The morning air was cold and clammy as the century stood to attention on the small parade ground between the barrack blocks. Macro and Cato held their shoulders back and thrust their chests out as Centurion Lurco and his optio marched down the front rank scrutinising the uniforms and equipment of his men. They were wearing their off-white tunics under their armour and were armed with shield and javelin as well as their swords and daggers. It was kit that the Praetorian Guard rarely had cause to use, but the recent riot had obliged the elite formation to turn out ready for action every day.
Macro and Cato were positioned at the end of the front rank, on the right flank, with the other men from Tigellinus’s section. They stood, legs braced, shield gripped by their left hand while their right held the javelin shaft, just below the swelling of the iron weight designed to give the weapon greater penetration when it was thrown. They, like the rest of the men on parade, were staring straight ahead. The centurion stopped a short distance from them and scowled at one of the men in the next section.
‘There is what looks like a turd on your boot.’
‘You do not come on parade dressed in shit.’
‘No, sir. Must have been one of the wild dogs, sir. Got into the barracks.’
‘You-do-not-make-excuses!’ Lurco shouted into his face. ‘Clear?’
Lurco turned briefly to his optio. ‘Tigellinus, mark him down for ten days on latrine duty since he has developed a taste for shit.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Tigellinus made a quick note on his waxed slate.
The centurion looked the man over for further signs of fault. He reached for the guardsman’s sword handle and gave it a pull. There was a slight grating sound as the weapon left its scabbard.
‘There’s rust on this. Make that twenty days.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Tigellinus amended his note.
The two officers continued down the line and stopped in front of Macro. Lurco inspected him closely. Finding no fault, he nodded and then turned and strode a few paces back along the line before he called out, so that all his men could hear.
‘Thanks to our fine effort the other day the Emperor has requested that my century guards his imperial majesty and his family for the next month. A signal honour, as I am certain you will all agree. To which end I demand a perfect turnout by you men. Until the situation is settled in Rome you will not be wearing the toga. Instead you will appear as you are kitted out now. As it happens, the Emperor is quitting the city for a few days to inspect the works in Ostia and also the draining of the marshes around the Albine Lake, to the south-east of the city. It will be our duty to escort him on these excursions. He leaves tomorrow. So we will be smart and create a fine impression on any civvies that come out to cheer the Emperor. If any of you let me down, you will suffer the consequences.’ He turned to Tigellinus. ‘Optio, take over.’
‘Yes, sir!’ Tigellinus snapped his waxed tablet closed and hurriedly placed it in his side bag along with the stylus. As the centurion strode off, making for his quarters at the end of the nearest barrack block, Tigellinus gave the order for the men to fall out, and then strode off in the direction of the camp’s headquarters.
Cato and Macro relaxed their posture alongside the other men. Then Macro glanced at Cato. ‘What was that about the Albine Lake? Any idea what’s going on there?’
Cato recalled that the lake was a large body of water in the foothills half a day’s march from the city. He had passed by it a few times as a child and did not relish the memory. The lake was surrounded by low-lying boggy ground infested with mosquitoes and other insects, which made the land useless for farmers, as well as forcing travellers to make lengthy diversions around the affected area. Draining it was a long-awaited project, finally being realised under Claudius.
‘Another of the Emperor’s big civil projects,’ Cato replied. ‘Seems there’s been more than a few changes in Rome since we left. First a new port, now the lake, and a new wife and stepson.’
‘But still the same old Narcissus,’ Macro muttered sourly. ‘Pulling strings behind the scenes. Some things never change.’
They followed the other men leaving the parade ground and returned to their section room. Fuscius was already there, carefully placing his cleaned armour and weapons back on their pegs. He nodded a greeting as the others lowered their shields and began to follow suit.
‘Bloody footslogging,’ Fuscius complained. ‘It’s been bad enough with all the patrols we’ve had to mount in the city. My bloody boots are giving me blisters.’
‘Hah, you’re too soft, lad,’ Macro replied. ‘Wait until you’ve had to do some proper soldiering, like Capito and me. Then you’d know what real marching is like.’
Fuscius stared at him. ‘Spare me the back-in-my-day routine, Calidus. I’m just pissed off with those bloody rioters in the city. Now they’ve gone and made my life even more difficult because the Emperor wants to divert their attention to the great works he’s doing for the benefit of the people. Pah, it’s a goodwill stunt and nothing else. I’ll be glad when things have settled down again.’
‘Assuming that happens,’ said Cato.
‘Oh it will,’ Fuscius replied. ‘I’ve heard a rumour that the Emperor’s diverted some grain from Sicilia. Once that reaches the city, it’ll keep the mob quiet while other supplies are organised.’
‘And where did you hear that?’
Fuscius tapped his nose. ‘Friends of friends.’
Macro snorted and shook his head. ‘Like you have highly placed contacts …’
Cato pursed his lips. ‘Well, I hope you’re right. The Emperor needs to buy some time.’
Fuscius hung up his sword belt. ‘There’s a dice game in the mess. You two want to come?’
‘Sure,’ Macro answered. ‘Soon as we’re done here.’ He patted the purse hanging at his side and smiled. ‘Time to spend some of the pay that headquarters advanced us.’
‘Or lose the lot.’ Fuscius laughed. ‘I’d be careful to check the dice before you play. Some of the lads are not above trying to put one over on new recruits.’
‘I wasn’t born yesterday.’ Macro raised a fist. ‘Besides, let ‘em, if they dare.’
Once Fuscius had gone, Macro turned to Cato. ‘What are we going to do about Lurco? You said you had a plan.’
Cato glanced towards the door to make sure no one was within earshot before he replied. ‘Centurion Lurco is a keen party boy. More often than not he spends the night away from the barracks. It’s a question of following him and trying to catch him alone.’
‘Then we have to tell him the situation.’
Macro snorted. ‘That’s great. He gets accosted by two of his men, rankers, and you think he’ll sit down quietly for a chat? Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that he doesn’t listen to us. Then what?’
‘Then we use force and take him to the safe house and get Septimus to arrange for him to disappear, until the conspiracy is crushed.’
‘And when shall we do it? Tonight?’
‘No. We wait until we get back from escorting the Emperor. If Lurco goes missing tonight then there’s a danger that a different century will be assigned to guard Claudius while there is a search for Lurco. We need to stay close to the Emperor. Our first duty is to protect Claudius from any further attempts on his life.’
They joined the dice game in the mess hall. Some tables and benches had been dragged aside so that the men could gather round the action. The standard bearer oversaw the cast of the dice and the raucous placing of bets between throws. Cato leant close to Macro and cupped a hand to his friend’s ear. ‘I need to drop a message off. Tigellinus may still be at headquarters, if he hasn’t returned to the barracks. Try and find him and keep an eye on him. If he leaves, you follow him. Agreed?’
Macro nodded. ‘Be careful.’
Cato smiled, and then waited until there was a roar of delight and frustration at the latest roll and the winners crowded round those taking the bets to claim their winnings. Using the chaos to cover his exit, Cato slipped out of the hall and fetched his old army cloak that he had worn in Egypt. He had decided that it would be best not to wear a cloak issued from the Praetorian stores if he was to blend in on the streets. When he reached the safe house he wrote a brief note to Septimus explaining his intentions for Centurion Lurco once the century returned to Rome after escorting the Emperor. He placed the waxed tablet in the cavity beneath the floorboards, turned the lamp towards the door as agreed to signal a message, and then left. Back on the street Cato pulled his hood up and headed towards the square where the River of Wine stood. Even though it was late in the morning the streets and alleys were far quieter than usual. The men of the Praetorian Guard and urban cohorts were still patrolling the city and breaking up any gatherings, as well as stopping and questioning anyone acting in such a way as to provoke their suspicion. Cato assumed that most of the Subura’s inhabitants were too nervous to venture out for anything other than food and water.
He was making his way down a dim alley when he saw a figure approaching from the other direction. Like Cato he was wearing his hood up and kept his head bowed. He wore an expensive embroidered tunic beneath the flaps of his cape. There was something about him that sparked a vague sense of recognition in Cato. Something in the way he carried himself as he paced down the alley, the swagger of a fighting man. As they passed, his shoulder caught Cato and he mumbled something that might have been an apology or a warning and continued on his way without breaking his stride.
Cato felt a cold tremor ripple down his spine as he walked on, not daring to look back immediately. It was Cestius. Cato was certain of it. He waited until he was a safe distance before slowing and glancing over his shoulder. The gang leader was already some thirty paces away, and then he turned abruptly into a side alley sloping down towards the Forum. Cato doubled back, ran to the tight junction and peered round the corner. Cestius was walking steadily on, head bowed. He passed an open door where a haggard woman sat on a step with a wailing infant clutched to her small, sagging breast. She muttered something and held out her hand, but Cestius swept by without a word. Cato let him build up a decent lead and then followed him down the alley, hurrying past the woman. He spared her a sidelong glance, just long enough to see her pinched face and large eyes. The infant’s arms were thin and spindly and the skull clearly defined under the pale skin. Beyond her he saw other children on the floor of the room, sitting listlessly as the family starved.
‘A coin, sir.’ She made to clutch at the hem of his cloak and Cato just had to time to swerve beyond her grasp. He increased his pace to get past her and then slowed to keep his distance from Cestius. The big man continued heading down into the heart of the city, emerging a short distance from the Temple of Venus and Rome. Then he turned towards the Tiber, keeping away from the centre of the Forum as he passed along the palace wall. A semblance of normality had returned to Rome, for some at least, and parties of officials and a handful of senators and their retinues crossed the Forum on their way to or from the senate house. A few of the usual market stalls were set up in the porticoes of the basilica, but there was not the usual loud throng of traders and shoppers that normally filled the Forum. Soldiers stood at almost every junction, scrutinising passers-by. Cestius kept clear of the soldiers as far as possible and left by a narrow unguarded alley, heading towards the Boarium market and the warehouse district.
As Cato kept up with the man, his mind was whirling anxiously. Why was Cestius courting danger by taking to the streets when a reward had been placed on his head? Where was he going? Cato scrutinised the other man’s clothing. The cloak and tunic were expensive items and Cestius had replaced his heavy boots with a soft leather pair that extended halfway up his calf, the kind of boots that Macro would have derided as effeminate.
Cato continued following Cestius, down towards the Tiber, between the mass of the Capitoline Hill to their right and the palace on the left. The Boarium had suffered the same decline in activity as the Forum and no more than a third of the stalls had been erected. There were fewer soldiers in evidence, mostly clustered outside the offices of tax collectors and money lenders, many of whose premises had been looted during the riot. Cestius continued through the Boarium until he came to the bank of the Tiber, where the Great Sewer emptied into the river, then he turned left towards the warehouse district.
A terrible stench of human waste filled the air as the dark stream of shit, piss and refuse merged into the flow of the Tiber. The hummock of a human body had caught around the bows of a moored barge and a pair of rats were busy chewing through soaked cloth to get at the rotting flesh beneath. Already a boatman was rowing out to the body to retrieve it to add to the small pile of corpses that had been fished out of the river close to the exit of the sewer – the usual harvest of careless drunks, murder victims and accidents. It was a sight Cato had been familiar enough with as a boy when he had come down to the wharf with his father. He recalled that when enough corpses had been gathered to fill a wagon, they would be carried off to a mass grave outside the city walls.
He turned away from the grisly sight just in time to see Cestius exchange a few words with a stout bald man in a bright yellow cloak and green tunic. Two muscular men with heavy clubs stood silently behind the bald man as he talked with Cestius. The bald man smiled and patted Cestius on the arm before they parted company. Cato discreetly scrutinised the man as he approached and noted the gold chain round his neck and the jewels in the rings on his fingers. Clearly a man of some wealth, and not afraid of displaying his fortune in public, as long as he was accompanied by a pair of bodyguards who looked as if they would pulverise anyone who even considered grabbing their master’s purse.
Cato steered aside so that they passed each other by a safe margin and continued following the gang leader. Cestius continued for a short distance before he looked round quickly. Then, seemingly satisfied that no one was watching him, he made for the guarded entrance of one of the warehouse compounds. He nodded a greeting to the man at the gates, who heaved one open to admit his visitor and then drew it shut once Cestius had disappeared from sight. Cato felt a surge of panic at the prospect of losing his quarry. He stopped on the wharf opposite the gates and squatted down and retied the lace of his boot as he looked over the gateway. A sign was painted on the wall next to the heavy timbers of the gates announcing that the warehouses were rented out by Gaius Frontinus. It invited interested parties to apply at his offices in the Boarium.
Cato drew a deep breath to steady his nerves and strode up to the gates. The guard stirred and moved to block his way. He was a thickset man with a scarred face and Cato guessed that he must be one of the many former gladiators who turned up in such roles after they had won their freedom, or been discarded by their trainers.
‘What do you want?’ the guard demanded without any preamble.
‘I’m supposed to meet my master here, sir,’ Cato replied. ‘I saw him enter just a moment ago.’
‘Really? So what’s his name then?’
Cato opened his mouth and caught himself just in time. If Cestius was in disguise then there was a strong possibility that he was using a false name as well. If Cato tried to use his real name the guard would refuse him entry. Worse still, he might mention it to Cestius on the way out and thereby alert him to the fact that he had been followed.
The pause was long enough for the guard to reach a decision. ‘Thought so. You’re a chancer. Now turn away and piss off. Before I make you.’ He patted the studded club swinging from his belt.
Cato knew that there was no sense in provoking any disturbance. He backed off a few paces and then turned and walked back towards the Boarium. Then it occurred to him that there was still something useful that he could discover and he broke into a run. He pushed his legs hard, looking for the man in the yellow cloak and his two bodyguards. There was no sign of his easily distinguishable cloak on the length of the wharf, and Cato ran on into the Boarium. Even though the market was not filled with its usual dense press of bodies, there were enough people to obscure Cato’s view. He pulled himself up on to the pediment of a statue of Neptune and hung on to the shaft of the trident as his gaze swept over the market. Then he saw the yellow tunic, on the far side, close to the hall of the grain traders.
‘Oi! You! Get off!’
Cato looked round and saw a soldier from one of the urban cohorts striding towards him. Cato clambered down and made to leave the spot but the soldier blocked his path.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’
‘Looking for a friend.’
‘Trying to cause trouble more like.’ The soldier growled and slapped the side of Cato’s head, making it ring. Cato blinked as he staggered to one side.
‘Acer!’ a voice cut through the air. ‘That’s enough!’
An instant later an optio stepped up and glared at the soldier. ‘We’re here to keep the peace, you bloody fool. Not to start another fucking riot.’ He turned to Cato. ‘You! Get on your way!’
Cato nodded, and staggered off through the market, heading towards the halls of the merchant guilds on the other side of the Boarium. People who had witnessed the confrontation stared warily after him, as if he carried some kind of frightening mark. It was a sign of the nervous tension that still hung over the city. No one wanted to be associated with any man who fell foul of the military. Cato’s head quickly cleared and he slowed to a steady pace as he crossed the market. He could no longer see any sign of the yellow cloak outside the hall of the grain merchants and feared that he had lost his man. As he reached the portico, topped by a pediment and statue depicting Ceres holding a thick sheaf of wheat, Cato paused and looked round. There was no sign of the bald man, so he continued inside.
After the daylight outside it took a moment to adjust to the gloomier lighting of the hall. There was a large open space in the centre filled with tables and benches. Along each wall stood two storeys of offices from which the merchants conducted their trade. At the far end was an auction podium in front of a large board on which the grain cargoes were chalked up for sale. Only it was clear today, and the merchants were in a depressed mood. Cato saw the man emerge from the colonnade at the side of the hall. He crossed to the clerk sitting on the step beside the podium and began to address him. Cato pulled down his hood and turned to one of the merchants standing close at hand. He indicated the bald man and asked for his name.
‘Him?’ The merchant squinted briefly. ‘Why, that’s Aulus Piscus. Why do you ask?’
Cato thought quickly. ‘My uncle owns a bakery in the Subura. He sent me down here to see if there’s any grain to be had.’
‘You’ll be lucky!’ the merchant snorted. ‘There’s been nothing for days. Your man Piscus snapped up the last cargo.’
‘I see.’ Cato stared at the bald man. ‘I assume Piscus is one of the big dealers in the guild.’
‘Only in the last few months. Before then he was just a small-time trader.’
‘Looks wealthy enough now.’
‘Oh, he’s done all right for himself.’
‘How’s that?’ Cato pressed.
‘Well, either he came into a fortune, or he’s acting as a front for someone who has. Whichever, the lucky bastard’s done well out of it. Well enough to pay for those two thugs that guard his back.’
Cato nodded, stepping away. ‘Thanks. I won’t take up any more of your time.’
‘Time’s a luxury I can afford right now.’ The merchant smiled thinly. ‘There’s not much the likes of me and your uncle can do until the grain supply flows again, eh?’
Cato shook his head and then moved away. He crossed the hall and approached Piscus and the clerk, overhearing the end of their exchange.
‘You let me know the moment the first grain ship reaches Ostia, you hear?’
‘Yes, master.’ The clerk bowed his head.
The bald man leant closer. ‘See that you do, and I won’t be ungrateful. Understand?’
The clerk nodded wearily, as if he had heard the same offer several times already that day. He looked up as Cato approached and the bald man turned round with a quick look of anxiety.
‘Can I help you?’ Piscus asked curtly.
‘As a matter of fact, you can, sir.’ Cato smiled and politely bowed his head. ‘I’m looking for a friend. I missed him in the Boarium a moment ago and then saw him on the wharf, when he stopped to speak to you.’
‘A friend? You?’ Piscus looked at Cato in his worn cloak with undisguised contempt. ‘I don’t think so. Why would a wealthy merchant like him have anything to do with you? Be on your way.’ He clicked his fingers and his bodyguards stepped forward menacingly.
Cato bowed his head and stepped back. ‘My mistake, sir. Perhaps it wasn’t my friend.’
He turned and left the hall, moving off along the paved area in front of the guild halls, deep in thought. What was Cestius up to? The gang leader from the Subura clearly had another identity, or there was another man in Rome who could have passed as his twin brother. Cato discounted the idea at once. The man he had followed looked, moved and sounded just like Cestius. In which case why was he passing himself off as a merchant? And what was he doing down in the warehouse district? There was one way to try to find out. Cato made for the small basilica given as the address of the man who leased the warehouses. Entering the building he saw that it was on a much less impressive scale than the grain merchants’ hall. A score of open-fronted offices lined the walls. He found the sign of Gaius Frontinus easily enough. Below it, the office was fronted by a plain stone counter. A clerk sat on a stool behind it, working through a ledger.
Cato coughed. ‘Excuse me.’
The clerk lowered his stylus and looked up. ‘Yes … sir?’
‘I’m looking for Gaius Frontinus.’
‘He’s not here, sir. May I help?’
‘Perhaps. I’m inquiring about leasing some storage space down on the wharf.’
The clerk took in Cato’s poor appearance. ‘We don’t lease lock-ups. Just warehouses.’
‘That’s what I’m after.’
‘Then I can’t help you, sir. We let them two months ago. There’s nothing available.’
‘I see.’ Cato frowned. ‘Who did you let them to? Perhaps I could talk to the man and get a sublet.’
‘I am not at liberty to say, sir. In any case the master dealt with that contract personally.’
‘Then can I see Gaius Frontinus? To discuss a contract when the present one expires?’
‘The master is not here, sir, as I’ve already told you. He left Rome on business a month ago.’
‘Did he say when he would be back?’
‘No, sir. He just left me a letter telling me to take charge in his absence.’ The clerk coughed self-importantly. ‘Now, if you don’t mind, sir, I have work to do. You might try one of the other leasing offices. I’m sure you’ll find what you’re looking for with one of the smaller concerns. Good day.’
Cato nodded and walked off slowly. He felt the familiar tingle of cold dread grasp the back of his scalp. There was more to the conspiracy than Narcissus had realised. The Liberators, or whoever else it was, were preparing the ground on a far wider scale than the imperial secretary had guessed. Cato could link only a few elements of the puzzle together but one thing was for certain. The enemy was well organised and their plan was already being put into effect.