The men of the Sixth Century stood formed up, at ease, waiting for their commander to emerge from his quarters to take the morning parade. Centurion Lurco was late and the men would have fallen to muttering and shuffling their feet had they not been under the cold gaze of Optio Tigellinus as he paced steadily up and down the front rank, his staff tucked under his arm.
Cato could not help feeling conspicuous given that it was thanks to him and Macro that the century was standing in the cold, waiting in vain. By now the centurion, and Vitellius, should have left the city and be on the road to the remote villa where they would be held until Narcissus gave the order for their release.
‘What the bloody hell is keeping him?’ Fuscius whispered fiercely. ‘Bet the bastard’s in his cot sleeping off a skinful.’
‘More than likely,’ Macro replied quietly.
‘Well, it ain’t good enough. Officers should know better than to leave us out in the cold like this.’
‘Legion officers would never get away with this,’ Macro added. ‘They’re made of sterner stuff.’
Fuscius glanced at him and muttered in a sceptical tone, ‘So you say.’
‘I do.’ Macro nodded. ‘And I defy any man to say otherwise.’
‘Who the hell is speaking?’ Tigellinus roared as he strode back down the line towards them. Macro and Fuscius instantly shut their mouths and stared straight ahead. Tigellinus swept by, his eyes ablaze as he searched for any sign of the guilty parties. He carried on down to the end of the line, about-turned, and marched back.
‘I didn’t bloody imagine it. I definitely heard one, or more, of you dumb bastards muttering away like schoolboys on their first visit to a whorehouse! Who was it? I’ll give you one chance to step forward, or the whole bloody century is on latrine duty!’
‘Shit …’ Macro spoke through gritted teeth. ‘Always shit, one way or another.’
He drew a deep breath and stepped forward a pace.
‘Macro!’ Cato hissed. ‘What the hell are you doing? Get back in line before he sees you.’
Macro ignored him and called out instead, ‘Optio! I spoke.’
Tigellinus spun round and strode up to Macro, pushing through the first rank and stopping right in front of him, an enraged expression on his face.
‘You? Guardsman Calidus. I expect more from a veteran of your experience. Or was your precious Second Legion no better than a bloody ladies’ sewing circle? Eh?’
Cato winced. Under normal circumstances his friend would regard such a comment as fighting talk. The fact that he would have outranked Tigellinus if he had not been forced to go under cover would only fuel Macro’s ire. But Macro kept his mouth firmly shut and did not respond to the provocation. Tigellinus paused briefly and then curled his lip as he continued.
‘So much for the fighting spirit of the Second. You’re on a charge, Calidus. I’ll have you on latrine-cleaning duties for ten days. Next time you’re on parade maybe you’ll learn to keep your mouth shut.’
‘In line!’ Tigellinus barked and Macro stepped back a pace.
The optio shot one last scowl at him, then turned on his heel and made his way back down the line.
‘What the hell did you do that for?’ Cato whispered out of the side of his mouth.
‘He heard me. You know his type, Cato. Won’t let a thing lie.’
‘All the same, you haven’t got time to waste shovelling shit.’
Macro shrugged slightly. ‘Right now, I feel I’m wading through the stuff.’
They stood in silence a while longer, and some of the men of other centuries who had been dismissed from morning parade paused as they passed the end of the barracks to look on curiously.
‘What are you gawping at?’ Tigellinis shouted at them, and the guardsmen hurried on their way.
A tall, stocky officer strode past the end of the barracks in the direction of headquarters, glanced at the Sixth Century, and then paused midstride, changed direction and marched towards Tigellinus.
‘What’s all this, Optio?’ Tribune Burrus called out. ‘Why are your men still on parade?’
Tigellinus snapped his shoulders back and stood to attention. ‘Waiting for Centurion Lurco, sir.’
‘Waiting?’ Burrus frowned. ‘What the fuck for? Send for him. Did you send a man for him?’
‘Yes, sir. But the centurion was not in his quarters.’
‘No? Then where the hell is he?’
The question was rhetorical and Tigellinus kept his mouth tightly closed.
Burrus shook his head. ‘Right then, dismiss your men. Send someone to look for Lurco. I want him to report to me the moment he’s found.’ He raised his voice so that everyone in the Sixth Century would hear his words. ‘I don’t give a damn about rank when any man under my command fails in his duty. Centurion Lurco is in for the bollocking of a lifetime when I see him. Optio, carry on!’
‘Yes, sir.’ Tigellinus saluted, and waited for the tribune to stride off before he turned back to the men and drew a deep breath. ‘Sixth Century … dismiss!’
The men turned to the side and then fell out, making for the barrack block, muttering in low voices as they speculated about the absence of the centurion. Cato and Macro returned to the section room with Fuscius and immediately the younger man closed the door. He turned round with an excited expression.
‘This is a turn-up for the books, even for Lurco!’
Macro cocked an eyebrow. ‘The centurion has form, then?’
‘Oh yes. He’s been the worse for wear before but he’s never missed a parade. Where the hell has he got to?’
‘Probably drunk himself insensible,’ said Cato. ‘He’s going to be for the high jump whenever he turns up. Tribune Burrus doesn’t look like the merciful type.’
‘True enough.’ Fuscius grinned as he placed his javelin in the rack. His stomach rumbled plaintively as he stood back. Fuscius winced. ‘By the gods, I’m hungry.’
‘So are we all, lad,’ Macro replied. ‘But we do better than those down in the Subura. At least we get fed regular. Those poor bastards have to hunt for scraps. They’ll be dropping like flies soon.’
Fucsius nodded thoughtfully. ‘It ain’t good. The Emperor’s let us down badly. Won’t be long until we start starving, alongside the mob. Then there’ll be trouble.’
Cato looked at him. ‘Trouble? You think there isn’t enough trouble as it is?’
‘The food riots?’ Fuscius shook his head. ‘That’ll be as nothing compared to what will happen once people begin to starve to death in their thousands. I’m telling you, when that happens the streets are going to be running with blood. The Praetorian Guard will be the only thing that can prevent chaos. The only thing that stands between the Emperor and the mob. And when that happens either Claudius will have to promise us a sizeable fortune to keep us loyal, or …’
‘Or what?’ Macro prompted.
Fuscius shot a nervous glance towards the door to make sure that it was closed, and then continued in a subdued tone, ‘Or we choose a new Emperor. One who can afford to pay for our loyalty.’
Macro exchanged a quick look with Cato before he cleared his throat. ‘That’s treason.’
‘You’ve been in the legions too long, my friend.’ Fuscius smiled. ‘That’s the way we do business in the Praetorian Guard.’
‘And how would you know? You’ve barely served long enough to know one end of a javelin from the other.’
‘I listen to the others. I talk to people.’ Fuscius nodded. ‘I know what’s going on. Claudius may be Emperor for now, but unless he does something to keep the Praetorian Guard sweet, there’ll be those of us who might consider finding a new master.’
‘Easier said than done,’ said Cato. ‘Britannicus is too young. So is Nero.’
‘Nero may be young, but he’s popular. You saw how the guards cheered him at the Accession games.’
‘So, we just chop and change our emperors according to popular whim?’
Fuscius pursed his lips briefly. ‘It’s as good a reason as any. And you can be sure that any new emperor will do all he can to win the Praetorian Guard over as soon as possible. That suits me. And it’d suit you, too, if you were smart enough to realise it.’
Cato did not like the younger man’s fickle understanding of a soldier’s duty. He had seen the unpalatable greed burning in Fuscius’s eyes and felt an overwhelming desire to cut himself free from the venomous snakepit of Rome’s politics. The mendacity and ruthless ambition that filled the hearts of those at the centre of power in the empire was unhindered by any strand of morality. Now that he and Macro had been sucked into this world he longed to return to regular army duties. The need to conceal his true identity and guard his back created a constant and exhausting tension and Cato had no desire to remain in Rome any longer than he could help it. He suddenly realised that marrying into Julia’s family might well embroil him in the dangerous and devious world of the capital. Her father was a senator, a player in the often lethal game of politics. If he became part of that life, Cato realised that he would have to live on his wits all the time.
That was no life for a soldier, Cato reflected, then inwardly smiled with amusement at this ready identification of himself. Until recently he had harboured grave doubts about his ability as a fighting man and felt that he was merely playing the part of a warrior. That no longer troubled him. The hard experiences of years of soldiering had engraved the profession upon his soul, just as the weapons of his enemies had left their marks on his flesh so that all could see him for what he was – a soldier of Rome, through and through.
Even as he took comfort from this certainty, Cato felt a pang of anxiety as he wondered if he could balance that with being a husband to Julia, and one day a father to their children, should the gods bless them with any. Other men managed, but Cato wondered if he could cope with such a compromise. Equally, would Julia tolerate it? Would she be prepared to remain the loyal, loving wife while Cato campaigned alongside Macro to safeguard the frontiers of the empire?
He tried to shake off his doubts and concentrate his thoughts on his reply to Fuscius. It was possible that the younger man was testing him. Perhaps Fuscius was involved in the conspiracy in some way. Or had he overheard something? More worrying still was the possibility that he simply reflected the views of many in the ranks of the Praetorian Guard.
‘A new emperor,’ Cato mused. ‘And you reckon it’ll be Nero.’
‘He’s the most likely candidate to replace Claudius,’ Cato conceded. ‘Although, there’s another possibility. Why should we bother with another emperor at all? Why not return to the days of the Republic? Of course, we’d be out of a job. What would be the point of the Guard without an emperor to protect?’
Fuscius stared at Cato for a moment. ‘Whoever it is that rules Rome, you can be sure that they’ll want protection. The senate will need looking after just as much as an emperor. And they’ll be prepared to pay for it.’
Macro laughed. ‘You’re suggesting that the Praetorian Guard enters the protection racket.’
Fuscius shrugged. ‘Call it what you like. The fact is, we’re the real power behind the imperial throne, or whoever else we choose to support.’
‘Do you really think that the army should seize power?’ asked Cato.
A smile flickered across the young guardsman’s face. ‘Not at all. Just think of it as an unofficial check on the power of whoever rules Rome. For which service we will be handsomely rewarded.’
‘Or else,’ Macro added sardonically.
The latch on the door snapped up and the door swung open and all three men started guiltily as they turned to see Optio Tigellinus standing on the threshold of the room. He regarded them curiously.
‘What’s this? You look like a bunch of toga lifters caught in the act.’ He let out a grunt of amusement before he jerked his thumb over his shoulder. ‘Calidus, Capito, you’re wanted at headquarters. Centurion Sinius sent for you. Better hop to it.’
‘Yes, Optio.’ Cato nodded. ‘Any idea what he wants?’
‘Not a clue.’ Tigellinus smiled thinly. ‘That’s up to you to find out, my lad.’
Cato discreetly felt the slender bulge of the object in his belt purse. He had been expecting the summons.
Tigellinus began to untie the helmet strap under his chin as Cato and Macro made for the door. Just as they reached the threshold, the optio spoke again.
‘Don’t think that I haven’t noticed how fond you two are of slipping out of the camp. You’d better not be doing anything that’s going to cause me trouble, understand?’
Cato did not reply, but simply nodded, then gestured to Macro and they left the barracks and headed across the camp to headquarters.
‘I understand that Centurion Lurco has gone missing.’ Sinius cocked his head to one side as he regarded the two guardsmen standing in front of the desk in his office. ‘He’s nowhere to be found. The officer in charge of the watch on the main gate reports that he left the camp last night and he didn’t return. Can I take it that we need not expect to see him again?’
‘Yes, sir,’ Cato replied.
‘What happened to Lurco?’
Cato reached into his purse and drew out a small object and tossed it on to the desk where it landed with a soft thud. Centurion Sinius could not help briefly wrinkling his nose in distaste as he looked down at the severed finger, bearing the equestrian ring that belonged to Lurco. Cato watched his reaction closely. The finger had come from one of the fresher corpses washed out of the mouth of the Great Sewer. It had been short work to cut the finger off and ease Lurco’s ring into place. The combination would have a convincing effect, Cato had reasoned, and would carry more weight than the simple claim that he and Macro had murdered the commander of their century. Sinius lifted the finger up for closer inspection of the crest on the ring and after a brief silence he nodded in satisfaction and laid it back on the desk. He looked up at Cato.
‘Very good. I think you two may be the kind of men I can rely on after all. Your skills will be useful in the days to come. Very useful indeed.’
‘And what about our money, sir?’ asked Macro. ‘Capito said you’d pay us another thousand denarii as soon as the job was done.’
‘Of course there’s a reward. You don’t think that I would fail to honour our arrangement, I trust?’
‘Trust is something of a luxury in this world,’ Macro said. ‘You pay me and I trust you. But try to swindle me and you’ll end up joining Lurco … sir.’
The centurion glared at Macro and he spoke in a soft, chilling tone. ‘You dare to threaten me? You know damn well what the penalty is for threatening a superior officer.’
‘But at the moment you’re not a superior officer.’ Macro lifted his lip in a faint sneer. ‘You’re a fellow conspirator. Or, as some might think, a traitor. The only difference is that you think you’re doing it for lofty ideals, whereas Capito and me are doing it for money.’
Cato watched his friend closely. Macro was playing his part well, just as they had agreed during the time it had taken to make their way across the camp to headquarters. It was important that he and Macro had a credible motive for becoming involved in the conspiracy.
Sinius nodded slowly. ‘I see. Tell me, are neither of you prepared to act purely out of a sense of duty to Rome?’ He shifted his gaze to Cato. ‘What about you?’
Cato pursed his lips briefly. ‘It’s all very well to appeal to patriotism, sir, but the fact is that it makes precious little difference who runs the empire from the point of view of the likes of Calidus and me. Whether it’s Emperor Claudius in power or you and your friends makes no odds to the people of Rome, or to us soldiers.’ Cato paused. ‘As long as there’s an emperor, then there’s a Praetorian Guard, and we do well enough out of the pay and perks. If you’re planning to put your own man on the throne then we’re still in a job, and we’ll have picked up a nice little bonus for services rendered to you. However, if you’re planning on doing away with the emperors and handing power back to the senate, then we stand to lose out, unless we’re handsomely rewarded now. So, pardon me for looking out for number one. In any case, I don’t suppose for an instant that your lot won’t be passing up the chance to make your fortunes out of a change of regime. There are no pure motives in politics, are there, sir?’
‘Ha! What are you, Capito? A soldier, or a student of political affairs?’
Cato eased his shoulders back and stood erect. ‘I’m a soldier. One who has served long enough to know that his first loyalty is to himself and his comrades. The rest is merely eyewash for fools.’
There was a tense silence in the small office before Centurion Sinius smiled. ‘It’s reassuring to know that your only loyalty is to yourself. Men like you are a known quantity. As long as you are paid then you can be relied upon. Unless, of course, you encounter a more generous paymaster.’
‘True.’ Cato nodded. ‘Which is why you and your friends will see to it that we’re paid well if you want to keep us on your side. All the same, if you try to play any tricks on us, then I promise you won’t live long to regret it.’
Sinius leaned back in his chair with a contemptuous expression. ‘We understand each other well enough. Just do as you are told and take your reward, and when it’s all over you keep quiet.’
‘You needn’t worry,’ said Macro. ‘We know how to keep our mouths shut.’
‘Then see that you do.’ Sinius picked the severed digit up between thumb and forefinger and dropped it into an old rag. He wrapped the soiled cloth round the noisome object and placed it in a small chest where he kept his styli and pens. Snapping the lid shut, Sinius glanced up at the other men. ‘That’s all for now.’
‘Not quite all,’ Macro growled. ‘Our money.’
‘Of course.’ Sinius rose from his chair and crossed the office to a strongbox. He took a key on a chain from round his neck and fitted it into the lock. He reached in and drew out two leather pouches then closed the lid. He returned to his desk and set the pouches down with a soft clink. ‘Your silver.’
Cato stared at the two bags, quickly estimating their likely contents. He looked up with a frown. ‘How much is in there?’
‘Two hundred denarii in each.’
‘You said a thousand,’ Cato snapped. ‘Where’s the rest?’
‘You’ll get it when the job is done, and only then.’
‘It is done. Lurco has been dealt with.’
‘Lurco is one step along the path. Your services are needed for a little longer.’
Cato sucked in a breath and spoke through clenched teeth. ‘What else is there to do?’
‘All in good time.’ Sinius smiled. ‘Suffice to say that it’ll all be over within a month. Then you shall have the rest of your reward. You have my word on it.’
‘Your word?’ Cato sneered, reaching forward to take the purses and hand one to Macro. ‘Listen, friend. In this world only money talks. You still owe us three hundred each. Now you’d better tell me what we have to do to earn it. If I’m going to put my neck out for you and your friends, then I want to know what you’re asking of us.’
‘No. You do as you are told, when you’re told. That is all. The less you know, the better for all of us. Now go. Return to your barracks. You’ll be given your instructions when we’re ready to act.’ Sinius cleared his throat and concluded in a loud curt voice, ‘Dismissed!’
Cato and Macro stood to attention, saluted and then turned smartly to march from the office. Once the door was closed behind them Cato let out a sigh of relief and marched off down the corridor with Macro at his side.
‘Things seem to be moving to a head,’ Macro spoke softly. ‘Within a month, he said.’
Cato nodded. ‘And we’re still no closer to discovering who Sinius is working for. We’re going to have to watch him more closely from now on. Follow him, see who he speaks to. He has to meet with the other Liberators at some point. When he does, we need to be there.’
‘Easier said than done,’ Macro responded. ‘They’ll be taking precautions. What if they only communicate by some kind of coded written message?’
Cato thought for a moment. ‘That’s possible … But if they are going to act soon then there’s every chance they will have to speak face to face. We’ll start following Sinius as soon as we’ve dealt with that business down at the Boarium.’
‘All right,’ Macro agreed. ‘But before we meet Septimus there’s another small matter that needs seeing to.’
Macro hefted his pouch of silver. ‘I’m not leaving this in the barracks where some thieving little toerag can get his hands on it. So before we go anywhere else, I think a little visit to one of the bankers in the Forum is called for.’
Cato slowed his stride to turn to his friend. ‘What are you thinking? Do you mean to keep that money?’
Macro could not hide his surprise. ‘Of course.’
‘But you know damn well where the silver has come from.’ Cato glanced round to make sure no one was close enough to overhear them. Apart from a handful of clerks chatting several paces ahead of them, the corridor was deserted. Cato lowered his voice even further. ‘It belongs to the Emperor.’
‘Not any more, it seems.’
‘You think Narcissus is the kind of man who will accept that line of argument? He’ll want it back, every coin that can possibly be recovered.’
‘Which is every coin that he knows about. So I’m not going to mention this little lot. Nor are you,’ Macro concluded firmly. ‘Besides, lad, we’ve earned it, several times over. We’ll just quietly bank this for now. If no one asks us for it, then there’s no harm in hanging on to it. Agreed?’
Cato felt a surge of frustration briefly course through his veins. ‘What if Sinius spills his guts when Narcissus moves to crush the plot? What if he tells Narcissus that we have the silver?’
Macro shrugged. ‘Then we’ll just have to make sure that we get to Sinius first when it’s over.’ His expression hardened as he glanced at Cato. ‘If he’s silenced before he can talk, then we might even get our hands on that chest he keeps in his office.’
The anxiety of a moment earlier returned as Cato hissed, ‘You’re playing with fire, Macro. Don’t even think about it.’
‘Why the hell not? I’m sick of doing Narcissus’s dirty work for no reward. No fair reward at least. This is a chance for us to get ahead in life, lad. We’d be fools to duck the opportunity.’
Cato could see the dangerous gleam in his friend’s eyes and knew it would be foolhardy to try to gainsay Macro in his present mood.
‘We’ll talk about it later, all right? I need time to think.’
Macro’s eyes narrowed briefly, then he forced a slight smile. ‘Very well, later.’