Macro was the first to break the spell. He threw Lurco’s arm off and spun round as he reached inside his cloak for the cosh. It was in his hand before he took his first pace towards Vitellius. The former tribune was too stunned to react, and further hampered by the wine he had consumed. Even so he ducked as Macro’s cosh swept through the air and the impetus sent it thudding into the side of the building. Macro’s knuckles cracked against the bricks and he let out a strangled cry of anger and pain as Vitellius stumbled back. Cato dropped Lurco and turned to help his friend but Macro charged on, thrusting his spare hand into Vitellius’s chest and sending him sprawling on to the paving stones.
‘Help!’ Vitellius cried out. ‘Help me!’
Macro fell on him, driving the wind from his lungs. At the same time he drew his bloodied cosh hand back and swung it viciously at the side of Vitellius’s head. The latter sensed the movement and jerked round, taking the blow on his shoulder.
‘Oh, sod it!’ Macro growled as he dropped the cosh, balled his hand into a fist and smashed it down directly into the other man’s cheek. Vitellius’s head struck the ground beneath and he went limp, his arms dropping untidily across his chest. Macro drew his hand back to strike again but saw that Vitellius had been knocked cold. Macro struggled up, breathing hard. Cato stood on the other side of the fallen man, staring down.
‘Great,’ said Macro. ‘Now what do we do?’
‘He’s seen us. He knows we’re in Rome. We can’t let him talk.’
‘So.’ Macro smiled cruelly, and drew his dagger out. ‘I’d always hoped it would come to this.’
‘What the hell are you doing?’ Cato grasped his arm.
Macro turned to him with a surprised expression. ‘We can get rid of him once and for all. You know what he’s done, to us and others. I can’t think of a man who is more deserving of a knife in the ribs and being left to bleed out in the gutter.’
‘No.’ Cato shook his head. ‘That’s not in our orders.’
‘Then it’s a bonus.’ Macro pulled his hand free.
‘No. Think about it, Macro. Witnesses saw him leave with Lurco. Narcissus is bound to hear of it. If he turns up dead, then Narcissus will know it was us.’
‘So? He’s no friend of Narcissus either.’
‘That doesn’t mean Narcissus won’t use it against us. You don’t go and kill the son of one of the most influential men in Rome without there being consequences.’
Macro was silent for a moment. ‘Then let’s just make him disappear. Drop him into the Great Sewer.’
‘What if his body is found and recognised?’
Macro held up his dagger. ‘I can make sure that he won’t be recognised.’
‘Put that away, Macro,’ Cato said firmly. ‘We have to take him with us.’
‘Bollocks,’ Macro grumbled. ‘Won’t be easy carrying ‘em both.’
‘We’ll manage. Keep watch while I see to them.’ Cato drew some thick twine and a few strips of cloth from the side bag under his cloak. He tied the hands of both men and then stuffed their mouths with the cloth. No one was about, and only the familiar sounds of the capital broke the silence. Cato helped lift Vitellius on to Macro’s shoulders and then lifted Lurco, who was more slightly built than his companion.
‘Ready?’ asked Cato. ‘Let’s go.’
It was at least half a mile to the safe house and they kept to the side streets as they struggled under their burdens. At one point Vitellius began to stir and Macro was obliged to crack his head against a wall to keep him quiet.
‘Don’t get a taste for that,’ Cato warned him as they continued up the slope of the hill into the Subura district. Just before they reached the safe house they ran into a rowdy group of young men and had to make up some story about their mates not being able to hold their drink. The two parties parted with good-humoured laughter. At last they staggered into the insula and dumped Vitellius in the vestibule before labouring upstairs with the centurion. Septimus opened the door for them, backing into the room which was illuminated by an oil lamp.
‘Good work.’ He nodded approvingly as he made to shut the door.
‘Wait,’ Cato gasped. ‘One more … to come.’
‘One more? What are you talking about?’
‘Explain later … Come on, Macro.’
When they returned with Vitellius, the imperial agent stared at the second body in surprise, and then shock as he recognised his features.
‘Are you mad? Good gods, do you know who this is? What the hell is he doing here?’
‘He was with Lurco … when we took him,’ Cato explained between breaths. ‘We didn’t have any choice.’
‘You didn’t have to bring him here. Why not leave him in the street?’
‘He recognised us.’
Cato exchanged a wary look with Macro before he replied. ‘I take it that Narcissus has not told you about our past history.’
‘Only what I needed to know,’ Septimus replied stiffly. ‘It is dangerous to possess too much knowledge in my line of work.’
‘In that case, it’s enough for you to know that we served with Vitellius in the Second Legion in Britannia. We didn’t see eye to eye on a few issues.’
Macro chuckled. ‘To put it fucking mildly.’
‘In any case,’ Cato continued, ‘we can’t afford to have him at liberty. He can link us to the disappearance of Lurco. Until our job is done, he has to be kept out of sight. He’ll have to go with Lurco.’
‘Or we could get rid of him,’ Macro suggested and then raised a hand to placate Cato as his friend glared at him. ‘Just trying to think through the options.’
Septimus sucked in an anxious breath. ‘Narcissus is not going to like this. Matters are already slipping out of our control. Vitellius must be dealt with.’
There was a groan and the three men turned to see that Vitellius was stirring.
‘He has to be blindfolded,’ Cato said quietly to Septimus. ‘He’s seen more than enough already. We don’t want him to identify you.’
‘Quite. Deal with it and put him in the other room while we talk to Lurco. We need to find out what he knows about the Liberators’ plot.’
Macro took out his dagger and cut a strip from Vitellius’s cloak which he wrapped twice round Vitellius’s face before tying it off securely. Then he put his hands under the former tribune’s shoulders and hauled him into the next room where he dumped him on the floor. The shock of the impact brought Vitellius to full consciousness and he mumbled into his gag as he writhed on the ground. Macro pressed his boot down on Vitellius’s shoulder.
‘Don’t move,’ he growled, ‘and we might let you live. Cause any trouble and I swear, by all the gods, that I’ll cut your throat. Understand?’
The other man stopped struggling and laid still, chest rising and falling. He nodded.
‘There’s a good patrician,’ Macro said, with contempt. He turned away and returned to the other room where Cato and Septimus had propped the other captive up against the wall. Septimus pulled up his hood to conceal his features. Lurco was moaning faintly and Cato reached forward to pull the gag from his mouth. Lurco retched and an acidic waft of breath struck Cato’s face. The centurion mumbled incoherently as his eyes flickered and Cato slapped him.
‘Come on! Wake up!’
‘Whharr … What?’ Lurco blinked and jerked his head back against the wall with a sharp crack. He winced and let out a pained groan.
‘Oh great,’ Macro mumbled. ‘All we need is for the idiot to get knocked out again.’
‘Shhh!’ Cato hissed irritably. He leant forward and roughly shook Lurco’s shoulder. ‘Lurco … Centurion Lurco!’
The man groaned and opened his eyes again, blinking as he struggled to focus. He glanced at the faces in front of him and his eyes widened in surprise. ‘I know you. Of course I know you. Guardsmen Capito and Calidus. The new recruits.’ He frowned as he tried to make out Septimus’s face, but it was shadowed by the hood of his cloak and Lurco gave up and returned his attention to Cato and Macro.
‘By the gods, I’ll have you both crucified for this! Assaulting a superior officer and kidnapping him. You’ll be shown no mercy.’
‘Shut up,’ Cato snapped, raising his fist threateningly. ‘You’re the one in trouble. Unless you answer our questions truthfully.’
For the first time Lurco looked uncertain, then scared. He swallowed anxiously and licked his lips before responding in a soft voice. ‘Questions?’
‘Don’t play the innocent,’ snapped Septimus. ‘We know you’re part of the conspiracy.’
Lurco’s brow creased. ‘What do you mean? What conspiracy?’
Septimus kicked him in the stomach, then, as Lurco gasped for breath, he stabbed a finger at him. ‘No more warnings. We ask, you answer. Clear?’
‘Yes …’ Lurco whispered. ‘Quite clear.’
‘Right then. You were named by a traitor who recently fell into our hands. He gave you up before we finished with him. Said that you were one of the ringleaders of the plot to overthrow the Emperor.’
‘It’s a lie!’ Lurco shook his head desperately. ‘I’m not a traitor. For Jupiter’s sake, I swore an oath of loyalty!’
‘So did the man we questioned. Didn’t stop him betraying Claudius. Nor you.’
‘No. It’s a mistake.’
‘True enough,’ Septimus replied and nodded to Macro. ‘See what you can do to loosen his tongue, or his teeth.’
‘My pleasure.’ Macro smiled coldly and bunched his fists. He hooked his right into the centurion’s cheek and Lurco’s head jerked hard to the side. A fiery stab of pain shot down Macro’s arm, adding to the existing pain following his earlier contact with the wall when he had felled Vitellius. Lurco let out a deep groan. He turned, dazed, to face his questioners again; their shadows, distorted and menacing, played over the far wall of the room. He spat out a bloody gobbet then spoke with quiet sincerity. ‘I’m innocent, I tell you.’
‘I see,’ Septimus sneered. ‘Then why were you named as a traitor?’
‘I-I don’t know. But I swear it’s a lie.’
‘Pah! You’re the liar, Lurco. And a pretty poor one at that. I want the truth. Macro!’
Lurco’s eyes snapped towards Macro, wide and pleading. This time Macro struck him with his left, and Lurco took it just above the ear as he tried to move his head out of the way. The centurion winced and his eyelids fluttered for a moment.
‘Please … please. I’m innocent,’ he mumbled.
Septimus regarded him in silence and then stretched up to his full height, narrowly missing one of the beams in the low ceiling. He regarded the centurion for a while and then scratched his nose. ‘What do you think, lads? Is he being straight with us?’
‘I don’t think so,’ Cato replied, playing along. ‘Remember how long the other traitor lasted before he spilled his guts? It’s just a question of how long we have to beat him before he gives up any information. Let’s get on with it.’
My pleasure,’ Macro growled, edging forward, his fists raised.
‘For pity’s sake!’ Lurco bleated. ‘This is wrong. All wrong. I’m loyal to Claudius. I’m innocent. You have to believe me!’
‘No we don’t.’ Macro pressed his hands together and cracked his knuckles, hoping that he wouldn’t have to strike the man again with his bad hand.
‘Look at it from our position,’ Septimus continued in a more kindly tone. ‘Why should we believe you and not the man who gave us your name?’
‘Because I’m telling the truth. Ask your man again. Ask him why he’s lying.’
‘We can’t, unfortunately. He died under questioning.’
Lurco went pale. When he spoke again his voice took on a pleading tone. ‘Look, there’s been a mistake. The man you interrogated, he must have got my name wrong.’
‘No, no.’ Septimus clicked his tongue. ‘He was very specific. Centurion Lurco, Sixth Century, Third Cohort of the Praetorian Guard. That is you, isn’t it? There’s no mistake.’
‘Then … then he must have been lying.’
Septimus exchanged an inquiring glace with Cato. ‘What do you think?’
Cato pretended to reflect for a moment. ‘It’s possible. But then there’s the other matter.’
‘That other business we discovered. The fact that Centurion Sinius wants him killed. That doesn’t seem to make any sense. Very peculiar.’
‘Yes.’ Septimus nodded. ‘Peculiar.’
Lurco looked from one to the other with growing apprehension. ‘Sinius wants me dead? What’s going on?’
‘It’s simple,’ Macro said. ‘Sinius gave us orders to kill you.’
‘But we brought you here instead,’ Cato continued. ‘We already know that Sinius is part of the conspiracy. The thing that’s puzzling us is why one conspirator would give orders for another conspirator to be murdered. Care to shed any light on that mystery?’
‘I-I don’t know anything about it.’ Lurco raised his bound hands. ‘You have to believe me. I beg you.’
Macro clicked his fingers and looked at Cato as if an idea had struck him. ‘Perhaps the traitors are trying to cover their tracks? Dead men tell no tales, and all that.’
‘But I’m not a traitor!’ Lurco whined. ‘I’m not part of any conspiracy!’
‘Pipe down!’ Macro snarled. ‘Or you’ll wake everyone in the bloody building.’
Cato spoke again. ‘If that’s true, why do you think the conspirators want you dead? There has to be a reason. What is it that you know that makes you a danger to them?’
‘I don’t know. I swear I have no idea. Please believe me!’
The other three men stared at him in silence and the centurion cowered. Septimus took a deep breath and puffed his cheeks out. ‘We need to talk. Put him next door with the other one.’
Macro and Cato grabbed the centurion by the arms and dragged him into the next room and placed him against the wall opposite Vitellius. They closed the door firmly behind them and then moved close to Septimus so that their words would not be overheard by the prisoners.
‘We’re none the wiser,’ Septimus concluded bitterly. ‘Why would the Liberators want him dead?’
‘Perhaps they’re just doing the imperial guard a favour,’ Macro suggested with heavy irony. ‘He’s not the best officer I’ve ever encountered.’
‘I think we can discount that,’ Septimus replied, not knowing Macro well enough to be certain if he was being humorous.
Cato ran a hand through his scalp. ‘If there’s a reason why they want Lurco disposed of then it has to be because of something he knows, or because he is in the way of their plans. From what little we’ve got out of him, it seems he has no idea about the conspiracy.’
‘Unless he’s a bloody good actor,’ Macro intervened.
‘That’s possible.’ Cato conceded. ‘But his fear seemed real enough. If he knows something that the Liberators think might threaten their plans, then it’s clear to me that Lurco has no idea that he knows what he knows.’
Macro winced. ‘Come again?’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Cato replied as he continued his train of thought. ‘If they don’t want him dead to keep him quiet, then the reason has to be that he is some kind of an obstacle. They want him replaced.’
‘Replaced?’ Septimus stared at him. ‘Why would they want to replace him?’
Cato’s mind grappled with the implications of his suggestion. If he was right then the danger to the Emperor was clear enough. ‘Because he commands the Praetorian guardsmen who stand closest to the Emperor at the moment. If the Liberators can get one of their men to replace Lurco then they will be within striking range of the Emperor. Close enough to attempt to kill him. It makes sense. They’ve tried once already with that ambush on the imperial party the day of the Accession games. Next time they won’t have to penetrate his line of bodyguards to stick the knife in.’
Septimus stared at Cato for a moment. ‘You could be right …’
‘Narcissus has to get Lurco and Vitellius out of Rome and keep them out of sight,’ Cato went on. ‘Then we wait to see who is appointed as the new centurion of the Sixth Century, and we watch him like a hawk. See who he talks to and make sure we’re close enough to him to act whenever the century is escorting the Emperor.’
‘That’s taking quite a risk,’ said Macro. ‘I doubt that Narcissus will agree to it. Why not just arrest Lurco’s replacement? And Sinius while we’re at it?’
‘Because they will lead us to the rest of the conspirators,’ Septimus spoke before Cato could reply. ‘And hopefully they’ll lead us to what remains of the bullion stolen from the convoy as well.’
‘That’s right,’ Cato agreed. He paused for a moment. ‘But we have a more pressing issue to deal with before then – making sure that the grain Cestus has stockpiled is still at the warehouse near the Boarium. If we can confirm that then Narcissus can seize it and the Emperor can start feeding the mob. Once the people have food in their stomachs they’ll be offering prayers to him rather than threats. That will knock the wind out of the Liberators’ plans.’
‘Very well,’ said Septimus. ‘We’ll see to that tomorrow. Meet me at the entrance to the Boarium at noon. For now, you two had better get back to the camp and rest. I’ll deal with our two friends.’
‘Deal with?’ Cato arched an eyebrow.
‘They’ll be taken somewhere we can keep an eye on them. I’ll have them released once it’s all over. They won’t come to any harm.’
‘More’s the pity,’ muttered Macro.
‘How are you going to get them out of the city?’
‘I’ve got a covered cart in a lock-up under the aqueduct at the end of the street.’
Cato nodded and he and Macro turned towards the door. Cato paused on the threshold. ‘It just occurred to me. Sinius will want proof that the job’s been done. I need something from Lurco.’
He entered the other room and came back a moment later with the centurion’s equestrian ring. ‘One more touch and that should convince Sinius.’
‘Eh?’ Macro glanced at him. ‘What did you have in mind?’
‘You’ll see. Come on.’
Cato led the way out of the two-room apartment on to the landing. Just before he closed the door behind them, Septimus whispered, ‘Until noon at the Boarium, then.’
Taking care to feel their way down the darkened stairwell with its worn and creaking floorboards, Cato and Macro left the tenement block and emerged into the street.
‘Back to the camp then!’ Macro’s tone was light hearted now they had completed their task. ‘We should get a couple of hours’ sleep before morning assembly.’
‘There’s one more thing to do first,’ said Cato.
‘What’s that then?’ Macro asked wearily.
‘Something that’s not particularly pleasant, but necessary.’ Cato steeled himself to face the task, then gestured down the street. ‘Let’s go.’