They left the palace and fought their way through the crowds streaming across the Forum. Families clustered together amid bands of loud young men clutching jars of wine as they all made for the Great Circus to find good seats for the day's racing. Cutting across this tide of excited humanity, the two centurions made for a corner tavern. The usual morning trade of wagon drivers and night porters was just beginning to dry up as the exhausted, and now inebriated, men began to stagger home to their beds.
Macro waved the barman over.
'What'll it be, gents?' the weasily-looking youth asked politely as he eyed up their uniforms and estimated the tip he might expect from two centurions.
'A jar of your cheapest wine. Two cups,' Macro replied curtly. 'Quick as you can.'
'Quick is the order, swift is the service.' The barman smiled. 'That's our motto.'
'Nice.' Macro glanced up at him. 'But it would be even swifter if you just cut out the motto.'
'Right… yes. I suppose so.' The barman scurried off, leaving Macro to turn his attention back to his friend. Cato was staring across the heaving crowd that filled the Forum and up at the austere heights of the palace on the Palatine. Cato had not said a word since leaving the procurator's office and now he just sat in silence. Macro patted him on the arm.
'Cheer up, lad. The wine's ordered.'
Cato turned his head to stare at Macro. 'I have no legionary posting, almost no money left and now, it seems, I'm to be executed in the near future. You really think a cup of cheap wine is going to help me?'
Macro shrugged. 'Well, it ain't going to hurt you. In fact, it has a funny way of making things seem better.'
'You'd know,' Cato muttered. 'Had enough of it over the last three months to lay out an army.'
The barman came back, clunked a pair of Samian-ware cups on the rough wooden table between the two centurions, and filled the cups from a jug before setting that down with a cheap flourish.
'Heard the news?'
Macro and Cato turned towards him with annoyed expressions that clearly invited him to shut his mouth and beat a hasty retreat to behind the counter. The barman was not prepared to give up working for his tip that easily, and leaned against a stout wooden post that held up the three floors above the tavern.
'Porcius is back in town.'
'Porcius?' Macro raised an eyebrow.'Who the bloody hell is Porcius and why should I be remotely interested in him?'
The barman shook his head in wonder at the ignorance of the two army officers. 'Why, he's only the best charioteer ever to have driven for the blues! He's top of the bill this afternoon. Runs his horses like he was born with reins in his hands. Tell you what,' he leaned closer,'you got anything to spare for a bet, and I could get you good odds.'
'Leave 'em be,' a voice growled from the next table, and Macro saw the face of the guardsman from the palace as he turned towards the two centurions.'Porcius is a jumped-up little tosser. Only thinks he's good. If the man had any talent at all he'd be racing for the greens. Sir, save your money. Place it on Nepos. He's racing for the greens.'
'Nepos!' The barman spat on the ground. He looked at the guardsman with contempt and the usual unthinking hostility that ardent supporters of racing teams reserved for each other. Then he strode back to the bar, muttering one last parting shot to the two centurions. 'Might as well piss your money down the Great Sewer as bet on that twat Nepos.'
'I heard that!' shouted the guardsman.
'Racing,' Cato said quietly. 'If anything destroys the Empire, it'll be racing.'
Macro wasn't listening. His eyes were fixed on the guardsman. He turned towards him and tapped the man on the shoulder.
'Hello, friend,' Macro smiled. 'These races – any good tips you might be willing to share with a comrade in arms?'
'Tips?' The man glanced round at the other customers, but no one seemed to be listening. 'Yes, I've got one tip for you. Don't bet on that bastard Porcius.' He tapped his nose. 'I know what's what, and I'm telling you, sir, Nepos is your man. Bung a few denarians on him and you'll be laughing. Now, if you'll excuse me, sir, I have to go.' He grated his stool back on the flagstone, rose rather unsteadily to his feet, steered a course out of the tavern and was immediately lost from sight in the flow of people in the Forum.
'Doubt he'll get back to the palace in one go,' Cato muttered. 'All the same, I wish I had his problems.'
Macro turned back to his friend, desperately searching for some crumb of comfort he could offer Cato, but he had never been good at that sort of thing.
'It's rough luck, lad.'
'Rough luck?' Cato laughed bitterly. 'Oh, it's better than that. I mean, after all that we've been through, after all we've done for General Plautius, you can be certain that patrician bastard'll make sure I get the chop. There's something you can safely bet on. Just to make sure that his shining reputation as a harsh disciplinarian doesn't get a mark on it. And the Imperial Secretary will back him up.'
'He might recommend a pardon,' Macro suggested.
Cato stared at him. 'He might not. Anyway, aren't you forgetting something?'
'You're also under threat. What if the general decides he wants to put you in the frame over the death of Centurion Maximius?'
'I don't think he will. There's no evidence linking me to his murder, just a few rumours put around by a handful of idiots who won't accept that he was killed by the enemy. I'm not worried about that, not really. It's you I'm worried about.' He looked away in embarrassment and his eyes fell on his purse, tied securely to his belt. 'But most of all I'm worried about the fact that we're broke, and we're going to be very hungry in a few days' time unless some back pay comes through. If it doesn't, then we'll be on the bloody streets once the next month's rent is due. All in all, it's not looking too healthy, Cato my lad.'
'So we'd better do something about it.'
Macro smiled, and leaned closer across the table. 'Like taking advantage of that tip, and getting ourselves down to the Great Circus.'
'Are you mad? We're down to our last few coins and you want to throw them away on the races?'
'Throwing 'em away is what mugs do. What we've got is a sure thing.'
'No. What you've got is incurable optimism. Me? I'm a realist. If we place that money on a race we might as well just give it away.'
Macro slapped his hand down on the table, making the cups jump. 'Oh, come on, Cato! What little we've got is as good as gone anyway. If the tip's any use we should get reasonable odds, and, who knows, if the bet comes good we'll be able to keep the lupine pest from the door for a while yet. What have we got to lose?'
'Apart from our senses?'
Macro glared at him. 'Just for once, trust to fate and see what happens.'
Cato thought it over for a moment. Macro was right, he had pretty much lost everything else in his life, and even the latter was almost certainly forfeit. So why worry about a few coins? The general's response would arrive from Britain before the landlord's heavies could pin him to the wall for any arrears. He might as well live a little, while he could.
'All right then, let's go.'
By the time they had pushed their way inside the huge arch of one of the public entrances to the Great Circus there were only a few places left in the section reserved for the army. Most of the stone benches had been taken by Praetorian Guardsmen who were busy drinking from wineskins and making bets. Here and there were small clusters of legionaries – men on leave or, like Cato and Macro, waiting for a new posting. Quite a few were ex-soldiers, pensioned off or invalided out of the legions and taking advantage of their veterans' rights.
Emperor Claudius, in a shrewd move, had changed the seating plan so that the guardsmen were arranged either side of, and behind the grand imperial box. The senators had been shifted further off, much to their chagrin, and spilled out over their benches where they were waited on by their slaves, who served them heated wine in small goblets. Glancing beyond them, Cato saw the enclosure for the vestal virgins, the less spacious seating reserved for lesser nobles, and then the packed ranks of the common citizens, and above them, on the rearmost benches, the freedmen, foreigners and unattached women, many of whom were obviously plying their trade. Macro followed the direction of his gaze.
'Forget them. You can't afford it. Not unless Nepos does his stuff.'
Cato swung his gaze back towards the huge expanse of the track stretching out in front of them. Several race officials were crossing to the central island, while around them scores of slaves raked the sand into a smooth, even surface in final preparation for the first race. The assistants to the priests wheeled a cage of unblemished white goats towards the sacrificial altar in the middle of the island, directly opposite the imperial box.
All around the arena the usual hawkers sold snacks, cushions and brightly coloured scarves for each team's supporters. Amongst them prowled the bet-takers, accompanied by a heavy or two to make sure that the money was kept safe. Macro swallowed nervously, stood up, and made for the nearest; a swarthy-looking Hispanic, clutching a bundle of waxed slates tied together. Behind him lurked two huge men, powerfully built and horribly scarred, as most ex-gladiators tended to be. Each man carried a money box on a strap across his shoulders, and had a thick wooden stave to hand.
'Let me guess,' smiled the bet-taker as he sized Macro up and calculated his worth. 'You'll have a gold piece on Porcius, to win.'
'Er, no.' Macro felt embarrassment burning in his cheeks. He glanced round and continued in a low voice, 'Five denarians on Nepos, to win.'
'Five denarians?' The bet-taker looked disappointed. He quickly reappraised the centurion, and continued sarcastically, 'Sure you can afford it?'
Macro stiffened. 'Yes, of course I can. Five on Nepos, like I said.'
'Nepos? You know the odds are ten to one?'
'That's what I'm counting on.'
'Well, it's your money. If you're sure…?'
Macro frowned. 'Do you want to take the bet, or not?'
'I'm happy to take your money. Just a moment, please… sir.' The bet-taker opened his tablets and prepared to make a new entry with his stylus. He began to press some tiny notation into the wax, muttering as he wrote. 'Five den. on Nepos to win… Your name?'
'Macro. Fine, now if I can just have your payment.' Macro handed him the silver coins from his purse and the bet-taker dropped them into one of the boxes carried by his heavies. The coins fell through the slot with a dull chink on to the money already taken in. The bet-taker nodded to the man carrying the chest. 'That's tally one hundred and forty-three.'
The ex-gladiator raised a large metal hoop from his side and fumbled amongst the small wooden pegs until he reached the right number and then worked it free and handed it over to Macro. The bet-taker smiled at him. 'Pleasure doing business with you, though I doubt we'll meet again. Now, if you'll excuse me…'
Macro tucked the wooden tally into his purse and hurried back to Cato.
'How much did you place on Nepos?'
'Enough,' Macro replied easily, then pointed across the heads of the spectators towards the imperial box. 'Look, there's Claudius' flunkies. He must be on his way.'
'How much?' Cato persisted.
'Oh, five denarians, or something.'
'Five den-Macro, that's pretty much all we have.'
'Actually, it is all we have.' Macro shrugged an apology. 'It's a risk, but I got odds of ten to one.'
'Really?' Cato responded sourly. 'And why do you think that's good news? He's got nine chances in ten of losing.'
'Look here,' Macro lowered his voice, 'our man said it was a sure thing. We stand to win fifty silver pieces when it's over.'
'I can do the maths, thank you. Fifty pieces, if Nepos wins.'
'He will, trust me. I have a feeling for these things.'
Cato shook his head and glanced away, letting his gaze turn to the imperial box. The household slaves were busy setting up a table of snacks and wines to the side of the Emperor's seat. Even at a distance of fifty paces, Cato could make out a platter of ornately arranged fowl glazed in what looked like honey. His mouth began to water at the sight and he felt his stomach churn with hunger.
The imperial household began to emerge from their private entrance to take their seats. A handful of favoured senators eased themselves down on to plump cushions set on the stools each side of the imperial dais. They were followed by some of the Emperor's freedmen and scribes, who stood at the back of the box. At last the white tufts of hair and the gilded wreath on top of Claudius' head came into view and a great roar of greeting swelled up from the crowd and echoed around the Great Circus. Louder than a battle, Cato thought. Far louder.
The Emperor stood still for a moment, basking in the popular acclaim. Only his head moved, in the characteristic twitch that no amount of self-control could prevent. At length Claudius slowly raised an arm and turned to greet his people, who responded to the gesture with an even greater roar. The Emperor's arm sank back to his side and he climbed on to the dais and slumped clumsily into his seat. As the Emperor's wife, Messalina, stepped up beside him, the cheering reached a new frenzy.
Macro leaned close to Cato and shouted into his ear, 'From what I've heard, I bet there's quite a few amongst them who know her almost as well as her husband.'
He grinned and Cato looked round anxiously to make sure that no one had overheard the comment. That was the kind of public comment that informers picked up and passed on to palace agents for a small reward. Then, one night, a squad of Praetorians would kick your door in and bundle you off, never to be seen or heard from again. Fortunately, Macro's foolish words were lost in the deafening roar of the crowd and Cato began to relax.
Then he saw another man entering the imperial box: thin, with dark hair and a plain white toga. Claudius beckoned to the newcomer with a smile, and indicated a seat just below the dais. Cato felt Macro cup a hand to his ear as he pointed towards the box with the other.
'Did you see who just arrived?'
Cato nodded. 'Our friend, the Imperial Secretary.'
'Do you think Narcissus knows we're back in Rome?'
'If he doesn't already know, he will soon.'
'Then we're in trouble. That bastard talked General Plautius into decimating our cohort.'
'I remember. He won't be happy that I'm still alive.'
Cato felt a surge of fear as he looked over the heads of the crowd at Narcissus. Not much escaped the notice of the man who controlled the Emperor's secret police, disposed of any threats and dispensed much of Claudius' patronage. And if he did know that Cato was in the city then he would be sure to tie up any loose ends as soon as possible, preferably by discreet strangulation in some dark, forgotten cell of the Mammertine prison. But there was a chance, an outside chance, that Macro and he had evaded the ever watchful eye of Narcissus, even now.
At that precise moment Narcissus turned in his seat and cast his gaze over the crowd and, before Cato could react, his eyes fixed in the direction of the two centurions. Cato felt his guts turn to ice. It was only an instant, then Cato slumped down on his bench, out of Narcissus' line of sight.
'Shit!' Cato muttered. 'Shit… shit… shit.'
Macro dropped down beside him, alarmed by the sudden change in his friend's expression. 'What's the matter?'
'He saw us. Narcissus saw me.'
'Bollocks. How could he? We're just a pair of faces amongst thousands. There's no way-'
'I'm telling you, he saw me!' Cato could almost feel the rough hands of the Praetorian Guardsmen Narcissus would be sure to send out to arrest him. It would all be over in a moment.
Macro stood up slowly and glanced towards the imperial box, before ducking back down beside his friend. 'He's not even looking this way. Just chatting with the Emperor. Nothing else. He can't have seen you. Relax!'
The cheering quickly died away as the priests prepared for the sacrifice to open the day's racing. Two assistants dragged one of the white kid goats out from the cage and, holding the struggling animal by its legs, they carried it up the steps to the altar and held it down on the gleaming marble surface. The chanting of the high priest could just be heard across the track, as he intoned the blessing of Jupiter, best and greatest, on the Emperor Claudius, his family, the senate and people of Rome, and the charioteers. Then, he raised a curved dagger above the bleating goat, paused a moment, the blade glinting in the sunlight, before he slashed it down. The distant bleating was abruptly cut off. For a moment the priest bent over the twitching body of the goat and worked at its stomach with the dagger. Then, he eased out the liver, glistening in purple and red as it steamed slightly in the cool air. He bent over the organ to examine it closely, then called over a colleague, who also looked at the liver before they discussed their readings. The priest suddenly lifted the organ aloft to signify that Jupiter had accepted the sacrifice and the races could proceed. A huge roar of relieved tension swept round the stadium. Macro slapped his hands down on his knees and grinned like a boy.
The pious speeches by the senate fathers were kept as brief as possible. It was the usual flowery offer of thanks to the sponsor of the races, in this case Claudius himself. The Emperor tapped his feet impatiently as he tried to catch the eye of the speakers and then made a quick waving gesture with his hand to get them to move on swiftly. The crowd cheered each speech politely, and then, as the last speaker climbed down from the podium on the island, they craned their necks expectantly, all eyes riveted to the line of gates at the far end of the Great Circus.
There was a moment of hushed expectancy. Then a great fanfare of trumpets shrilled out and the gates swung inwards to reveal the dark tunnels leading back to the marshalling area. There was movement in the shadows, then the chariot teams burst out of the tunnels and on to the sand of the Great Circus. The crowd jumped up and screamed with excitement, and slowly the cheers resolved into rival chants in support of each team, or of vulgar denigration of the opposition. Most of the Praetorians, clearly, were supporters of the blues and bellowed out the name of Porcius as he drove his team past the imperial box and saluted Emperor Claudius.
'Bastard better lose,' Macro said softly. Then he glanced around nervously and drew a deep breath.'Come on, Porcius!'
Cato raised an eyebrow as he caught his friend's gaze. Macro shrugged.'Just keeping on side. No point in starting a fight.'
The chariot teams completed a circuit of the track and then drew up in a line abreast, just in front of the Emperor. The crews clustered round, making final adjustments to the horses' harnesses and applying a last handful of grease to the chariot axles. The charioteers checked their reins and made sure that the razor-sharp safety knives were secure in their scabbards. Each charioteer wore a short, sleeveless tunic in his team's colours, and the light screens that folded around their legs were also painted in the team colours.
Macro focused his attention on Nepos, a wiry man with a dark complexion. Nepos stood erect and still in his green tunic. Too still for Macro's liking, almost as if he was too terrified to move. Or maybe he simply had nerves of steel. He'd better had.
Once the preparations were complete the crews withdrew from the track and the charioteers took the strain on their reins, holding back their horse teams. The animals had been raised to run flat out and jostled each other nervously, muzzles flaring as their powerful flanks heaved.
For a moment Cato forgot everything that troubled him as he sat forward on the edge of his bench and stared at the four chariot teams, tensed up and ready to explode into action. The Emperor nodded to the race marshal and the latter stepped up on to the podium at the front of the imperial box. He carried a small flag, which he carefully unfurled and slowly raised up until his arm was erect. Every eye of the tens of thousands of people in the Circus was on him and there was not a sound except for the snorting of the horses. The marshal waited until the teams were as level as they could be. Then he snatched his hand down and the flag dropped with a rippling flutter. Instantly the crowd roared. The charioteers cracked their reins and the horses kicked up plumes of sand as they yanked the chariots forward and the race began.
Porcius, true to his reputation, somehow managed to coax an extra burst of strength from his team and they had nosed ahead in the first length. The blues were just clear of the other teams as the chariots swerved round the end of the island, throwing up sheets of sand as the body of each chariot skidded round, and passed temporarily out of sight. The cheering of the spectators around Cato subsided as they turned their eyes to the other end of the island, waiting in tense anticipation for the chariots to reappear. Sand sprayed up an instant before the first chariot swung into view and the Praetorians leaped up in delight, screaming out their support for Porcius. Right behind him was Nepos, and Macro only just managed to restrain his cry of delight that Nepos was still in close contention. With desperate flicks of the reins Nepos steered his team to the outside as they raced down the track towards the imperial box. Gradually he closed on Porcius, then began to edge up alongside the blues. Porcius saw the danger and, with a quick tug on the reins, moved out to head off his rival.
A howl of outrage burst out from the supporters of the greens and Macro balled his hands into tight fists, but kept his lips clamped tightly together. Beside him, Cato just felt sick as he saw the man carrying the fate of their last few coins desperately rein in, then abruptly swerve left, closer to the island. Porcius had misjudged his manoeuvre and now his horses missed a pace as their charioteer urged them back on course. But it was too late. Nepos, leaning over the front rail of his chariot, was cracking his reins furiously and crying out encouragement to his team. They surged forward, inside the blues, past them and into the lead. Cato felt a surge of joy burst through his veins, and fought not to let it show.
'Yessss!' Macro punched his fist into the air, then looked round anxiously. Some of the guardsmen were looking at him in surprise, but quickly turned their attention back to the race.
'Watch it,' Cato muttered. 'I get the feeling we're not amongst friends.'
Back on the track, Nepos raced ahead, and rounded the island, disappearing from view. An instant later the blues swerved round after him and were gone. Already a sizeable gap had opened up between the leaders and the other two teams, the reds and the yellows, who were battling it out, neck and neck, trying to close up on the leaders. Once more the cheering on this side of the Circus died down as the race continued on the far side of the island. Heads swivelled to the far end of the central island, everyone watching intently.
Cato glanced down into the imperial box and saw that Narcissus was staring back in his direction. Their eyes met. Cato was sure of it. The Imperial Secretary was staring directly at him, and there was nothing Cato could do but pretend it wasn't happening, as if he was just some face in the crowd. Then Narcissus raised a hand and pointed his finger at Cato, then waved slowly, before turning back towards the track. Cato felt the cold chill of terror trickle down his spine. He had been seen and recognised and there would be no avoiding the Imperial Secretary now. Cato knew he was as good as dead. Narcissus had beckoned to one of the guards officers and was speaking animatedly into his ear. It could be about anything, Cato hoped desperately; they could be talking about somebody or something else. Then Narcissus turned and pointed towards him and the officer nodded, and moved towards the entrance of the imperial box.
Cato grabbed his friend's arm. 'We have to go! Now!'
'Are you mad?' Macro shook his hand off. 'What's left of our money's out there. We're not going anywhere. Not until the race is over.'
'But…' Cato's mind raced. There was no time to explain it to Macro. And Macro wouldn't budge. 'All right! I'm heading back to that tavern. Find me there, afterwards.' He rose, snatched up his helmet and hurried up the steps towards the exit.
Behind him, Macro stretched out a hand. 'Cato! Wait! Oh, sod you, then!'
Cato scrambled down the steep steps into the arched gallery that ran around the Circus, under the banked seating. From there a wider flight of steps led down into the street, and his nailed boots echoed sharply off the columns and curved ceiling of the gallery. Above the dulled noise of the crowd he thought he could hear more footsteps, more nailed boots and a shout. He ran down the steps, three at a time, risking an injury in his bid to escape the Circus before Narcissus' men could stop him. At the bottom of the stairs he emerged from the shadows of the building and saw that there were still plenty of people ambling along the wide thoroughfare that ran beside the Great Circus. Cato knew if he ran he was sure to stand out from the crowd. He drew a breath and then moved in amongst the passers-by, filtering diagonally away from the steps towards an opening in the line of shops opposite, where a small side street ran down towards the Forum. Behind him he heard the clattering of boots on the steps, but, with iron will, he forced himself not to turn and look, but to keep walking steadily towards the side street. As people crossed his path, or barged into him, Cato refused to meet their gaze and moved on, all the while waiting for a shout from behind that would mean his doom. At last he reached the street corner, and ducked down the narrow alley, pausing only briefly to glance back towards the Great Circus. Four guardsmen were standing a few steps above the street, scrutinising the crowd, but none of them was looking in his direction.
Cato hurried down the alley, which was one of the older streets in the city, winding its way down the slope, becoming evermore narrow until the sky was only visible as a jagged line overhead, crowded by the eaves of the tightly packed tenement blocks rearing up on either side. Behind him the roars of the vast crowd in the Circus were gradually muffled. The atmosphere of the alley was thick with the rank odour of rotting food and sewage. He passed few people as he walked quickly along. A few surly-looking women watched him from open doorways and he had to squeeze past a small band of drunken youths, heading uphill towards the Great Circus. In the gloomy alley there were no landmarks for Cato to steer by, only where the slope led, and the broad sense of the direction in which he needed to move. Then, at last, he turned a corner, and the alley ran into a wider street, filled with people. To the left lay the Forum and, with a deep breath, Cato turned towards it and walked on at a steadier pace, trying not to look like the wretched fugitive he had become.
He found the tavern easily enough, and took a seat inside, close to a wall so that he could keep watch on the crowds outside and lean back into the shadows if he needed to avoid anyone's searching gaze. The young barman came over, drying his hands on a filthy rag. A flicker of recognition crossed his face and he grinned.
'Didn't go to the races then?'
'We did,' Cato replied quickly before he realised that his quitting the Circus so soon would look suspicious unless he could explain it.'But I remembered I was supposed to meet someone here. My friend will join me later.'
'I see.' The barman shrugged. 'Well, that's a shame. What'll you drink?'
'This is a tavern, friend, not a clients' waiting room.'
'A cup of wine. Heated wine.'
'Just a cup?'
'That's all I want, for now.'
'Right.' The barman threw the rag over his shoulder and headed back to the large wine jars set into the counter. He returned and placed a steaming cup down at Cato's table.
'That's one sestertian.'
With a sick feeling Cato realised that Macro had charge of all their money, and he was back at the Circus. He glanced up at the barman. 'Keep a tab. I'll pay when my friend arrives.'
The barman shook his head.'No tabs. House policy. You pay now.'
Cato cleared his throat and stared hard at the young barman. He lowered his voice to a rough growl. 'I said I'll pay later. Now leave me.'
The barman opened his mouth to protest. Cato leaned back against the wall, crossed his arms and nodded back towards the rear of the tavern. The barman eyed him coldly, then moved away and settled behind the bar to rinse some cups, and keep an eye on his difficult customer.
Cato turned his gaze back on to the crowd in the Forum and waited. Hopefully Macro would come to him once the first race was over, if Nepos had won. Then he'd collect his winnings and head for the Forum. An hour passed and the cup in front of Cato had been empty for a long while. He did not dare order another in case Macro did not turn up, and began to worry about how he would talk his way out of the tavern.
Then, a short distance away, the crowd parted as a patrician woman shrank back with a small cry of disgust. A figure in a centurion's armour shambled past her. His face was battered and bloody and for a moment Cato did not recognise Macro. Then, as his friend turned towards the tavern, Cato jumped up.
'Macro! Macro, what the hell's happened to you?'
06 The Eagles Prophecy