates about. Don't suppose you actually got to see any?'
Cato shook his head. 'No. One or two sails. That was it. Quite boring really. How about you? Picked up any more artworks for your clients?'
'No. The market's dead right now. I'll stay a while longer, until I've fully recovered. Might try one of the ports further up the coast in the next few days, see if they have anything worth buying, then head back to Rome.'
'Well, I hope you have better luck with your next journey.'
'Yes,' Anobarbus replied quietly. 'I'll need it.'
'Come on, lads!' Macro leaned over the table. 'Drink up. It's on the house! Let's have a toast to Minucius' woman, bless her!'
The cups thudded together, spilling yet more wine, and the toast was drunk, to the bottom of the cup. Cato was surprised that the wine was of a decent quality and wished that Macro would take the time to actually savour it. Unfortunately, the other two centurions had already finished the first jar of wine and Macro rose up from the bench.
'Next one's on me.'
'No need!' Minucius smiled. Pulling Macro back down with one hand, he reached under the table and brought out another jar.
Macro's eyes widened. 'How many more of those have you got under there?'
'Enough to keep us going for a while yet. Drink up!'
'Where's this woman of yours?' Macro looked round, but his view of the bar was obscured by a crowd of customers standing in the way. 'I want to give her a hug.'
'She'll join us a bit later. When it quietens down.'
'Oh, all right then.' Macro turned back to the others. 'Hey! Have you heard the news?'
'What news?' Anobarbus asked.
'The prefect's going to stick it to the pirates. Taking the whole fleet and the marines over to Illyricum to hunt the bastards down.'
Cato leaned across the table and laid a hand on his friend's arm. 'Macro!'
'That's not for general consumption.'
Macro looked at him blearily. 'General who?'
'It's supposed to be a secret.'
'Secret? Secret from who? Soon as we start loading up the ships everyone'll know anyway.'
'That's not the point. The prefect doesn't want word of it getting out to the pirates any sooner than can be helped.'
'You told me.'
'I trusted you.'
Macro shifted guiltily. 'Well, yes. Look, I'm sorry, lad. Anyway, it's not going any further than the four of us, then. All right, boys?'
'Sure,' Minucius smiled. 'Let's make an oath, and seal it with a toast.'
'No,' Cato said firmly. 'Just don't mention it again. Goes for you too. And you, Anobarbus.'
Anobarbus nodded. 'My lips are sealed. Don't you worry.'
'Don't worry? Easier said than done, with those two soaks around.'
Minucius suddenly beamed and stood up, knocking the table with his hip and nearly sending the fresh jar of wine flying. Anobarbus' arm shot out and steadied the jar before it could spill a drop.
'Nice hands!' Macro winked at him.
'Here she is now, boys!' said Minucius. 'My woman. My girl. The love of my life.'
Cato turned round and scanned the crowd. Suddenly it parted before him as a tall, thin and elegant old lady cast a withering glare at the men around her. From the pattern of her stola he realised she was the woman he had seen earlier at the bar. She walked up to the table and smiled back at Minucius.
Flushing with pride the veteran centurion turned to his companions. 'Lads, may I introduce you to Portia, proprietress of this fine establishment and soon to be my blushing bride.'
'Ignore him,' Portia smiled. 'He's been saying he'll make an honest woman of me for the last twenty years.'
Minucius laughed, then turned to the other men.'Portia, these are the men I was telling you about. We shared that little adventure back in the mountains. That's Anobarbus, the young lad there is Cato and this incorrigible is Centurion Macro.'
Anobarbus and Cato nodded their greetings but Macro just sat still, an ashen expression on his face.
Portia looked worried. 'Are you all right?'
Macro swallowed nervously before he could manage a reply. 'Hello, Mum.'
06 The Eagles Prophecy