The people of Ravenna were angry. A crowd had gathered at the gate to the naval base and men were hurling abuse at the sentries in the tower above the entrance. The gates themselves had been closed and a locking bar lowered into the brackets. There was no point in taking any chances with the mob, Cato decided. They may not like the situation but there was nothing he could do about it, given his orders. Inside the base the marine centurions and the trierarchs of the remaining biremes were working their men at a feverish pace to complete the loading of food and equipment.
Cato had resolved to return to Illyricum as soon as he could, despite the pleas of the town council. A deputation had been sent to him to demand an explanation for stripping the town of its defenders. Their spokesman, a wasted figure of a man, had been full of the usual haughty arrogance of provincial officials. Cato had listened to Rufius Pollo as he expressed the council's outrage, then Cato apologised politely and said he was bound by his orders.
As word spread through the port all the opinionated idlers who hung around the wine shops staggered down to the harbour front to shout colourful insults at the men behind the closed gate. They were joined by children, keen to see what all the fuss was about, and before night fell on the day that the Spartan had sailed into port, the wide thoroughfare between the quay and the warehouses was filled with enraged townspeople.
'Want me to send a century out to disperse them?' asked Centurion Metellus, standing beside Cato as they peered over the battlements at the mob.
Cato considered the offer for a moment and then shook his head. 'No need for that. They'll disperse soon enough, once they realise they're wasting their time. No point in provoking any more bad feeling than we already have.'
'Fair enough, sir.' Metellus tried to hide his disappointment. 'Still, we'll need to teach them a lesson one day. Can't let that rabble think they can get away with it. They've been mouthing off at us ever since those pirates first came on the scene.'
'Someone else will have to teach them a lesson,' Cato said wearily. 'But not now. Not us. We're too busy.'
Metellus shrugged. 'If you say so, sir.'
'I do.' Cato turned to his subordinate.'Make sure none of your men does anything to provoke those people. They're here to guard the gate. That's all. Understand?'
'I'll be in my quarters. If there's any change in the situation send word to me at once.'
'Yes, sir.' They exchanged a salute and Cato turned away and descended the narrow staircase to the street behind the gate. As he crossed the parade ground he glanced out over the naval harbour. Four biremes were moored bow to stern along the dock, with two more anchored a short way out, waiting for their turn to be loaded. A continuous flow of men moved between the ships and the storehouses, driven on by the harsh shouts of their officers. At this pace the ships would be loaded before nightfall, ready to leave at first light the following day. The northerly wind had reduced to a steady breeze, and if it held then Cato and the reinforcements would reach Vitellius five days after the Spartan had set out from Illyricum.
There were a few things Cato would have to see to first. His thoughts went back to the prefect's report, spread out on a table in a locked room at the headquarters building. As soon as he had given his orders to the officers in charge of the garrison, Cato had retreated to Vitellius' study and opened the unsealed package, taking care to preserve both the linen wrapper and the seal. The message on the tablets had not been damaged by the water, and Cato arranged them in order before he tried to read the report. Unfortunately it made no sense. There were words all right, but they were comprised of meaningless arrangements of letters. A code then. Understandable, given that the message might have fallen into enemy hands before it reached Ravenna.
As soon as Cato realised he was looking at a coded message he recalled that the agents at the imperial palace preferred to use an Augustan code: the transposition of letters in the alphabet according to an agreed key. Simple, but effective enough to deter those who lacked the intelligence to work out the key. Cato had spent most of the morning experimenting with single value transpositions, with no luck. So the code had to be made up of alternating values, and by mid-afternoon he had discovered the values; four, two and five. With a hastily written copy of the alphabet Cato had already decoded all but the last tablet.
The prefect's report began with a shrewd anticipation of the council leader's protest to Rome. Vitellius explained that he had been obliged to strip the port of its garrison in order to guarantee a swift and overwhelming defeat of the pirates. He provided a brief description of the sea battle, claiming to have driven off the pirates with substantial losses on both sides. Cato had smiled bitterly as he read that part. Vitellius went on to outline his current strength and intentions. That was as far as Cato had got before Metellus had called him to the main gate to see the growing mob gathering outside. Apart from the blatant misrepresentation of the disastrous first encounter with the pirates, and a rather optimistic schedule for future operations, there was nothing remotely sinister in the report so far. And, infuriatingly, no detail about the scrolls for which so much blood had already been shed.
Now, Cato was eager to return and complete the decoding, before he had to risk a trip into the port to deal with the other pressing matter. He entered the headquarters building and hurried upstairs to the prefect's suite of offices. Only a handful of clerks were still at their desks, drafting inventories of the supplies being loaded on to the biremes. Cato strode through them, groping for the key in his purse. He fitted it to the lock, turned the key, opened the door and entered. He glanced at the nearest clerk.
'I'm not to be disturbed. Not unless there's an emergency.'
Cato closed the door and sat down in the prefect's finely carved chair. There was still some watered wine in the cup he had poured earlier and Cato took a quick sip before taking up his stylus and starting work on the final tablet. Each letter in the report corresponded to another letter further down the alphabet and as Cato decoded he made a copy of the message on a blank tablet he had taken from the prefect's stationery locker. The gist of the message was becoming quite clear, and Cato felt a chilling sense of fear, which gradually gave way to a desire for revenge. When he reached the end he set his stylus down and read through his copy.
In conclusion, our forces have achieved a qualified success so far, in no small part due to the diligence with which I have carried out the planning, preparation and execution of the operation. It is therefore, with great regret, that I have to report that an early resolution of the pirate threat and possible recovery of the Sybilline scrolls was compromised by the actions of Centurion Cato during the naval engagement mentioned above.
At a critical point of the battle, as the enemy flagship was in full retreat and being pursued by the Horus and the trireme squadron, Centurion Cato ordered his ship to break off the pursuit and turn on the lighter enemy vessels engaging our bireme force. A charitable explanation of his action might be that the centurion had gone to aid some of our ships who were in some slight difficulties at the time. However, it is possible that Centurion Cato's desire for personal glory overrode his obedience to orders. It is also possible that he deliberately chose to close with an enemy of less impressive force than the enemy's flagship.
In any event, his ship broke formation, and a number of the other triremes followed his lead.This left me with insufficient forces to close with the pirate commander and I was obliged to break off the pursuit.
As a consequence of Centurion Cato's recklessness, the operation will take considerably longer than I had anticipated. I therefore request your permission to have the centurion removed from my command and returned to Rome for disciplinary proceedings. Given the sensitive nature of the mission you asked me, and Centurions Cato and Macro, to complete, I cannot proceed with any certainty of success while encumbered with a man who has neither the experience nor the courage required for the job. It pains me to report to you in these terms, Narcissus, since I know you have some regard for the abilities of the individual in question. Nevertheless, with the stakes being as high as they are I am sure you will understand my grave concerns and give your assent, as speedily as possible, for the removal of this burden, one way or another.
Cato set the tablet down and drew a deep breath. The report was as good as a death warrant and he felt a moment of icy fear gnawing at his guts as his mind raced to grasp the full implications of Vitellius' closing remarks. His first response was bitter hatred for the prefect. The conclusion of the report went beyond injustice. It was pure self-serving dishonesty, designed to shift the blame for the sea battle fiasco on to Cato. The prefect meant to kill him. That much was evident. If a suitable opportunity arose he might not even be prepared to wait for the permission of the Imperial Secretary.
Cato poured himself another cup of wine and didn't water it down this time. Before he could make plans to deal with this new danger, he needed to understand why the prefect wanted him dead. Presumably it had something to do with the scrolls. The Sybilline scrolls… Not the Sybilline scrolls, surely?
Whatever they turned out to be, the Imperial Secretary thought these scrolls were vital enough to risk a large force of men and ships for. And now it seemed that Vitellius considered them important enough to want Cato dead and out of the way, so that he could take them for himself.
Cato realised that he must find some way out of the danger he faced. He might write his own report and send it on to Rome with that of Vitellius. He could explain the truth behind the debacle of the naval engagement. He might also express his doubts about how far the prefect could be trusted to recover the scrolls for Narcissus. But even as these thoughts raced through Cato's mind, he knew that it would be pointless to attempt to tell the truth. Vitellius was a favourite of Emperor Claudius, ever since he had been given credit for saving the Emperor from the blade of an assassin during the imperial visit to the army in Britain. He was also one of Narcissus' most trusted agents. The word of a lowly centurion would carry little weight against that of an aristocrat. Indeed, it was more than likely that Cato's accusations would be interpreted as malicious at best, and sinister and suspicious at worst. That would be how Vitellius would misrepresent the charges against him and Cato would quietly disappear from the scene. Another anonymous corpse dragged from the Tiber, flung into a common grave and covered with lime.
Cato drained the cup of wine, and stared again at the prefect's report. As he did so a smile slowly formed on his face. Very well, if he dare not accompany Vitellius' lies with his own account, then he would alter the prefect's report so that it condemned Vitellius by itself. Leaning forward over the desk, Cato reached for some fresh slates and began to rewrite the report.
A while later, as dusk began to gather about the port, he sat back and admired his work. Let Vitellius dig himself out of that one, he mused. Cato tied the wax tablets together through holes in the wooden frames and carefully wrapped them in the linen packaging. Then he erased the report on the original slates with firm sweeps of the reverse end of his stylus. Lastly, he heated some fresh wax and dripped it on to the package before pressing the original seal of the fleet prefect into the wax and letting it set. He inspected the results carefully, and smiled in satisfaction as he rose from the desk.
Before he left the office, Cato was momentarily tempted to leave his uncoded version of the report out on the desk for the prefect to discover upon his return. There was huge satisfaction at the thought of Vitellius knowing that he had been bested by the man he had sought to destroy. Cato toyed with the idea, then dismissed it with a sense of regret. He picked up the stylus, heated the broad end over the flame of an oil lamp and erased his work, destroying any trace of the decoded message. Vitellius would know soon enough that his plot had been frustrated. Let him suffer the uncertainty of knowing how it had been achieved.
Cato unlocked the door and stepped into the large office outside.
'You!' He motioned to one of the clerks still at his desk. 'Come here!'
'Take this dispatch to the courier station. It's to be sent to Rome at once.'
'Better have the rider leave by the shore gate. No sense in having him chance the mob. See to it.'
The clerk saluted, then hurried from the office clutching the dispatch in both hands. Cato had to fight to restrain the nervous thrill building up within. The anticipation of Vitellius' realisation that he had been set up was extremely gratifying. Only the gods could save his career and reputation now.
06 The Eagles Prophecy