Dusk thickened over the capital and shrouded it in a thin mist as Centurion Lurco quit the Praetorian camp and entered the city. He was dressed in a thick blue cloak and only the soft leather boots that rose halfway up his calves indicated that he was a man of status. The bulge on his hip revealed that he was armed; lone footpads and small gangs of robbers presented a considerable danger in the darker alleys and byways of Rome.
Macro and Cato tailed him at a distance. After returning to the Praetorian camp following their meeting with Narcissus they had kept watch on the centurion’s quarters, waiting for him to emerge. He came out once in the afternoon, in his military tunic, and made a brief visit to headquarters. Then, as the light faded, he stepped out in his cloak, ready to find his evening’s entertainment. Cato and Macro fell into step fifty or so paces behind the officer. Like Lurco they were armed, and Macro carried a leather sap filled with sand and small pebbles.
Centurion Lurco made his way down the hill at a carefree pace, not once bothering to look behind him as he negotiated the dark streets. There were still plenty of people abroad, enough for Cato and Macro not to draw attention to themselves, and not so many that it was difficult to keep Lurco in view. He stayed away from the main thoroughfares as far as he could, to avoid the inconvenience of encountering any of the patrols and checkpoints of the urban cohorts.
As they tailed him into the Subura, Macro muttered to Cato, ‘Can’t imagine Lurco wanting to spend any time in this dump. That, or he’s got cheap tastes, and friends who share them.’
‘I’m sure there are plenty of young rakes who get their thrills from slumming it,’ Cato replied. ‘Unless he’s heading somewhere else.’
A little further on, the centurion abruptly turned into a street to his right.
‘Shit,’ Macro hissed. ‘He’s on to us.’
They trotted forward to the junction before cautiously peering round the grimy corner of a tenement block. Lurco was a short distance ahead, striding on without any evident sign of concern. They let him open up a safe lead before resuming their pursuit.
‘Why don’t we take him now?’ asked Macro. ‘We’re not far from the safe house.’
Cato shook his head. ‘Let’s see where he goes first. He might lead us to some interesting acquaintances.’
‘Or he might just lead us to a bunch of delinquent piss-heads,’ Macro countered. ‘Or we might lose sight of him.’
‘Not if we’re careful. Besides, it wouldn’t be a good idea to start a scene where we might draw a crowd. We’ll wait and see who he meets, and then deal with him the moment we can catch him on his own.’ Cato realised that he had spoken in a peremptory tone and glanced quickly at his friend to see if Macro had taken any offence. But Macro just nodded briskly, as if he had been given an order. Cato was mildly surprised by the little thrill of pleasure he felt at his friend’s unquestioning obedience to his will, as well as his confidence in stating it. Perhaps they were both finally comfortable with his promotion over his former mentor. Former? Cato mused. No, not yet. There was still much that Macro could teach him.
‘Watch it!’ Macro nudged Cato sharply, pushing him to one side, just before he trod in a foul-smelling sprawl of rotting offal outside the door of a butcher’s shop. ‘Mind where you’re stepping, lad. Bloody hell, do I have to hold your hand all the time?’
‘What’s so funny?’
‘Nothing. I was just thinking.’
Macro scowled. ‘Which is why you nearly went arse over tit into that lot.’
Ahead of them the centurion had increased his lead and they had to hurry to catch up with him. The failing light made it hard to see Lurco clearly and they risked moving closer to him. Lurco continued steadily down the slope of the Viminal Hill before leaving the Subura district and climbing a street that led up on to the Quirinal Hill where some of the wealthiest inhabitants of Rome lived, their grand town houses interspersed with the more modest homes of lesser citizens and those who bought into the area simply to rub shoulders with their betters.
The last faint loom of dusk had given away to night and there were fewer people on the street now. Lurco turned into a road that ran between some of the larger residences. The plain walls, broken only by imposing doorways and narrow grilled window slits, were misleading. Behind the stout timbers of the doors fronting the thoroughfare there would be elaborate and finely decorated residences stretching a long way back from the street. The largest houses would also have ornate gardens, and perhaps even fountains.
At length Lurco stopped outside one of the more modest-looking entrances and paused to arrange his cloak before climbing the steps and rapping on the door. Cato pulled Macro into an arched doorway of a closed shop which afforded a clear view of the house, without exposing them to Lurco’s view should he glance back down the street. They watched as Lurco knocked again and a moment later the iron grille in the door snapped open. There was a brief exchange that was too muted for Cato and Macro to make out any words, and then the door opened. Lurco entered and the door was shut firmly, followed by a dull scrape as an iron bolt shot home. The street was still, apart from a distant figure much further up the road, then he, too, was lost from view in the gathering darkness.
‘What now?’ asked Macro. ‘Wait until he emerges again?’
‘That’s right. And see if we recognise any of the faces going in or coming out.’
Macro rubbed his hands together. ‘Could take hours.’
‘More than likely.’
‘Bollocks. It’s going to be a cold night.’
Cato nodded, biting back on the urge to tell Macro to stop stating the obvious. They stood in silence for a while and then Macro started to stamp his feet to try to keep them warm. Amplified by the archway, the sound of the nailed soles striking the flagstone threshold of the shop seemed deafening. Cato turned to him with a frown.
‘Enough! You’ll give us away.’
‘Who to?’ Macro gestured irritably towards the empty road.
Cato pressed his lips together for an instant and then responded as calmly as he could. ‘It would be useful to know who owns that house. Why don’t you scout round it while I watch the entrance? See if you can find someone who knows.’
Macro looked at him doubtfully. ‘What if Lurco comes out while I’m gone?’
‘He hasn’t been there very long. I suspect he’ll be a while yet. If he does emerge then I’ll follow him and try and take him by myself and meet you back at the safe house. Just don’t be too long yourself.’
‘All right.’ Macro eased himself away from the wall of the arch and stretched his back. With a brief glance both ways to make sure there was no one in sight, Macro stepped out into the road and then hurried across to the other side. He walked towards the entrance and did not pause as he passed by. A short distance beyond was a narrow alley that ran down the side of the house and he turned into it and disappeared from view.
Cato let out a sigh of relief. Macro was a fine soldier but clandestine duties that required patience did not number amongst his strengths. Cato squatted down in the shadows and settled his back against the door of the shop.
The alley was barely four feet wide and Macro guessed that it was little more than a service passage shared by the house Lurco had entered and its neighbour. The walls rose high on either side, leaving only a thin strip of gloom from the night sky. Although the ground was soiled underfoot Macro was acutely aware of the noise that his boots were making as he made his way down the alley and he tried to tread as softly as he could. He traced one hand along the wall, fingertips grazing over cracked plaster and patches of exposed bricks. Fifty paces or so along the alley he came to a small door and gently tried the latch but it was locked. Macro proceeded a little further and then heard some voices, a light-hearted blend of conversation and laughter. An instant later the notes of a flute added to the sound of the party. It came from a short distance ahead and Macro saw that the wall abruptly dropped to half its height as the main part of the house gave way to the gardens.
He hurried on and the sounds from the other side of the wall covered any noise from his boots. A short distance ahead Macro could see the tall cone of a poplar tree rising above the wall and he made towards it. If he could climb the wall, then the tree would give him some cover as he looked over the top, he reasoned. From there he could spy on Lurco and see whom he spoke to. However, the wall rose a good ten feet above the street and Macro hissed bitterly. Looking round he saw nothing that he could use to stand on. With a resigned grunt he reached under his cloak and took out his sword and tested the surface of the wall with the point. The plaster crumbled away freely and the bricks underneath were soft enough for Macro to chisel out a step. He worked quickly, creating several more up to a height where he should be able to reach the top.
Sheathing his sword, Macro pulled himself up and began to climb carefully, grimacing as his fingers strained for purchase in the hurriedly cut holds. He drew his knife and worked at the handholds, proceeding steadily towards the top of the wall. At length he could just reach up and grip the edge. With his knife sheathed, Macro heaved his body up, boots scraping to help lift his weight until his torso rested across the top of the wall. Macro paused for breath, his heart pounding from the exertions of the climb. The boughs of the poplar tree shielded him from the party guests in the garden and when he was ready, Macro swung his legs up and eased himself forward for a better view of the walled garden.
Low-cut shrubs and shaped bushes surrounded a paved area around a large oval pond. Here and there pieces of sculpture stood atop small marble columns. Even though it was a chilly night the guests of the house sat outside, warmed and illuminated by the braziers arranged on the paving stones around the pond. There were at least a hundred people at the party, Macro estimated. Mostly younger men, like Lurco, expensively dressed. In among them were a number of women in short tunics, the customary attire of prostitutes. Most wore lurid make-up, faces powdered white and eyes outlined with kohl, and their hair was carefully arranged in tresses and curls. Slaves moved among the throng with jars of heated wine that left thin tendrils of steam in their wake. Macro licked his lips at the sight and hoped there might be a chance of getting a quick jar in at the River of Wine once he and Cato had completed their night’s work.
Macro edged a little further forward so that he might have a better view, keeping low to the top of the wall where one of the boughs of the poplar stretched over the alley. He searched the crowd for Lurco and easily picked him out in his blue cloak, standing with a group of men his own age, clustered about a brazier as they drank. The centurion was grinning as he and his companions listened to one of their number who had his back to Macro. The brazier threw his outline into sharp relief as he gestured with his hands and the others roared with laughter.
Having picked out Lurco, Macro methodically scrutinised the other guests and had almost satisfied himself that there were no faces he recognised when his gaze fixed on two women standing aside from the rest, talking animatedly in the faint red hue of the nearest brazier. Macro squinted, straining his eyes to make sure of what he was seeing. There was no question of it, the woman on the left was Agrippina. What the hell was she doing here? Macro watched her for a moment before turning his attention to her companion, a tall, slender woman with dark hair, unfussily pinned back into a bun. There was something familiar about her, but Macro could not place her and he frowned with the effort of trying to remember and then gave up. He had seen enough from his vantage point and still needed to discover the identity of the owner of the house.
Macro wriggled back and carefully swung his legs over the side of the wall before easing himself down. He tried to feel for the holds he had cut into the bricks earlier but his boots stubbornly refused to find them. With his arms tiring, Macro took a breath and let himself drop down into the alley. He landed awkwardly and fell back heavily on to his buttocks, jarring his spine.
Macro struggled to his feet and rubbed his back and then continued down the alley towards the rear of the house, where he knew the slave quarters would be. With a party in full swing there was a chance that the escorts of some of the guests might be waiting in the slave quarters that were always at the far end of the more opulent houses, kept at arms length from those they served. A short distance ahead the alley came to an end and Macro could hear a different set of voices now. Subdued conversation, lacking the high-spirited tone of the party guests. Macro adjusted his cloak to conceal his sword as best he could and then glanced round the corner of the wall. There was a wider thoroughfare here, passing between the rows of fine residences. Sure enough, there was an open gate at the rear of the house, illuminated by the flickering flames of torches mounted in iron brackets on either side. Several litters lined the street, their bearers hunched down in their cloaks beside the wall in an effort to keep warm as they waited for their masters to leave the party. Two burly men with clubs stood watch on the gate.
Taking a deep breath, Macro strolled out into the street and boldly approached the gate. The watchmen regarded him with vague interest. Macro raised a hand in greeting.
‘Good evening!’ He forced a smile. ‘You got a party going on here?’
One of the guards stepped forward and hefted his club so that the thick shaft rested in his spare hand. ‘Who wants to know?’
Macro drew up a short distance in front of him and frowned. ‘That’s an unfriendly tone, mate. Just asked a question.’
The watchman’s face remained expressionless. ‘Like I said, who wants to know?’
‘Fair enough.’ Macro shrugged and jabbed his thumb at himself. ‘Marcus Fabius Felix is the name. Personal bodyguard to one Aufidius Catonius Superbus, who managed to slip out of his father’s house to join his friends at a party up on the Quirinal. Muggins here has been sent by his adoring father to bring young Aufidius home. So, have you got him here?’
‘Don’t know,’ the watchman replied flatly. ‘Don’t much care either.’
‘Now don’t take that tone with me, friend.’ Macro tried to sound hurt. ‘I’m the one who should be feeling put out, having walked up and down these bloody streets for most of the afternoon and evening. This is the only party I’ve come across, so do us a favour and let me take the boy home.’
‘Nothing doing, friend,’ the watchmen replied with a flicker of a smile. ‘So piss off.’
‘Piss off?’ Macro’s eyes widened. ‘There’s no need for that. Just doing my job. Why don’t you go and ask your master, whatever his name is, if my boy is here? At least do that for me, eh?’
‘I ain’t your slave,’ the watchman growled. ‘I ain’t running at your beck and call. And the master won’t want me to disturb him during a party.’
‘Touchy type, is he?’ Macro asked sympathetically.
For an instant the watchmen’s expression betrayed a touch of anxiety. He clicked his tongue. ‘Seneca’s all right. It’s that woman friend of his – the bitch. If anyone interrupts her night then she’ll have the skin scourged off their backs quick as anything. Seneca will see to it. Obeys her like a dog.’
‘That’s tough.’ Macro nodded. He cocked his head slightly to one side, as if in thought. ‘All right then, I’ll give this place a miss. I’ll tell my master that I couldn’t find the party.’
‘Would be for the best, for all of us,’ said the watchman, with relief. Then his face hardened again and he let his club swing loose. ‘So, on your way.’
Macro nodded and stepped back into the middle of the street and walked off. He passed the back of two more houses before he cut back up another alley to rejoin Cato.
‘Find out anything?’ asked Cato.
‘Enough,’ Macro grinned. ‘The house belongs to young Nero’s tutor.’
‘Seneca?’ Cato breathed out deeply.
‘Not only that, but I saw the Emperor’s wife there among the guests.’
‘You saw that? How?’
Macro explained how he had climbed the wall and then approached the watchmen on the rear gate.
‘That would seem to rule out any link between Lurco and the Liberators,’ Cato responded. ‘Agrippina and her followers are no more likely to be in favour of a return to the Republic than Claudius.’
‘Unless Lurco’s spying on them for the Liberators,’ Macro suggested.
‘Then why would Sinius want him killed?’
Macro grimaced, cross with himself for not grasping the point at once. ‘All right. Then maybe they want him dead because he is a follower of Agrippina.’
‘Or maybe it’s simply a coincidence that Lurco is there. Did you see him speak to her? Or Seneca?’
Both men were silent for a moment before Cato hissed with frustration. ‘I can’t see my way through all this. What the hell has Narcissus shoved us into this time? There’s no question about there being a conspiracy … or perhaps more than one conspiracy.’
Macro groaned. ‘Listen, Cato. This is making my head hurt. What do you mean, more than one conspiracy?’
Cato tried to put together the information they had been given by Narcissus at the start of their mission and all that they had uncovered since then. ‘Something doesn’t feel quite right about this. There’s too much contradiction and too much that just doesn’t make sense.’ He paused and glanced towards his friend with a rueful smile. ‘You’re right about this line of work not being for us. Give me proper soldiering any day.’
Macro slapped him heartily on the back. ‘I knew I’d make a professional of you! Come, let’s tell Narcissus we’ve had enough of this bollocks and get back to where we belong. In the legions. Even if it means not getting a promotion. Has to be better than this, skulking around dark streets on a cold night, spying,’ he concluded, his tone laced with disapproval that verged on disgust.
‘I wish it was as simple as that. Narcissus won’t let us go that easily. And you know it,’ Cato said bitterly. ‘We’ve no choice in the matter. We have to see this through to the end.’ He hunched forward and gazed towards the entrance to the house. ‘Meanwhile, we wait for Lurco to come out.’
The hours of the night crept past as they sat in the shadows of the archway. Cato felt the cold more keenly than his friend and his limbs trembled despite his best efforts to will them into stillness. He sat on the cold stone with as much of his cloak bundled up beneath him as possible and then wrapped his arms tightly about his knees. The street remained still and quiet, aside from the occasional passer-by and a covered wagon that trundled along the road in the direction of the Forum. Now and then there was a faint chorus of laughter or cheering from the revellers in the garden. Then, close to midnight, the door of the house opened and a dull shaft of light spilled across the street. A small party of young men and women emerged, loud and raucous, and staggered off. Cato stared at them for a moment, but none was wearing the distinctive blue cloak.
Macro stirred. ‘What if Lurco is with a group of them when he comes out? What if they go on to somewhere else?’
‘Then we follow them and wait again. At some point he’s going to have to head back to the camp.’
‘And so do we.’
‘As long as we’re back in time for morning assembly, there’s no problem.’
‘Other than being cold and bloody tired.’
Cato turned to him and smiled thinly. ‘Nothing we’re not used to.’
‘Hurnnnn,’ Macro growled irritably.
More of the party guests began to leave the house and their litters appeared out of the side alley, led by slaves bearing torches to light their way home. The two men in the archway across the street scrutinised the departing revellers with strained nerves.
‘Bet you Lurco is the last bloody one to leave,’ Macro grumbled. ‘Trust our luck.’
‘Shhh!’ Cato hissed, craning forward. ‘There he is.’
Two men stood on the steps at the entrance to the house. Lurco was conspicuous enough in his cloak, even without the hood being drawn back to reveal his face. The other man was wearing a plain black cloak, with the hood pulled far enough forward to conceal his features. They descended into the street and set off towards the Forum, in the direction of the archway where Cato and Macro were concealed.
Cato pressed himself against the wall of the arch and Macro crouched low by the door. Cato felt his heart pounding and stilled his breath in case the wisps of exhaled breath betrayed his presence. The boots of the approaching men echoed off the walls of the buildings on either side of the street. They talked loudly, in the way of men who have drunk deeply.
‘Good party,’ said Lurco. ‘That Seneca knows how to entertain in style.’
‘Style?’ the centurion’s companion snorted. ‘The wine was good but the food was miserly, and I’ve seen better whores.’
‘Ah, er, yes. I was actually talking of Seneca himself. Quite the raconteur.’
‘Rubbish. Just another poser who thinks he’s a cut above the rest of us because he can swear in Greek. And as for that harlot, Agrippina … I’m pretty broad minded, Lurco, but the damn woman is insatiable. Anything from a slave boy up to a raddled old fool like Seneca is fair game to her.’
There was a short pause as the pair passed Cato and Macro and then Lurco continued in a lower voice, ‘I’d be careful about saying such things. You’re talking treason, especially when you say it in front of an officer of the Praetorian Guard.’
‘Pah, you’re nothing but pretend soldiers. I’ve seen better men than you in the worst centuries of the Second Legion, and that’s saying something …’
Their voices faded as they strode down the street. Macro seized Cato’s arm and whispered urgently, ‘That voice. You know who that was?’
Cato nodded. ‘Vitellius.’
‘What do we do? We can’t risk having that bastard recognising us.’
‘Come on.’ Cato rose up. ‘We mustn’t lose them.’
Before Macro could protest, Cato set off after the two men, keeping to the shadows along the side of the street. With a muted curse Macro followed him. They kept their distance so that their footsteps would not be heard by those ahead of them. As Lurco and Vitellius headed out of the Quirinal district and reached a crossroads, Lurco slowed down and moved off to the wall of a house just before the junction. He hoisted up the hem of his cloak and fumbled under the tunic beneath.
‘You go on, Vitellius. I’ll catch you up.’
The other man glanced back and then nodded and turned the corner, leaving Lurco to sigh with relief as his piss spattered against the base of the wall.
‘This’ll do us,’ Cato decided. ‘Let’s get him now, while he’s on his own.’
Macro nodded and reached for his cosh as the two of them increased their pace, padding along the other side of the street until they were almost opposite Lurco. At the last moment they dashed across the cobbled way and Lurco turned dully at the sudden sound. Cato thrust his shoulders hard, slamming him against the wall. Lurco let out a pained grunt as the breath was driven from him. Macro swung his cosh across the back of the centurion’s skull and his legs gave way and he collapsed into the puddle he had just created.
Cato was breathing hard and his heart was beating fast. It had been easier than he expected. Now they had to deliver Lurco into the hands of Septimus at the safe house. ‘Let’s get him up. Give me a hand.’
They reached down and pulled the unconscious centurion up between them, slinging one of his arms over each of their shoulders.
‘Ready?’ Cato asked softly.
‘Let’s get away from here before Vitellius comes looking.’
They had gone no more than a few paces when a voice called out behind them.
‘What the hell are you doing?’
Cato looked round sharply and saw Vitellius standing at the corner of the junction, no more than ten feet away. Even though it was night, the sky was clear and the loom of the stars gave just enough light to reveal their faces to each other.
Vitellius looked confused for an instant and then his jaw sagged a fraction before he called out in astonishment, ‘You!’