The day before the Accession games were to be held was taken up with preparations. A temporary arena had been under construction on the parade ground outside the camp for several days. When the workmen had packed up their tools and departed, one of the Praetorian cohorts was tasked with painting the timber stands and decorating the imperial box with fresh garlands of oak leaves. A large purple canopy was erected over the seating area of the imperial box to shield the Emperor and his family from the elements. On the front of the box some of the Praetorians, with more artistic skills than the rest of their comrades, painted a large mural depicting Claudius being acclaimed by the guardsmen on the day he had become Emperor. Another mural showed the Emperor handing out gold coins to the soldiers in order to remind them of the special beneficence that he showed to his Praetorians, and the loyalty that they owed him in return.
All was complete by the evening of the twenty-fifth day of January. The arena was large enough to seat every soldier in the camp behind the low barrier wall. There was a wide gate opposite the imperial box to admit the participants of the games, and two small exits at each side for those injured or killed to be removed from the freshly spread sand that covered the parade ground. At headquarters the halls and colonnades had been filled with tables and benches ready for the following evening’s feast. Wagons laden with bread, cured meat, cheese, fruit and wine had trundled into the camp, from the surrouding countryside, where their contents were unloaded into the storerooms under the watchful eyes of junior officers to ensure that there was no pilfering.
As night settled across the Praetorian camp, Macro and Cato sat in the hot room of the bathhouse. After exchanging a few pleasantries with their new comrades they had taken one of the benches in the corner where they would not be overheard by the other men scattered about the sweltering chamber. Some of them were engaged in conversation but most sat with sweat coursing down their bodies, relishing the heat.
A drop fell from Macro’s heavy brow and made him blink. He wiped his forehead clear on the back of his forearm and glanced at Cato. His friend sat deep in thought, staring at the tessellated floor in front of him. Earlier in the day Cato had visited the safe house and found a message from Septimus demanding a progress report. They were to meet him there in two days’ time.
‘Sestertius for your thoughts,’ Macro said softly.
‘Eh?’ Cato looked round.
‘I know the look. What’s bothering you?’
‘Lack of progress. I just don’t see how we are supposed to do what Narcissus wants. It’s not as if the Liberators are advertising for new members, nor have we uncovered anything particularly sinister.’
‘What about Sinius?’ asked Macro. ‘He seems like a suspicious character.’
‘True. But we have no proof of his involvement in any conspiracy.’ Cato chewed his lip. ‘Which begs the question; is Narcissus jumping at shadows? What if those who ambushed the bullion convoy were just after the silver?’
‘It’s possible,’ Macro conceded. ‘But what about that man Narcissus had tortured? He said he was working for the Liberators, and he gave up a name.’
‘That’s no surprise. The interrogators know their craft and can break any man. How reliable is the information given under torture? After a while I imagine a man would say anything to try to put an end to his torment.’
Macro thought a moment and nodded. ‘All right. But let’s suppose the information is accurate. We should concentrate our attention on Centurion Lurco when he gets back to the camp. Follow him and see who he talks to. If he’s a ringleader of the conspiracy then we’ll soon know about it.’
‘I suppose so.’ Cato sighed. ‘In any case, he’s the only real possibility we have right now.’
They stayed a little longer before using the brass strigils to scrape off the grime that had sweated out of their skin. Then they moved through to the cold room and jumped into the pool where the shock of the chilled water made them gasp. Cato struck out briskly, swimming two lengths of the pool before he climbed out and hurried out to the changing area where he rubbed himself down with one of the towels drying over the rack above the hypocaust flues. Macro joined him and they began to dress.
‘You know,’ Macro began, ‘if there is no conspiracy and we’re looking for a gang of thieves then that’s going to make things much harder for us. A conspiracy needs supporters to achieve its ends. Anyone involved in a simple theft is going to want to keep it close to their chests.’
‘In which case,’ Macro continued, ‘we’re pretty well stuffed, since Narcissus isn’t going to reward us for failing to produce the results he wants. Insane as it sounds, we’d better pray that there is a conspiracy to unearth.’
As they reached the entrance to the barracks, Tigellinus was waiting for them. He jerked a thumb towards the centurion’s quarters.
‘Lurco is back. He wants to see you.’ Tigellinus smirked. ‘He sent for you over an hour ago. Shame I couldn’t find you – the centurion is not a man who is inclined to tolerate delay.’ The optio gave a dry laugh before he sauntered off to the squad’s room. ‘Good luck.’
Macro’s lips pressed together as he waited until Tigellinus was out of earshot, then he hissed through clenched teeth, ‘Bastard. He knew where we were. He’s set us up.’
Cato shrugged. ‘Nothing we can do about it now. Come on.’
They made their way to the door of the small office adjoining the centurion’s private quarters and saw that it was open. Lurco was standing at the window, looking out across the wall of the camp and over the city, illuminated by the twinkling sparks of torches and lamps. He stood quite still as he stared in the direction of the imperial palace, his back dimly lit by the single oil lamp glimmering on his desk. Cato gestured to Macro and they stood directly outside the door frame. Taking a deep breath, Cato rapped on the wooden frame.
‘You sent for us, sir?’
Lurco turned quickly and Cato saw that the centurion was younger than he had been expecting, in his mid-twenties. His hair was dark and artfully arranged in oiled curls above a finely featured face that was on the pretty side of handsome. His good looks hardened into a frown.
‘Are you the new men? Capito and Calidus?’ he asked in a thin, high-pitched voice.
‘Don’t just stand there. Enter.’
They strode in and stood before their commander’s desk. He was taller than Cato and by tilting his head back slightly he gave even more of an impression of looking down on the other men.
‘Where have you been? I sent for you ages ago. Why weren’t you in the barracks?’
‘Beg your pardon, sir, but we were in the bathhouse,’ Macro explained.
‘Shirking some duties no doubt.’
‘No, sir. We’re veterans. We’ve been excused fatigues.’
‘Veterans?’ Lurco sneered. ‘So, you think the world owes you a living? You think you’re better than the rest of us no doubt. Just because you’ve got some mud on your boots, and a few scratches.’ He flicked his hand dismissively in the direction of Cato’s face. ‘I don’t care if you’re veterans. The men of my century are all the same as far as I am concerned. And now it seems you all depend on me so much that I have been ordered to cut my leave short and return to the camp for tomorrow’s tedious little show put on for the Emperor. I could have been at a party in the city having a good fuck with some senator’s wife or daughter, but no, I’m stuck here in the camp. So if I have to give up my friends to be here, then the bloody least you can do is have the damned good grace to come when you are summoned.’
Cato felt an instinctive dislike of the man, and was suddenly painfully conscious of the scar that had ruined his own face. Lurco, with his finely arranged good looks, was the kind of young officer who would be a success with the capital’s ladies. Possibly the kind of person that a woman like Julia might encounter and take a fancy to. It was a foolish thought, Cato told himself, angry that he had relaxed his hold on the feelings he had been struggling to suppress.
‘We came as soon as we were told you wanted to see us, sir,’ said Macro.
‘Well, that’s not soon enough,’ Lurco snapped. He stared at them, his nostrils flared. ‘Well, now we know each other, and you know what I stand for. In future when I give an order I expect you to obey it at once. Fail to do so and I will see to it that your veteran status is revoked, and I’ll have you up to your necks in shit doing latrine fatigues for the rest of the year. Do I make myself clear?’
‘Yes, sir,’ Macro and Cato replied.
Lurco stared at them. ‘Tomorrow we play host to the Emperor. Our cohort will be placed either side of the imperial box. That means I want a good turnout. My century will be the smartest unit in the entire Praetorian Guard, or I’ll know the reason why. Don’t you dare let me down. Got that?’
‘Then leave me. Go. Get out of my sight.’
They saluted, turned, and Macro led as they strode out of the room. They made their way to the stairs and Macro’s breath escaped with a hearty sigh. ‘What a complete bloody arsehole. I’ll bet the uppity bastard has been turned down by some woman. Now he’s taking it out on us. As for that bollocks about veterans … Damn! The man owes us a little more respect.’ He fumed for a moment before continuing, ‘It’s all down to Tigellinus. He knew where we were. He was in the room when we left for the baths. I’ll have words with the optio, so help me.’
‘Better not,’ Cato responded. ‘Not if we want to avoid being punished for insubordination.’
‘I was thinking of something a little more forceful than insubordination,’ Macro said darkly. ‘He needs seven shades kicked out of him. I know his type. He’ll set us up at every opportunity. He’s the kind of optio who will do all he can to pull the ladder up behind him now that he’s sitting pretty waiting for his appointment to the centurionate.’
‘Forget it,’ Cato said calmly. ‘We’re not going to be here long enough for him to make our lives a misery. So, we’ll ignore him and keep our minds on the job, yes?’
Macro grunted. ‘If it turns out that our dear optio is part of any conspiracy then I shall be sure to offer my services to anyone who gets to interrogate him.’
At dawn Tribune Burrus gave orders for his cohort to assemble outside the barracks. The sky was overcast and the air felt damp and clammy as the soldiers formed up in the centuries and stood at ease. Macro and Cato were among the first to fall in and watched as the other guardsmen stumbled out of the building, some still fastening their belts about their tunics. Centurion Lurco was one of the last to emerge, bleary eyed and pale faced.
Cato leant towards Macro. ‘He’s been drinking.’
‘Poor lad must have had his heart broken,’ Macro responded without a trace of sympathy.
Tigellinus, positioned two paces in front of the first rank, turned his head and bellowed, ‘Silence! Next man who utters a single fucking word is on a charge!’
Lurco winced at the sound as he shuffled into place in front of the optio and the century’s standard bearer. When the last men of the cohort were in place, there was a short silence before the sturdy figure of Tribune Burrus stepped out of the main entrance of the cohort’s barrack block. The senior centurion of the cohort, the trecenarius, drew a deep breath and called out, ‘Commanding officer present!’
The men stood to attention with a loud crash of nailed boots on the paving stones. Burrus strode out to stand in front of his command, hands clasped behind his back as he puffed his chest out and ran his good eye over the lines of men standing in their centuries.
‘Most of you know the drill. There’s quite a few who have joined our ranks since the last Accession games. I’ll spell it out so that we all know what is expected of us. The Emperor, his family and selected guests of the imperial court will be spending the day with the Praetorian Guard. As the unit that will be in closest proximity to the imperial party we are the standard by which the rest of the Guard will be judged. You are on your best behaviour and I will have the balls off any man who gets drunk or acts in any way that discredits the honour of the Praetorian Guard.’ He paused a moment and then continued in a less harsh tone. ‘As we know, the Emperor has his funny ways. He is inclined to stammer and when he gets excited he has a tendency to slobber at the mouth. It is not the most edifying of sights, I grant you. However, Claudius is the Emperor and we have all sworn an oath to honour and obey him. So there will be no laughing, nor even the faintest of tittering, if the old boy gets going. Is that clear? I can assure you it will be no laughing matter for any man I catch mocking the Emperor.’ Burrus turned and paced a short distance before turning back.
‘There’s one other thing. The new Empress will be joining the games for the first time. Now, I am certain that some of you are still a little surprised, shocked even, by the fact that the Emperor has decided to marry his own niece.’
There were discreet murmurs from some of the guardsmen and Cato was aware of the men stirring uncomfortably on either side of him. Burrus raised a hand to silence them.
‘Whatever your feelings, the marriage was sanctioned by the senate and so it is lawful. The morality of the situation is not our concern. We are soldiers and we obey orders, right or wrong, and that is the end of it. So, if any of you harbour any misgivings about the Emperor’s new wife, keep them to yourselves. That is an order. I don’t want to hear one word of discontent pass your lips.’ He paused again to let his words sink in. ‘One last thing. Today is supposed to strengthen the ties between the Emperor and the Praetorian Guard. Claudius is paying for the entertainment and the feast that follows it. Therefore it would be polite of us to express our gratitude at every occasion. You will cheer for him and his family as if your lives depended on it. That should please the old boy no end. A happy emperor is a generous emperor. Every time you applaud him, it’s money in the pay chest. Or will be, whenever he gets round to presenting the next donative to the Guard … The imperial party is expected to arrive at the camp two hours after sunrise. Every man is to be in his seat before then, suited and booted. That’s all!’
As the tribune turned back towards the entrance to the barracks, the senior centurion bellowed, ‘Cohort, dismissed!’
As the command echoed back from the walls of the barracks, the men stood at ease and then began to fall out of formation. Macro was staring after the retreating tribune.
‘Well, that was pithy and to the point.’ He looked up at the sky. ‘Might be an idea to fetch our cloaks before we get some decent seats.’
By the time they had climbed the stairs at the back of the temporary arena, hundreds of men had already settled in their places. Burrus and his men had been assigned the seats flanking the imperial box which rose above the northern side of the arena to take whatever warmth was offered by the sun. Unlike the raked seating erected for the Praetorians, the imperial box was constructed on a platform level with the rearmost seats. Cato pointed them out.
‘But if we want a good view of the entertainment we should go to the front,’ Macro protested.
‘It’s the Emperor and his party we want a good view of. That’s the best spot.’
Macro muttered something under his breath, took a sorrowful look at the empty seats right by the arena and then turned to follow his friend up the steep stairs between the rows of seating. At the top Cato looked into the imperial box and then shuffled a short distance from it to allow the curve of the seating to afford a better view of the imperial party. Satisfied, he sat down. Macro looked at the rapidly filling ranks of benches stretching out in front of him and sighed.
‘Nice view,’ he said flatly.
‘It’s good for our purposes,’ Cato replied, pulling his cloak on and easing the hood back so that his head was exposed.
Around them the Praetorians streamed in through the entrances and hurried towards the best of the remaining seats. The air swelled with good-natured conversation as the light slowly strengthened. The sky was still overcast, but a lighter patch marked the position of the sun as it struggled into the heavens and shed a little more warmth over the city and the surrounding countryside. The officers were among the last to enter, picking their spots in the front row and displacing the rankers who were already seated there. Macro smiled at the sight, instinctively enjoying their disappointment. Directly below them Tribune Burrus and his centurions took their places and behind them sat the optios and standard bearers. Cato watched Lurco settle down close to the imperial box, but not so close as to be out of sight of those sitting at the fringes of the Emperor’s entourage. He wore an eye-catching gold bracelet on his left arm and no doubt hoped to draw the attention of a prospective patron to further his career. Tigellinus was sitting behind and to one side of his centurion and Cato could read the contempt in his expression as the optio turned to regard Lurco.
At the appointed time the uneven tramp of boots from the direction of the Viminal Gate announced the approach of the imperial party. Mounted German bodyguards led the way, and then came the first of the litters bearing the Emperor’s guests. Slaves, neatly dressed in fresh tunics, laboured under the load of the carrying spars, while those inside the litters chatted freely. A section of eight more German guards on foot came into view through the city wall, their bushy beards and strange armour making them appear barbaric. Then came the litter carrying Agrippina and Nero, and behind that the litter bearing the Emperor himself, accompanied by Britannicus. More litters followed carrying the rest of the party: Narcissus, Pallas, Seneca – Nero’s new tutor, recently recalled from exile – and lastly those senators and their wives honoured with an invitation to join the Emperor.
The column halted outside the entrance to the imperial box and the lowest-ranking guests hurried from their litters to take their places before the Emperor and his family took their seats. The prefect of the Praetorian Guard, Geta, emerged from the imperial box and bowed to the Emperor as he sat in his litter. The prefect exchanged a few words with Claudius before joining the other guests in the box.
Many of the guardsmen in the highest seats turned their heads to watch the arrivals. Cato and Macro saw Narcissus look up briefly at the faces overhead but if he saw them he gave no sign of recognition before he disappeared from view. At last the imperial party was ready to enter and Nero hopped down from his litter and held his mother’s hand to help her out.
‘A dutiful son,’ Macro commented wryly. ‘And look how he adores his stepfather and brother.’
Having seen to his mother Nero had turned to the last litter with an icy stare. Britannicus stepped out of the litter and then bowed his head respectfully as the Emperor struggled up from his embroidered purple cushions. Holding his son’s hand, Claudius limped forward, head twitching, until he stood at the entrance. He smiled as he gestured for Agrippina and Nero to join them and then waited as ten of the German guards formed up ahead of the family and began to climb the stairs into the imperial box. The Praetorians watched expectantly. The bodyguards formed up at the sides and rear of the seated guests so as not to obstruct the view of the arena. Then there was a short pause before Narcissus discreetly gestured with his hand and the occupants of the box rose to their feet.
At once the Praetorians followed suit and let out a deafening cheer, rising to a crescendo as the gilded wreath on the Emperor’s head bobbed into view. Claudius climbed the last few steps and walked awkwardly on to the dais where two large chairs sat side by side. Agrippina joined him and the two boys stood at each side. Claudius kept his expression neutral, struggling to contain his tic as he turned his head slowly to acknowledge the acclaim from all sides. At last he eased himself down and when he was seated, Agrippina sat, followed by the rest of the guests.
‘She’s a looker, all right,’ Macro spoke loudly into Cato’s ear. ‘You can see why the old goat went for her.’
‘There was more to it than her looks,’ Cato replied. ‘She has influence, brains, and comes with a healthy son who might be a useful heir to Claudius should Britannicus fall from favour.’
The crowd’s cheering began to subside as the Praetorians started to sit down. Cato and Macro joined them and soon there was an excited hubbub as the editor of the games conferred with his officials to make certain that all was ready. Satisfied, the editor looked over the rail at the front of the imperial box and gave the nod to the four soldiers waiting on the sand below, holding their long brass horns. They raised the instruments and blasted out a series of ascending notes. At once the Praetorians fell silent and at the front of the imperial box the editor raised both his arms.
‘His imperial majesty Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus bids his comrades of the Praetorian Guard welcome!’ The editor had a finely modulated voice that carried across the arena and could be clearly heard by everyone present.
‘In accordance with his desire to assure his brave soldiers that their loyalty to him is returned in kind and with great affection, his imperial majesty, in honour of the day on which the gracious citizens of Rome entrusted him with their welfare, herewith presents a day of entertainments …’
The editor ran through the programme, drawing appreciative rounds of applause as each item was mentioned. While he spoke, Cato’s attention was focused on the imperial box. The Emperor was sitting as still as his tic allowed, his full attention on the editor. He nodded his thanks at every round of applause. Beside him Agrippina propped her elbow on the arm of her chair and rested her head on her hand. She looked utterly bored with the preliminaries and after a while turned to look around the imperial box until her gaze fixed on the small cluster of seats where the Emperor’s advisers were sitting. Narcissus was engaged in a quiet conversation with one of his companions. The other man was nodding, and then he became aware that the Empress was looking at him and he flashed a quick smile over Narcissus’s shoulder. Narcissus noticed and glanced round just as the Empress looked away. There was the briefest of pauses before he continued his muted conversation.
Cato’s attention turned to the other members of the box and he saw Britannicus standing stiffly by his father’s side, left arm hidden under the folds of his small toga. That he wore a toga was significant. Claudius clearly wished to indicate that his son was soon to be accorded titles and honours beyond his years, just as his adopted son, Nero, had been. The latter, also dressed in a toga, had taken his mother’s hand and now raised it to his lips and kissed it, lingering over it for a moment, until she drew her hand away from him.
‘Did you see that?’ Macro hissed. ‘What does he think he’s playing at? Trying to start a scandal?’
Cato looked round at the soldiers but there seemed to be no reaction to Nero’s effrontery.
‘Perhaps people are used to such displays,’ Cato suggested. ‘Let’s face it, the imperial family has form. It might be innocent. It might not. Wouldn’t be the first time that members of the imperial family tinkered with incest.’
Macro’s lip curled in disgust. ‘Perverts.’
The editor wound up his speech to another deafening cheer and Claudius smiled and raised an arm in salute to his soldiers. There was no further preamble before the first event; a boxing match between two Numidian giants. Their skin had been oiled and they gleamed like ebony as they squared up and began their bout. In the audience the Praetorians quickly fell to making wagers over the outcome and shouting the odds to each other. The fight went on for some time and the sand around the two men was flecked with blood as the leather bindings wrapped round their fists tore and gouged. Eventually a knock-down blow was landed to a mix of groans and cheers from the spectators. There followed a display of archery by a dark-skinned man in eastern robes who shot his arrows with breathtaking accuracy, even around his boy assistant as the latter stood against a straw target with his arms outstretched. Afterwards there was a short break before the editor announced the ‘Trojan Pageant’ – a display of horsemanship put on by the sons of Roman aristocrats. There was tolerant applause from the Praetorians.
A score of riders entered the arena wearing gilded helmets that hid their faces. Behind them came some of the guardsmen carrying target posts and straw dummies which they set up in lines across the arena. When the preparations were completed, Claudius stood up to acknowledge the salute of the leader who rode a pure white mare.
‘You may b-be-be-begin!’ The Emperor’s head shook then he sat down heavily.
The boys took turns charging down the line of posts, slashing at the straw targets with their swords. Then they were handed light javelins and began to gallop down the line of targets, picking one to hurl their weapon at. A stiff breeze had begun to blow, making them work hard to compensate for it as they took aim. Those who missed were dropped from the competition and left the arena. Soon only three remained and the range was increased. After another pass, one more left the competition. The last two, one of whom was the leader, were fine shots and once more a furious round of betting began as the boys matched each other and the range increased. At length the leader’s rival missed his target and there was another cheer from the crowd as the winner punched his fist into the air and turned his mount towards the imperial box, reining in with a spray of sand.
‘Quite a rider,’ said Cato. ‘I wonder who he is.’
Macro shrugged. ‘Just another bloody spoilt brat showing off.’
The rider raised his hands to undo the chinstraps and then quickly lifted the helmet to reveal his face. There was a surprised gasp from the crowd and then a tumultuous cheer split the air as they saw that it was Nero.
Cato glanced at the Emperor and dimly recalled seeing his stepson drift towards the rear of the box a while earlier. Nero’s mother was on her feet clapping her hands with delight while the Emperor beamed. The Praetorians’ cheering gradually synchronised into a repeated roaring of his name. ‘Nero! Nero! Nero!’
The boy made a slow circuit of the arena, sitting haughtily in his saddle as he revelled in the cheers. Macro nudged Cato and pointed to the imperial box.
‘There’s one who is not so happy.’
On the dais, beside his father, was young Britannicus; his expression hardened into a cold scowl and his right hand balled into a tight fist. He only relaxed when his rival finally left the arena and the Praetorians ceased cheering. Noon had passed and the editor announced a short interlude while the targets were removed and the arena prepared for the main entertainment of the day, ten gladiator bouts culminating with a fight between a secutor known as the ‘Dove’ – the current darling of the mob – and the ‘Neptune of Nuceria’, a retiarius. A handful of those in the imperial box hurried down the steps to relieve themselves or take refreshment in the area beneath the box.
‘I’m going for a quick piss,’ Macro announced, standing up.
Cato nodded as his friend squeezed past and made his way down the stairs and along to the head of the staircase leading out of the arena. Cato’s mind was still preoccupied with the expression he had caught on Nero’s face just before he had left the arena. There was no mistaking the light of ambition that burned there. It had been a calculated performance in front of the Praetorians and for the moment he was their darling.
Macro shook himself off and lowered his tunic. The latrine block was filled with men who were taking advantage of the intermission. He made his way outside towards the gate giving out on to the parade ground. He picked his way through the litters and the slaves squatting silently beside them until he came to the enclosure beneath the imperial box. Two German guards stood either side of the heavy red curtain flaps that covered the entrance. As Macro approached, one of them held out his hand and spoke in his harsh tongue.
‘Easy there, Herman,’ Macro growled. ‘Just passing by. Don’t get your beard in a bloody twist.’
At that moment a gust of wind whipped back the curtains and Macro had a clear view of the man Narcissus had been sitting next to in the imperial box. One of his arms was wrapped round a woman as he kissed her arched neck. His other hand was under the folds of her stola, between her legs, and her mouth gaped in ecstasy. They looked round sharply as the curtains flapped and their eyes met Macro’s for what seemed a long moment. Then as abruptly as it had come, the gust died and the curtains dropped back into place. Macro had not moved and the German called out another warning.
‘I’m going,’ he muttered before hurrying back inside the arena. A cold tremor of anxiety ran down his spine. The woman he had just seen in the throes of ecstasy was Agrippina. The last thing he wanted was to be a witness to the infidelity of the Empress. This was dangerous knowledge. Agrippina was sure to have learned from her predecessor’s mistakes and would realise the need to remove anyone who could denounce her to the Emperor.
Macro climbed the steps to rejoin Cato and sat down quickly, leaning back on his bench to make sure that he could not be seen from the imperial box.
‘What’s the matter with you?’ asked Cato. ‘You look as white as a toga.’
‘I’m fine … fine.’
‘What is it?’ Cato had rarely seen his friend look so worried.
Macro shook his head. ‘I can’t tell you now.’ He indicated the men sitting in front and on either side of them. ‘Not here.’
Down in the arena the first pair of gladiators had made their salute to the Emperor and now squared off, lowering themselves into a poised crouch as they waited for the signal to begin. The editor milked the tension for as long as he dared before shouting the command, ‘Engage!’
The smaller, more lithe of the two fighters charged in and launched a ferocious attack on his opponent and the sounds of blades clashing and the thud of sword strokes on shields echoed around the arena. Then both men parted and began to circle each other warily. Cato smiled at the small piece of theatre the gladiators had used to open the fight with a flash of excitement. Around them the Praetorians were avidly watching, muttering comments about the two gladiators’ physiques and fighting styles as they placed bets. Cato leant towards Macro and spoke as loudly as he dared.
‘It’s safe to speak now. Everyone’s concentrating on the action.’
Macro glanced round Cato to look into the imperial box. No more than thirty feet away the Empress had resumed her seat and was staring down into the arena, her face composed. The man who had been groping her was not in view. Macro quietly related what he had seen.
‘Are you sure they saw you clearly?’ asked Cato.
‘Well enough to recognise me if they saw me again.’
‘Shit.’ Cato frowned. ‘That’s not helpful.’
‘Well, pardon me,’ Macro growled.
Cato scratched his chin as he tried to think through the implications. If Agrippina had already taken a lover from among the Emperor’s retinue then she was playing a dangerous game indeed. Unless she was using the man to further some other purpose. But what? And did it have any connection with the conspiracy that Narcissus was attempting to uncover and defeat?
As Cato sat in contemplation, Macro saw Narcissus approach the Emperor and bend down close to his ear. Claudius listened and then turned in his seat and looked up at Narcissus in concern. There was a brief conversation before the Emperor nodded and waved him towards Prefect Geta. Moments later, guardsmen hurried out of the pavilion to carry messages to the officers in the arena. Many of the Praetorians close to the imperial box were watching curiously as Tribune Burrus stood up and cupped his hands to his mouth. ‘Sixth Century! Form up outside the arena at once!’
Lurco quickly rose from his bench and beckoned to Tigellinus and then hurried across to the entrance. His men began to follow.
‘What do you think this is all about?’ asked Macro. ‘Is it to do with what I saw?’
‘We’ll know soon enough.’
As they descended the stairs, Cato took a last look into the box. The Emperor and his family had already left their seats, and Narcissus and some others went after them. The rest of the guests remained where they were, trying to look unflustered as the fight continued in the arena.
The men of the Sixth Century gathered around Lurco, while a short distance away the litter slaves were on their feet, ready to take up their burdens the moment the order was given. As Macro, Cato and the last of the men came out of the arena, the centurion called out loudly so that he could be heard over the noise from the arena.
‘The Emperor is returning to the palace. He has just received a report that a food riot has broken out in the Forum. The urban cohorts have the matter in hand but the Emperor wants to take command of the situation in person. Prefect Geta has decided to reinforce the Emperor’s bodyguard with the Sixth Century. This is not ceremonial. Our orders are to protect the Emperor, his family and advisers at all costs. If anyone tries to block our path we’re authorised to use whatever force is needed to get the litters through.’ Lurco paused to draw breath. ‘Fetch your weapons and armour from barracks. Then get back here ready to march. At the double!’