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'So where's this city of yours?' Macro asked as they rode down the worn track between the steep-sided hills.

Symeon gestured to his right. 'In there.'

Macro and Cato turned towards the sheer rock faces towering up on the other side of the valley. There seemed to be no break in the cliffs, and rising up in the distance beyond were the rocky peaks and crags of yet higher hills.

'Rocks, rocks and more rocks,' Macro grumbled. 'Petra – the name says it all.'

Cato nodded wearily. He was at the end of his endurance.There had been no rest in the days of Bannus' assault on Fort Bushir, and afterwards they had ridden relentlessly down the line of the mountains that ran along the Jordan valley, pursuing Bannus and the small band of his followers who had survived their defeat at Bushir. Symeon, at the head of a select party of the Nabataeans, had driven them on, grim-faced, forever scanning the way ahead for the least sign of Bannus. They had sighted him once, from the peak above the village of Dana. Before them stretched a vista of smaller mountains and hills that gave out on to the wide barren basin of the lower Jordan valley.The air was so dry and clear that little of the detail was lost in the distance and from where they stood they could see the foothills on the far side of the valley, thirty or forty miles away. Even Macro was impressed by the spectacular vista. Then Murad gave a shout and pointed towards the hills further to the south. A thin column of tiny black specks was climbing a distant ridge, and a faint puff of dust marked their progress. Symeon shouted a command and they set off again, riding hard to catch up, but soon the distant horsemen had crested the ridge and disappeared from sight.

They rode until dusk made further progress dangerous and then camped in the open, rising at the first hint of light to continue the chase. So it was that two days after leaving Heshaba they approached Petra in the blistering heat of noon.As they descended into the valley that led to the entrance of the city they passed a caravan heading north: hundreds of camels piled high with goods bound for the luxury-loving Hellenic cities of the Decapolis. Symeon, Murad and the others exchanged greetings with the men in charge of the caravan and stopped a moment for a brief conversation before they made their farewells and the caravan continued climbing the track at a slow steady pace.

Symeon reined his horse in alongside Macro and Cato. 'I asked them if there had been any new arrivals in Petra earlier today, or yesterday.'

'And?' Macro responded.

'It seemed that Bannus arrived at first light. They saw a party of horsemen enter the siq as the camels were being loaded. They had a boy with them, and a number of Parthians. It has to be Bannus.'

'Siq?' Cato asked. 'What is the siq?'

Symeon smiled at him.'The siq is Petra's secret weapon. You'll see what I mean the moment we pass into it.'

They rode on, into the base of the valley, and became aware of a growing sound of voices, the braying of donkeys and the deeper grunt of camels, and then the track turned round a spur of rock and ahead of them lay a vast open area filled with men and beasts. Porters struggled with great bundles of goods: rolls of cloth, tightly bound packages of spices and fine glassware carefully packed in straw and placed in wicker baskets. Caravans were being loaded for the cities of the north, while others, unladen, were preparing to return to the great trading ports of Arabia for their next consignment of luxuries. Cato looked round eagerly. He had never seen the like of some of the people who thronged the great natural marshalling arena of Petra – brown-skinned, silk-robed men with narrow eyes, and dark hair in plaits. He pointed them out to Symeon and asked who they were.

'They're from the east.The furthest east a man can go, so I'm told. I don't know much about them, except that they are as rich as men can be, thanks to Roman and Greek gold and silver. The amount of treasure passing through Petra is almost beyond imagination, Cato. I am surprised you Romans aren't being bled white by such an outpouring of your wealth.'

'You've never been to Rome, have you?'

'Not yet. But I will, one day.'

'Then you'll see why Rome can afford these luxuries. There is nothing the richest men cannot buy. Their coffers are that deep.'

'For the moment perhaps,' Symeon mused. 'But no empire, however rich, can continue indulging itself at such a rate, surely?

'I don't know,' Cato admitted. 'I've never thought about it.'

Symeon shrugged. 'Then maybe you should.'

After Symeon had dismissed his Nabataeans they rode on, threading through the marshalling arena until they reached a broad road that led towards the rock cliffs. The road was paved and gently cambered with a drainage ditch on either side. There was plenty of traffic along the route, more porters, merchants and mercenaries like the men who rode with Symeon and Murad. On either side of the road were tombs, carved into the rock with great skill so that the facades looked like freestanding columns. Then the road curved round a large rock formation and Cato and Macro saw a small but solid-looking gateway built across the road. Behind it soared sheer cliffs of red rock marked with darker and lighter bands of stratification. There was a narrow fissure between the cliffs that led back into the mountains. Symeon turned to his Roman companions.

'That, my friends, is the siq.'

The gateway was guarded by a score of men in fine robes and polished scale armour that gleamed brilliantly when they stood directly in the sunlight, out of the shade of the cliffs. Before the gate stood a crowd waiting to pay their toll to go through, while a steady stream of people passed by in the opposite direction. Symeon indicated that they should dismount, and led them over to join the crowd entering the siq. The crowd slowly shuffled forward until Symeon approached the table set up by the entrance. A smiling, over-indulged official greeted him in Aramaic.

Symeon responded, indicating the size of his party, and the official quickly rattled some beads across an abacus to work out the toll. Symeon took out his purse and handed over some silver coins, and the official slipped them into the slot atop a big chest to one side of the table. He was about to wave them through when he spotted Macro and Cato and his eyes narrowed suspiciously. He raised his hand to halt Symeon and shot some questions to him in a hostile tone. Symeon responded as reasonably as he could, but the official became increasingly ill tempered and finally shouted an order to the guards by the gate.

Macro stepped towards the table. 'What's going on?'

'Our friend seems to have taken exception to you. There were some Parthians amongst a party seeking entry to Petra early this morning. Now there are two Romans. He wants to know why representatives of the great powers are suddenly so interested in visiting Petra.'

'But we're not representatives. We're just hunting down Bannus. Tell him.'

'I did. I said I have a house here and that you are my guests. He didn't believe me. He says he must detain you and is going to inform the palace that you are being held.'

'Detain? You mean arrest?' Macro frowned.'Not likely.'

A squad of six guards approached from the gatehouse and Macro's hand slid down to the handle of his sword. He drew it a short distance from the scabbard, before Cato pressed the pommel back down.

'Macro, that's not going to help. Please don't.We can't afford to cause any trouble.'


'This won't help us to take Bannus prisoner, and return Yusef to his mother.'

Macro turned from Cato to the approaching guards, and then back to Cato again with a deep sigh of resentment and frustration. 'All right then.'

The guards halted in front of the table and their leader approached the two Romans warily. He gestured towards their swords and Cato and Macro reluctantly drew them and handed them over.Then he indicated the entrance to the siq.

Cato turned to Symeon. 'Where are they taking us?'

'To the cells under the royal palace. Don't worry, I'll do what I can to get you out of there as soon as possible.'

'That would be nice,' Macro said coldly. 'If it's not too much trouble.'

The leader of the guards spoke to them, more insistently this time, and thrust his finger towards the siq. Cato stepped into the middle of the group of guards, and after a moment's hesitation Macro followed him and they marched away. Once they had passed through the gate the rock faces closed in on both sides so that in places only a few men could stand abreast. Overhead the cliffs blocked out all but a thin sliver of open sky, and in places an overhang threw the passage into dim shadow. The route was paved and a small water channel ran alongside to prevent flooding. Those ahead of the small party had to squeeze to one side to permit them to pass as the guards and their prisoners made their way along the winding path into the city.

'You can see why Pompey was never able to bring the Nabataeans to heel,' Cato said quietly. 'If this is the only way into Petra then a small force could hold an army at bay for ever.'

'There has to be another way in,' Macro replied. 'A path through the mountains, or at least something scaleable. Surely?'

'Maybe not. How else could Nabataea have resisted every conqueror passing through the region?' Cato looked up at the cliffs in wonder. 'It's a miracle that anyone ever found this entrance in the first place.'

They turned a corner and ahead of them a narrow fissure of light split the cliffs from top to bottom. A short distance beyond the opening was an enormous structure, a temple, built from massive columns. Only when they got closer did Cato realise this was no construction, but had been carved from solid rock.

'Will you just look at that,' Macro marvelled as they emerged from the siq and could see the entire edifice, fiery red in the sunlight angling down across it.They had emerged into a narrow canyon, stone-paved and filled with market stalls and the stands of bankers, just as in any large city of the empire. Except that there were no temples surrounding the market, just red cliffs. The guards steered them across the market area and round another corner and there, at last, the city of Petra revealed itself to them. Great tombs, carved into the rock, lined the broad thoroughfare leading into the heart of the mountain-bound city. More stalls lined the route and ahead, rising above a low spur of a hill, was a sprawl of magnificent palaces and temples. As they emerged from the tomb-lined street the cliffs opened out and the rest of the city came into sight, a mass of houses and streets covering the small rises in the ground that surrounded the basin at the heart of Petra. The guards and prisoners marched down a wide straight street, colonnaded on both sides, until they reached a broad flight of steps rising up the hill to the right upon which rested the great palace of the kings of Nabataea. They climbed the steps, but headed away from the large brass-covered doors of the main entrance towards a small, discreet door at the side. Beyond, a staircase descended beneath the palace and then a torchlit tunnel doubled back towards the street they had walked down. At the end of the tunnel was a line of cells with small barred openings that looked down into the street. The leader led them past the first cells, some of which contained a handful of wretched individuals living in their own filth as they awaited judgement or served out their punishment.

Cato nudged Macro. 'Look there.'

Macro glanced to the side as they passed the bars of the last cell but one. Inside, sitting against the stone walls, were several Parthians, still wearing the scaled armour that they had fought in outside Fort Bushir. The eyes of the Parthians followed the new arrivals as they passed by and were ushered into the next cell. The leader of the guards closed the barred door and slid the bolts into place, and then marched off with his men, leaving the two Romans to themselves.

Macro went over to the window and stepped up on to the bench below it so that he could see through the bars. Outside, people passed by, not bothering to cast a glance at the face of the prisoner staring at them from the dim recess at the base of the palace.

'Not the best of results,' he said grimly.

'Symeon will sort the situation out. He'll have us released as soon as possible.'

'You seem to place great confidence in that man.'

Cato had slumped down against the wall and felt the urge to sleep closing in on him like a shroud. His eyes felt heavy and he closed them for a moment.Yet he was piqued by Macro's comment.'Confidence? Yes, I suppose so. He seems to know what he's doing. And it's thanks to him that Bannus was defeated at Bushir, remember?'

'Fair point,' Macro replied flatly, continuing to stare out between the bars.'I just hope he can get us out of this shithole.'

'Colourful,' Cato muttered, and then finally succumbed to his exhaustion as his chin dropped on to his breast and he fell asleep.

A hand grasped his shoulder and shook him roughly. Cato stirred. 'Leave me alone,' he mumbled. 'Go away, Macro.'

The hand shook him again, more forcefully this time, and Cato raised his head, opened his eyes and made to protest again. Only it wasn't Macro. Murad grinned at him and said something in his own tongue while he waved a finger mockingly at the young Roman officer. Macro was standing behind him.

'What's going on?' Cato asked.

'Seems that Symeon has sent us a few necessaries.' Macro gestured to the floor of the cell and Cato saw a bundle of clothes and a small basket of bread and meat. Murad smiled, pointed to the food and then to his mouth.

'Good! Eat. Eat.'

Cato nodded. 'I get the point, thanks.'

He rose up stiffly and rubbed his lower back and buttocks, still aching from two days in the saddle. Outside in the street it was dark and the cell was illuminated by three flames of an oil lamp on the ground beside the door. Macro squatted down and tore off a hunk of bread and popped it into his mouth. As he chewed he gestured towards a wax tablet resting on top of the bundle of clothes. 'He sent us a message as well.'

'What does it say?'

Macro started to explain, but he had too much bread in his mouth to talk properly and he began to chew furiously for a moment before he gave up and tossed the tablet over to Cato. 'See for yourself,' he managed to say.

Cato picked it up and began to read. Symeon had been to see the royal chamberlain to explain the situation and request that the Romans be released.The trouble was that Bannus had beaten him to it, and had already informed the chamberlain that these were Roman spies sent to investigate Petra's defences. Symeon had protested their innocence on this charge. Accordingly, the chamberlain had decided to see all parties first thing in the morning. Symeon had sent them a change of clothes and some of the local scented oil, and had paid the palace guards to bring them some water for washing so that they might present themselves in a decent state to the chamberlain. He concluded by saying that he was still trying to discover where Bannus was staying, that Yusef was safe and the casket was still in Bannus' possession.

Cato lowered the tablet and glanced down at himself. His skin was still streaked with dark smudges of the ash he had blackened himself with for the attack on the enemy camp.The sweat he had shed over the course of two days' riding under the glare of the sun had caused dust to stick to his skin and work its way into every pore and crease. Glancing up at Macro he could see that his friend looked equally dishevelled. Murad pointed towards a tub in the corner of the cell and mimed washing his face.

Cato nodded and bent down to untie his bootlaces. 'What hour is it?'

'No idea,' Macro admitted. 'I fell asleep a short time after you. Only woke up when they let Murad into the cell.'

Once his boots were off, Cato reached for the hem of his tunic. Murad muttered something and quickly backed away and knocked on the door. A moment later the bolt slid back and a guard pulled it open. Murad turned and waved to them both and was gone. The guard shut and bolted the door behind him.

Macro chuckled. 'Seems that they're not too keen on exposing bare flesh around here. I noticed that in the street. No idea how they can bear so much clothing in this heat.'

Cato continued to strip. When he was naked he reached into the tub and discovered that there was a brush resting in the bottom. After he had scrubbed his skin down and dabbed himself dry he examined the clothes that Murad had brought them. There was a light linen tunic for each of them, as well as a flowing robe of some fine material he had never encountered before, and two pairs of lightweight sandals.

'Nice,' he muttered and began to dress.

Macro took his turn at the tub, and then looked at the clothes suspiciously. 'I'd rather wear my army tunic.'

'It's filthy, it's torn and it stinks of horse-sweat.'


'So it's hardly going to impress this royal chamberlain that Symeon mentioned. Besides,' Cato raised his arms so that the folds of the fine material hung from his thin frame, 'these clothes feel very comfortable. Very comfortable indeed.You'll see.'

'Huh!' Macro snorted. 'You look like a high class whore.'

'Really?' Cato smiled mischievously. 'Then just wait until I try on that scented oil.'

Shortly after the sun had appeared above the hills that surrounded the city, the guards came for Macro and Cato. Macro had made a poor show of wearing the clean garments provided for him and the robe hung untidily from his broad shoulders, folds of it overflowing the army belt that he wore loosely about his waist. Earlier, he had refused point blank to wear one drop of the scented oil from the ornate vial that Murad had placed carefully beside the clothes.

'I will not stink like some two-sestertian tart!' he fumed.

Cato tried to reason with him. 'When in Rome-'

'That's precisely the fucking point! We're not in Rome. If we were then I wouldn't have to take part in this fancy dress nonsense.'

'Macro, there's a lot riding on this. Not least the question of our getting out of this cell. We can't do anything from here. We have to make a good impression on the local powers. So please, arrange those clothes properly at least. And, if you're not going to wear the oil, you'd better make sure you stand downwind of the chamberlain.'

'Ha bloody ha,' Macro grumbled, but he began to pluck the folds of the unfamiliar garb into place.When it came to the sandals, Macro was surprised to discover how comfortable they felt after the sturdy army boots he had grown so accustomed to. Not, of course, that he would admit as much to Cato.

'All right then. I'm ready. Let's go.'

They were taken up the tunnel from the cells. As they passed the Parthians, still held in the next cell, Macro winked at them. 'Enjoy the hospitality, lads.'

'What's the point?' asked Cato.'They can't understand you.'

'I'm out here in clean clothes, while they're stuck in a nasty dark cell.What's not to understand?' Macro grinned.

The chamberlain saw them in the court he held adjacent to that of the King. It was a grand hall, lined with columns that soared up to a ceiling covered with geometric patterns picked out in gold. A low dais with an ornate chair and side table stood at the end of the room and light flooded in through shuttered windows high up on the walls. In one corner a caged bird was singing a beautiful but mournful song over and over again. A guard indicated that they were to stand in front of the dais and then turned away and left them, closing the doors behind him.

'What now, I wonder?' Cato said softly.

They stood in silence for a while, expecting the imminent arrival of the chamberlain and his retinue, but no one came, and the repetitive song of the bird continued to echo off the walls until Macro felt a compulsion to wring its neck and jam the carcass on a roasting spit. Fortunately for the songbird, the doors suddenly opened again and Symeon was shown into the room. He smiled at the sight of the two Romans.

'There! You look a lot more civilised.' He gave Macro a quick appraisal. 'Well, less like barbarians at least.'

'What's happening?' Macro asked. 'We've been waiting here for ages. Where's this bloody chamberlain?'

'He's been conferring with his advisers.The arrival of Bannus, and then you two, has created something of a difficult situation for the Nabataeans.'

'How so?'

Symeon glanced round before he lowered his voice and continued. 'One of the Parthians who entered the city with Bannus claims to be a prince of their royal household. If the Nabataeans continue to hold him prisoner, they risk offending Parthia. They've heard that the Parthians are massing forces close to Rome's Syrian frontier. If there's a war between Rome and Parthia, and Parthia wins, then Nabataea cannot afford for there to be any bad will between them. On the other hand, Bannus and his Parthian friend are responsible for attempting to launch a rebellion in Judaea. If the Nabataeans release this Parthian prince and his friend Bannus, they risk offending Rome.' Symeon paused to let it sink in. 'You can see the problem. At the moment they are trying to verify the Parthian's claim.'

'But that could take weeks.'

'Apparently not. Parthia sent an ambassador to the Nabataean king recently.They're at his palace on the Red Sea. The chamberlain has sent word to the King about the situation and asked that he return, with the ambassador, to Petra.'

'How long will that take?' asked Macro.

'Several days.'

Macro pressed his lips together to contain his frustration. 'I am not going to be stuck in that bloody cell for that long.You can tell that to your bloody chamberlain.'

At the sound of footsteps approaching Symeon glanced towards the door. 'I think you'll be able to tell him yourself.'

The doors opened again, and a small crowd entered the hall, in the wake of a tall thin man, richly dressed.The chamberlain's retinue of clerks and advisers took their positions on and around the dais. The chamberlain ignored Symeon and the two Romans until he had settled in his seat. Then he looked towards them and smiled an insincere politician's smile.

'I apologise for the inhospitable manner of your entry to our city.'

His Greek was cultured and flawless. He sounded more Greek than most Greeks, Cato decided as the chamberlain continued addressing them.

'Symeon has made representations to me that you be released into his custody for the duration of your stay in Petra. I will grant this, on the following conditions: first, that you swear an oath not to attempt to quit the city; second, that you confine your movements to the centre of Petra, and make no effort to reconnoitre our defences; third, that you avoid all contact with Bannus and his Parthian allies. If you encounter them in the street you will ignore them. Any breach of these conditions will result in your immediate reincarceration. '

'Reincar-what?' Macro muttered to Cato.

'They'll chuck us back in the cell.'


The chamberlain looked at them. 'Are you willing to accept these conditions?'

Macro nodded. 'We are, sir.'

'Very well. Do I have your oath to abide by these conditions?'

'I swear it.'

'And your friend?'

'I swear it also,' Cato responded.

'Good! That is settled then. Bannus and the Parthian prince have sworn the same oath, so there will be no trouble between you while you are under our jurisdiction. 'There was no doubting the imperative undertone of his statement and the Roman officers nodded their assent.

'So, then,' the chamberlain continued. 'What is it that Rome would ask of the Nabataean kingdom, in respect of the present situation?'

Macro frowned as he tried to follow the gist of the chamberlain's words. Fortunately Cato had a firm grasp of Greek and was able to reply on their behalf. 'We want the safe return of the boy taken hostage by Bannus. We want the return of a casket that belongs to the boy's family, and we want Bannus.'

'And what of the Parthian prince?'

Cato looked to Macro for a decision. Macro opened his mouth, paused and then raised a finger.'Just a moment please, sir.' He turned to Cato and whispered, 'What do you think? Should we let that Parthian bastard off the hook?'

'I don't see what else we can do,' Cato replied, with a quick glance at the chamberlain who was clearly less than amused by Macro's informal request for an intermission. 'You heard what Symeon said. Nabataea dare not risk offending Parthia. For that matter, I doubt that the Emperor would want to present Parthia with any grievance against Rome. I'd say we drop any claim we have on him and concentrate our efforts on Bannus.'

Macro thought it over. It made sense in the circumstances, even though he was reluctant to lose his moral claim for revenge against the Parthian who shared the responsibility for the deaths of so many men of the Second Illyrian. He swallowed his anger and turned back to the chamberlain. 'We lay no claim on the Parthian.'

A visible ripple of relief swept through the Nabataean officials. The chamberlain gestured to one of the guards and spoke in their tongue. The guard bowed and turned to a side door. He opened it and beckoned to someone waiting outside. A moment later, Bannus entered the hall. He glanced round and for a moment there was no expression on his face as he caught sight of Symeon and the two Romans. Then his eyes narrowed slightly, betraying his bitter hatred.The chamberlain called out to him and indicated that he should stand to one side of the dais, some distance from his enemies.

'Bannus,' he began, 'these representatives of Rome demand that you are handed over to them.'

'No!' Bannus cried out. 'You must not betray me. I came here to ask for asylum. Is this how Nabataea treats its guests?'

'I do not recall extending an invitation to you,' the chamberlain replied with another of his smiles.'Therefore you are not our guest.'

'Nevertheless, I would ask you for shelter, for protection against a common enemy.'


'I speak of Rome.'

'We are not at war with Rome. They are not our enemy.'

'Yet they will be. Rome is not simply another kingdom. It is a contagion.They will never cease to covet the lands of others. If they would have my land, poor as it is, as a province of their empire, then how do you imagine they would look upon the wealth of Nabataea?'

The chamberlain did not reply. He spared Cato and Macro a quick glance before returning his attention to Bannus. 'What evidence do you have that Rome has any designs on Nabataea?'

'Evidence?' Bannus smiled. 'Why, all the evidence of history. There is not a land that they have conquered wherein they did not look across its frontier with a view to the next conquest. Their appetite for expansion is insatiable. Only when those peoples who are not yet under the Roman yoke realise their common danger will we be free of their tyranny. If you hand me over to them, then you betray all those who would defy Rome, and all those, in the fullness of time, who should defy Rome.'

'You refer, of course, to the kingdom of Nabataea.'

'I do.'

The chamberlain's staff looked at each other uneasily. But their master simply stared at the Judaean as he reflected on their exchange. At length, he turned to Macro and Cato. He frowned. 'Who speaks for you?'

Macro turned to Cato and spoke in an undertone. 'I can't keep up with this in Greek.You'll have to speak for us. But be careful, mind. Play it straight and don't try anything too clever. All we want is Bannus, the boy and that woman's casket.' He turned back to face the chamberlain. 'My companion Centurion Cato will speak for us.'

Cato hissed, 'Are you sure about this, Macro?'

'Quite sure. Now get on with it.'

The chamberlain fixed his stare on Cato. 'Is it true? Does Rome intend to annex our kingdom?'

Cato felt his heart beating wildly inside his chest. For a moment he was too terrified to respond. How could he? He was a junior officer, albeit one with a mission assigned to him by the Emperor's chief of staff, Narcissus. But he could not deny Bannus' accusation, because he simply did not know the extent of imperial policy.

'Sir,' he began hesistantly,'I am a soldier. I have no idea what my masters in Rome intend for this region. All that I do know is that Judaea is a Roman province, under the rule of Roman law, and that this man, Bannus, is a brigand and an outlaw who tried to provoke a rebellion against us. Therefore he is a common criminal, and all that my prefect and I seek is the chance to bring him to justice.'

'Justice!' Bannus laughed bitterly. 'What justice will I receive at the hands of Rome? You'll nail me up on a cross at the first opportunity, just as you did to Jehoshua, and all the others who led the resistance against Rome.'

Cato did not reply to this charge, since it was true. Instead he tried a different tack. 'As I said, I have no knowledge of the Emperor's plans for his empire, but this I do know. If a kingdom offers shelter or any other form of succour to an enemy of Rome, such as Bannus, then I am certain that the Emperor would not be well disposed towards that kingdom. Particularly since someone like Bannus would pose an ongoing threat to the stability of the Roman province of Judaea, as long as he is permitted to live… on the very border of the province.'

The chamberlain understood the thrust of Cato's last words and nodded, folding his hands together as he contemplated the situation. Bannus looked to him, trying hard to conceal his desperation.

'Before you decide to hand me over to these Roman scum, I have to tell you that I am no simple brigand. No outlaw. I made a treaty with Parthia. That is why their prince is serving under my command.'

'Bollocks!' Macro snapped, the word echoing round the hall. Cato winced as his friend jabbed his finger out towards Bannus and continued angrily, 'How can you make a treaty with Parthia? You're nothing but a criminal.'

'I am no criminal,' Bannus replied, his voice suddenly dropping into a more calm, almost serene, tone. 'I am the rightfully anointed king of my people. I am the mashiah.'

'Blasphemer!' Symeon spat. 'How dare you?'

He took several steps towards Bannus before the chamberlain quickly gestured to his guards and they drew their swords, hurriedly interposing themselves between the two men. Symeon was forced to stop in his tracks, breathing hard and glaring at Bannus. He forced himself to calm down and raised his hands to indicate that his rage was under control. 'Forgive me, sir. But this man, who crawls lower than the belly of a snake, outrages the religion of my people with such a claim.'

'Really?' Bannus smiled. 'Didn't our friend Jehoshua once claim to be the mashiah? Or did someone claim that on his behalf?'

Symeon coloured and Cato saw him clench his fists so tight that they blanched, hard and cold as rock.

'Now I lay claim to that title,' Bannus continued.'And as the leader of my people I am perfectly entitled to enter into treaties with Parthia. For their part, they recognise me as an allied ruler. That being the case, I do not think that Parthia would look too kindly on my being surrendered to these petty officials from a small outpost on the frontier of their empire.'

'Petty official?' Macro started. 'Me? Why, the little bastard! I'll have him!'

'Enough!' shouted the chamberlain. 'Silence!'

His voice echoed round the hall, and only the songbird continued with its unending and unchanging sequence of notes. The chamberlain glanced towards the bird cage and muttered to one of his advisers, and the man slipped discreetly across to the corner of the hall, picked up the cage and hurriedly carried it from the room. Macro gave vent to a small sigh of relief.

The chamberlain drew himself up in his chair. 'I cannot make a ruling on this matter today. It is beyond the range of my responsibilities. I hereby defer the question to his majesty who will hear the details on his return to Petra. Both parties are bound by their oaths, and I hereby authorise the release of the two Roman officers into the charge of Symeon. The Parthian prisoners will also be released, once they have sworn their oaths. The royal court will reconvene to rule on this matter when his majesty returns. That concludes this hearing. Gentlemen, you may leave.'

07 The Eagle In the Sand