‘Fourteen drowned, another ten injured and twelve still missing, including the centurion,’ said Fuscius as he slumped down on to his cot in the section room. He shook his head. ‘The lads didn’t stand a chance when the water hit us …’ The young optio closed his eyes and his voice dropped to barely more than a whisper. ‘I was certain I’d die when I went under.’
Cato was sitting on the cot opposite and leant forward. ‘I think we all were. Something like that is never going to be on the training programme, is it?’
His attempt at gentle levity fell on deaf ears. Fuscius stared at the ground between his boots. ‘The Fifth Century suffered even more losses than we did … I thought joining the Praetorian Guard was supposed to be a cushy number. First the bloody riot and now this. It’s like we’re cursed.’
Macro gave a harsh laugh. ‘What? You think being a soldier ain’t supposed to be dangerous? Lad, you should have seen some of the pickles that Capito and I have been in over the years. Much worse than this. And we’re still here to talk about it. None of it was to do with curses. So you just raise a cup to the comrades you’ve lost, honour their memories and get on with the soldiering. That’s all you can, and should, do. You don’t sit there, wallowing in your own misery, muttering about curses. Especially when you’re an optio. Until Tigellinus returns, or is replaced, you’re in command of the century. So you’d better pull yourself together.’
Fuscius looked up and stared at Macro. At first his expression was neutral, but then his eyes narrowed in suspicion. ‘This has all happened since you two arrived.’
‘That’s right. Before then everything was nice and easy. Now we’ve been battered by the mob, Lurco’s disappeared and half the Sixth Century has been lost in a freak flood.’ He paused. ‘From where I’m sitting it looks like more than a coincidence. Which begs the question, what have you two done that has caused the wrath of the gods to be heaped on your comrades, eh?’
‘You’re talking bollocks, lad. Capito and I have been doing our duty. Nothing more or less. Same as you. Same as the rest of the lads. The gods have got nothing to do with this.’
‘So, the dam just collapsed all by itself then? A freak accident? Do us a favour, Calidus. That was an act of the gods if ever there was one.’
‘Act of the gods, my arse! Some bastard-’
‘Calidus!’ Cato snapped. ‘That’s enough. The optio’s had a tough time of it. If he’s going to take command, then he needs rest. So leave him be.’
Macro turned to Cato with an enraged expression. ‘You heard him. The little shaver thinks this is down to us.’
Cato raised his eyebrows meaningfully.
‘Oh … yes, I see …’ Macro swallowed his anger and turned back to Fuscius. He cleared his throat. ‘My, er, apologies, Optio. I was out of line.’
‘Fair enough.’ Fuscius nodded slowly. ‘Let’s let it lie, eh? I do need to rest. Maybe Tigellinus will turn up. If not, then I’ll need to be fresh come the morning.’
‘That’s right, Optio.’ Cato nodded. ‘We’ll see to it you’re not disturbed. Better still, Calidus and I will clear off for a bit and give you some peace.’
Macro shot Cato an angry look but his friend glared back and jerked a thumb towards the door. They rose from their cots and quietly left the room as the young optio lowered himself on to his coarse mattress and curled up on his side. As Cato closed the door behind them, Macro hissed angrily, ‘That little oik needs to be put in his place. How dare he speak to us like that?’
‘Keep your mind on the job,’ Cato replied quietly. ‘You nearly gave the game away just then. As far as anyone else is concerned, the collapse of the dam was an accident, remember? Until Narcissus says otherwise.’
‘You really think that story is going to convince people for much longer?’
‘No,’ Cato replied wearily. ‘But it might buy us some time before the other side takes extra care in covering their tracks. Right now we need all the help we can get.’ Cato nodded towards the door. ‘Let’s talk, but not here. Just in case. Let’s go down to the mess.’
The large room at the end of the barracks on the ground floor was almost empty. Besides Cato and Macro there were only a handful of men in one corner, half-heartedly playing at dice. They looked up and nodded a greeting and then returned to their game. Choosing a table on the opposite side of the mess, the two friends sat down. Macro sighed impatiently.
‘Well, here we are. What do you want to talk about?’
Cato did not reply at once. He stared down at the heavily scored surface of the table and then ran a finger slowly along the grooves where some bored guardsman had carved his initials some years earlier. ‘I’m trying to work out where we’ve got to in all this.’
‘Good luck, lad. I’ll confess it’s getting too complicated for my head. These bloody Liberators seem to be getting their dirty hands in everywhere. They’ve got men in key positions in the Praetorian Guard. They’ve used their contacts in the grain merchants’ guild to buy up the grain supply and now they’ve managed to sabotage that dam. They’re everywhere, I tell you, Cato. Like bloody sewer rats.’
Cato frowned at Macro’s last words for a moment, as if trying to recall something, and then he gave up with a shake of his head. ‘You’re right, and that doesn’t seem right to me. How can the Liberators have so many people working for them and still keep to the shadows? It doesn’t make sense. The more people they have in play, the harder it gets to keep the whole thing secret. If anyone stands a chance of infiltrating such a conspiracy and destroying it then it’s Narcissus. And yet he seems to know no more than we do. That’s something of a first in our dealings with him.’
Macro grunted with feeling.
‘There’s something else that doesn’t seem to add up,’ Cato continued. ‘Why weren’t the Empress or Pallas at the lake today?’
‘I think we know the answer to that one well enough.’ Macro grinned. ‘They had better things to occupy themselves with.’
‘Leaving that aside, don’t you find it just a little too convenient that they happen not to be with Claudius on the day he is almost killed?’
‘It’s certainly a lucky escape,’ Macro agreed. ‘But what are you implying? You think they had something to do with today’s little adventure? That doesn’t make sense, lad. Earlier on you were saying that Tigellinus was in on it. We know that he’s part of the Liberators’ conspiracy. In which case, how can he be working for Pallas and the Empress? Not unless they are all in it together. But how could that work? The Liberators are hardly likely to make common cause with the wife of the Emperor. They want her removed from the scene just as much as they do Claudius. And not just her, but the rest of the imperial family and all their most trusted advisers, like Pallas and our boy Narcissus.’ Macro shook his head. ‘The fact that Pallas and Agrippina weren’t there today has to be a coincidence.’
‘You may be right,’ said Cato. ‘But if you were the Liberators, wouldn’t you want to remove the imperial family in one go? Why risk Tigellinus and those men who sabotaged the dam only to have to go through it all again with the rest of the imperial family? With the Emperor dead the security around the rest of them would become far tighter; the Liberators would find it much harder to finish the job.’
Macro reflected on this for a moment. ‘Perhaps they’re getting desperate. They’ve already failed in one attempt to assassinate the imperial family. Perhaps they’re taking their chances as and when they can.’
‘That might be,’ Cato conceded. ‘But there’s another possibility. What if we are dealing with more than one conspiracy here? What if the Liberators are plotting to eliminate the imperial family, while at the same time Pallas and Agrippina are also plotting to do away with Claudius and clear the path to the throne for Nero?’
Macro shook his head. ‘That still doesn’t explain this afternoon. If Pallas was responsible, then how do you explain Tigellinus’s part in it?’
Cato puffed irritably. ‘I can’t. Not yet. Unless he’s some kind of double agent … What if he were?’ Cato’s mind suddenly raced ahead with the suggestion. ‘Now that would make sense of things. The question then becomes which side is he really working for and which side is he misleading?’ He recalled what he knew of the recently promoted centurion. ‘He returned to Rome from exile about the same time as Agrippina. Perhaps he’s working in her interests. He could be posing as a servant of the Liberators to use them to help Agrippina and Pallas …’ A sudden flash of inspiration fired Cato’s mind. ‘Yes! That would make some sense of what happened this afternoon. The Empress and Pallas intend to wait until the Liberators have removed Claudius and then seize power. When she has what she wants and Nero sits on the throne, she can use the intelligence gathered by Tigellinus to move against the Liberators.’ He paused and smiled. ‘Clever, very clever.’
‘You’re looking very pleased with yourself,’ Macro said drily. ‘Maybe you’re right but that doesn’t help us to discover how the Liberators are intending to do away with Claudius.’
‘I know.’ Cato’s expression resumed its earlier weariness. ‘All the same, I must let Narcissus know about my suspicions as soon as possible. If I’m right, then the threat to Claudius is greater than Narcissus knows.’
‘After today’s dowsing, I think Narcissus might just be thinking that already.’
Cato laughed. The sensation felt as if a burden had been lifted from his mind. He realised how exhausted he was. Aside from the strength-sapping struggle against the body of water that swept him away and down the river, Cato was covered with scratches and bruises from the battering he had endured in the process. He needed rest badly, and looking at Macro he could see that his friend did too.
‘The hour’s late. We should get some sleep.’
Macro nodded and they rose stiffly and made their way out of the mess. They exchanged nods with the men still playing dice and then closed the door behind them. Outside a long colonnade led to the stairs up to the second storey. They had passed the centurion’s quarters and office and then the first of the section rooms when they saw a figure by the foot of the stairs pace slowly towards them. The man’s features were indiscernible. He stopped ten feet away, blocking their path. Cato strained his eyes and could just make out that the man was covered in mud. He wore a tunic and boots and his dagger scabbard was empty. His sword hung against his left hip, as was the custom for officers. Cato swore a silent oath and stood to attention.
‘Centurion Tigellinus. Sir, I thought we had lost you.’
‘Tigellinus?’ Macro began, then snapped to attention beside Cato.
The other man was breathing heavily, and there was a pause as he stared back. Then his lips parted in a faint grin.
‘Back from the dead, that’s what I am. Bloody river swept me on for miles before I grounded on some stinking mudbank. By the time I got out and made my way back to the lake, the rest of you had gone and it was dark. So I marched back here.’ He took a step forward and stared at Cato. ‘So what happened?’
‘The Emperor, did he survive?’
There was no expression in the centurion’s mud-streaked face and he remained silent for a moment. When he spoke again his voice was unnaturally calm and measured. ‘Was it you that saved the Emperor’s life?’
‘No, sir. It was Tribune Burrus.’ Cato lowered his voice and spoke deliberately. ‘Although you might easily have reached the Emperor first, had you not stumbled.’
‘Yes, I would have reached him,’ Tigellinus replied flatly. ‘Was the Emperor injured?’
‘No, sir. Just badly shaken by the incident. The survivors of the escort took him to the palace before returning to the Praetorian camp.’
‘I see.’ Tigellinus was silent for a moment, his expression unreadable. Then he cleared his throat. ‘How many casualties among our lads?’
‘Over a third of the century, sir. Though some of them are marked down as missing, including you.’
‘Then Fuscius is in command?’
‘Where is he?’
‘Sleeping it off, sir. Do you want us to wake him and send him to you?’
Tigellinus thought a moment and shook his head. ‘No need. Just tell him that I’ve returned and he’s back to normal duties when the morning trumpet sounds.’
The centurion regarded Cato and Macro in silence until Macro coughed lightly.
‘Is there anything else, sir?’
‘I’m not sure. Is there anything else that you two want to tell me?’
‘Sir?’ Macro responded innocently.
‘I wonder, did you have any specific orders to carry out today?’
‘Orders, sir?’ Cato intervened. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘Don’t play the fool with me, Capito. You, Calidus and I are sufficiently well acquainted with Centurion Sinius and his friends to know what we are all about. So you don’t have to pretend otherwise. I’ll ask you again. Did Sinius give you any orders today?’ Tigellinus leant forward slightly, his intent gaze flicking between Cato and Macro. ‘Well?’
Cato felt his heartbeat quicken and feared that his inner turmoil might be read in his face. He strove to keep a steady and neutral expression as he stared back at the centurion with unwavering eyes. It was tempting to deny everything and play dumb. But it was clear that Tigellinus knew about their connection to the Liberators, probably from his dealings with Centurion Sinius, or perhaps another conspirator higher up the chain of command. Equally clearly he suspected that their orders were being withheld from him.
With a sudden flare of insight Cato realised that Tigellinus was as fearful as he was. If his masters had given separate orders to either Cato or Macro, or both, then it was clear that they did not trust him enough to share that information. Worse, they might actually distrust Tigellinus enough to order a separate attempt on the Emperor’s life in case Tigellinus failed. Cato had to make his response quickly, before the centurion turned his attention to Macro. He made his decision. If the Liberators were on the verge of attempting to overthrow the Emperor then it was important to disrupt their plans.
‘Yes, sir,’ Cato replied in a wary tone. ‘Sinius told me of your orders, and said that I was to carry the assassination through if you failed for any reason.’
Tigellinus drew a long, deep breath and exhaled through clenched teeth. ‘I see. And you did not think to tell me this?’
‘Centurion Sinius told me to watch you and act if I needed to. He did not say that I should make you aware of my orders. I assumed that you either knew already, or that you weren’t supposed to know of my part in the attempt.’
Tigellinus stared at Cato for a moment and then switched his gaze to Macro. ‘And you? What did you know of this, Calidus?’
‘Nothing, sir,’ Macro answered truthfully.
Tigellinus turned back to Cato. ‘Why is that, I wonder?’
Cato shrugged. ‘A secret shared is a risk doubled, sir. Perhaps that’s why Sinius told only me to keep a watch on you.’
‘Perhaps,’ Tigellinus mused. ‘At least I know where I stand in the eyes of our good friends, the Liberators.’
‘Sir, I don’t know if I should have told you this. Sinius didn’t expressly say that I shouldn’t. But perhaps it would be best if he did not know we had spoken.’
Tigellinus’s face slid into a crafty expression. ‘I shan’t say anything, for now, Capito. But in future, if Sinius tells you anything, then you tell me. Is that clear?’
‘I’m not certain that would be wise, sir.’
‘I’m sure it wouldn’t. But if I were to tell Sinius that you spilled the beans so easily then I doubt he would consider you a reliable, or inexpendable, member of the conspiracy. You understand? In future, when he speaks to you, you speak to me. If you don’t then I shall make your life difficult, not to mention dangerous. Clear?’
‘Yes, sir.’ Cato nodded. ‘As you wish.’
‘Quite. Now, out of my way. I have to get this bloody mud off me and my kit.’
Cato and Macro stepped aside and a foul odour wafted into the air between them as Tigellinus strode by. They watched him reach the end of the colonnade, enter his quarters and shut the door with a crash.
Macro turned to Cato with a cold stare. ‘What was that all about? You never said anything about Sinius’s orders.’
‘That’s because he never said anything to me.’
‘What?’ Macro frowned then jerked his thumb in the direction of the centurion’s quarters. ‘Then why tell him different?’
Cato looked both ways along the colonnade to ensure that no one would overhear their muted conversation. ‘What else could I do? If I said no then Tigellinus might realise that I had been out to save the Emperor rather than kill him. I had to make it look as if we were on the same side.’ Cato paused to let his friend think through his explanation, before continuing. ‘In any case, it helps our cause if Tigellinus is now suspicious of Centurion Sinius and the other Liberators. Divide and rule. It also helps that he thinks he has some kind of power over us. Such men are more likely to be indiscreet when they take so much for granted.’
‘And it makes me look like a bit of a dickhead,’ Macro responded sourly. ‘Like I’m not trusted.’
‘Not at all. The Liberators are playing a dangerous game. They have to operate in complete secrecy. It would make sense to keep the smallest number of people in the know, and even then only to tell them as little information as is required for them to play their part. Do you see?’
‘Of course I bloody well do,’ Macro fumed. ‘I just don’t like being put on the spot like that.’
‘That’s part of our job, for now. We have to think on our toes, Macro.’ Cato searched his friend’s face for some sign of understanding. ‘Things are coming to a head. Once we see this through then we can get back to soldiering.’
‘Assuming Narcissus keeps his word.’
‘True enough,’ Cato conceded.
‘And assuming that we survive this little game of secret agents.’
‘As long as we watch each other’s back and be careful what we say, then the odds are that we will.’
‘Care to place any money on that?’
‘As much as you like.’ Cato smiled, spat on the palm of his hand and held it out. ‘Where should the money go if you win?’
‘Bah!’ Macro growled and slapped Cato’s hand aside. ‘Piss off. I’ve had enough of your games for tonight. I’m turning in.’
Macro made for the stairs and began to climb. After a pause, Cato followed. Back in the section room Fuscius had turned on to his back and was snoring lightly. The other men removed their boots and lowered themselves onto their cots without another word. As usual Macro was asleep within moments and added his deeper, more guttural snores to those of Fuscius. Cato folded his arms behind his head and stared up at the ceiling, trying hard to ignore the din. He tried to focus his mind on the twists and turns of the conspiracy that he and Macro had been struggling to unravel for the last two months, with limited success.
Before long Cato’s mind began to wander, lighting upon one aspect of the conspiracy after another. Then, without warning, his mind filled with the feral expression on Cestius’s face as he thrust Britannicus aside during the food riot and made to strike at Nero. Cato frowned at the memory. Something about it did not fit with the other aspects of the conspiracy. He strained his mind to make the connection but was too tired to concentrate effectively. At length he shut his eyes and a vivid memory of the moment the wave struck filled his mind. He had been certain that he would die. That they would all die, swept away and drowned by the deluge. But the gods had been merciful. He still lived, as did Macro, the Emperor and most of the men caught by the wave. The conspirators had failed to kill Claudius, just as they had failed back in the Forum. One thing was certain. They would try again, and soon.