By the flickering glow of the same oil lamp they had used to light their way out of the imperial palace Cato and Macro emerged from the secret tunnel leading towards the Circus Maximus. Macro shook his head as he considered the situation.
‘I don’t get it. Why would Narcissus want Nero and Agrippina killed?’
Cato cautiously tried the door that Narcissus had led them to two hours earlier. It was still unlocked and he eased it open and peered out into the chamber where the fuel was stored for the palace’s main bathhouse. Neatly stacked logs lined the walls. Cato waited a moment but there was no sound or sign of movement, so he beckoned to Macro to follow him. ‘Think about it, Macro. After all, you should know the answer.’
‘Don’t play cute,’ Macro grumbled. ‘Just tell me.’
‘It was you who saw Agrippina and Pallas together, remember?’
‘How could I forget? The wife of our Emperor in the paws of some greasy little Greek freedman is hardly an edifying sight.’
‘Quite.’ Cato smiled. ‘Nevertheless, there’s no avoiding the truth. Agrippina has taken Pallas as a lover. His fortune is linked to hers, and that of her son. Pallas is positioning himself for the day when Claudius puts in his application for divinity. If, as looks likely, Nero becomes the new Emperor then Pallas would be in a very powerful position as the lover of Agrippina.’
‘Obviously,’ Macro sighed.
‘So where do you think that leaves Narcissus?’
Macro paused midstride. ‘Wait, are you saying he’d dare to make an attempt on the son of the empress?’
‘Why not? It’s the most sensible thing to do. If he just killed Pallas, then Agrippina would be sure to find herself a new lover soon enough and then Narcissus is back to square one. If he kills Nero, then Britannicus will have no rival for the throne and Agrippina’s influence will diminish, and Pallas’s fortunes along with hers. Of course, the tricky part is to remove Nero in such a way that there is no suspicion that Narcissus might be behind the assassination. So he used Cestius and his gang. That’s why Cestius spared Britannicus. He was under orders to kill only Nero and possibly his mother. Narcissus was there with us so that it would look like he was in just as much danger as everyone else.’
Macro was silent for a moment as they trod warily across the chamber towards the narrow door leading into the service corridor beyond. ‘By the gods, Narcissus and his friends play some pretty deadly games with each other.’
Cato shrugged. ‘Welcome to life in the imperial palace. Conspiracy, treachery and murder are the diet of those who run the place.’ He turned to Macro with a rueful smile. ‘Now you can see why I was lucky to be sent to join the legions. I doubt I’d have survived for long if I had gone into the imperial service, like my father. At least in the army you know who your enemies are … most of the time.’
Macro snorted. ‘Most of the time, but not in the Praetorian Guard. They’re a bunch of pretty puppets playing at soldiering and politics in equal measure.’
Cato nodded. ‘And that is what makes them so dangerous to the emperors. Tiberius nearly lost his crown thanks to the Praetorians, and Caligula lost his life. The odds are that Claudius and a good many of his successors are going to go the same way.’
‘Unless the Liberators get what they want.’
Cato shot his friend a quick look. ‘I suppose. Anyway, we’d best be quiet from here on.’ He lifted the latch on the door and eased it open. The service corridor was empty, and the only light was from a single torch guttering at the foot of the stairs leading up into the heart of the palace. Cato blew the lamp out and placed it by the door before he and Macro padded down the corridor, passing the doors to several more chambers. The staircase led up to one of the palace’s kitchens where the shelves that were usually filled with luxuries were now mostly bare.
‘It’s quiet,’ said Macro. ‘Haven’t seen or heard a soul so far.’
They passed out of the kitchens into one of the main thoroughfares and made for the private quarters of the imperial family.
‘I don’t like this,’ Cato said softly. ‘We should have run into someone by now. Some of the Praetorians, or the slaves at least.’
At last, as they approached the doors to the private suites of the Emperor and his family, they saw some of the guards. Eight Praetorians stood on watch by the light of a brazier. As Cato and Macro emerged from the gloom they saw a figure step forward and recognised Fuscius.
‘Stop there!’ the optio barked. ‘Identify yourselves.’
Cato muttered to his friend, ‘Time to drop the cover story, I think.’
‘High bloody time,’ Macro agreed with feeling.
As they stepped into the pool of light cast by the brazier, Fuscius swore softly. ‘Calidus and Capito! What have you two been up to? You’re covered in filth.’ His eyes widened as he was struck by a more salient thought. ‘You’re supposed to be on guard! You’ve deserted your posts.’
‘Quiet!’ Cato snapped. ‘Optio, what’s going on? Where are the rest of the Praetorians?’
Fuscius opened his mouth in astonishment at being addressed in this curt manner by a ranker. He puffed out his chest as he took a deep breath to bawl the two men out.
‘There’s no time for lengthy explanations,’ Cato said curtly. ‘All you need to know is that my name is not Capito. I’m Prefect Cato and this is Centurion Macro. Why are there so few men in the palace?’
‘Hold it.’ Fuscius stared at them. ‘What’s going on?’
‘We’ve uncovered a plot to kill the Emperor. We’ve been investigating a plot involving some officers of the Praetorian Guard.’
‘Bollocks. I don’t believe it. You two are on a charge.’
‘Shut your mouth,’ Macro said firmly. ‘Or it’ll be you on a charge, sunshine, at the very least, should anything happen to the Emperor. Now tell the prefect what’s going on. Where are the rest of the Praetorians?’
Fuscius swallowed nervously before he replied. ‘All right, all right then … they’ve been ordered out of the palace to guard the perimeter of the imperial quarter. Only Tribune Burrus and two centuries remain in the palace.’
‘Who gave the order?’ Cato demanded.
‘Prefect Geta. Less than half an hour ago, I’d say. Same time that he ordered the German bodyguards to be confined to quarters.’
Cato felt his blood go cold. ‘Where is Tigellinus?’
Fuscius glanced from one to the other briefly, his mouth working helplessly. Then he shook his head. ‘The centurion’s not here.’
‘Where is he then?’ Cato demanded.
‘He went off with Prefect Geta and another officer, Centurion Sinius, and a squad of men.’
Cato stabbed his finger into the scale armour on the optio’s chest. ‘Where did they go?’
‘I don’t know. They were making for the gardens. Doing the rounds of the sentries, I think the prefect said.’
Cato exchanged an anxious glance with Macro before he addressed Fuscius again. ‘Where’s the tribune?’
‘He set up a command post in the entrance hall, sir.’
‘Then you go to him at once. Tell him to bring every man he can to the imperial quarters immediately. Tell Burrus that the Emperor’s life depends on it. We’ll take these men with us.’ Cato saw the optio was on the verge of indecision again and he took a step towards the man and grasped him by the shoulders. ‘Get a grip on yourself, Fuscius! You have your orders, now go!’ Cato gave him a firm shove away from the entrance and Fuscius hurried away towards the main entrance of the palace, the clatter of his nailed boots echoing off the high walls.
Turning back, Cato faced the remaining Praetorians. Their expressions were as shocked and surprised as the optio’s. He needed them to accept his authority and obey his orders without question. Cato drew a calming breath as he looked at them. ‘I meant what I said about the danger to the Emperor. There are traitors in our ranks. Men who would break their sacred oath. The only hope we have of stopping them is if you obey my orders, and those of Centurion Macro, without question. Is that clear?’ He looked at each man in turn, daring them to defy him. There were no dissenters and Cato nodded.
‘Very well. Draw your swords and follow us.’ He gestured to Macro, and with a light scrape of his blade, Cato drew his sword and trotted through the entrance of the imperial quarters with Macro at his side. With a chorus of steely rasps the Praetorians drew their weapons and fell in behind the two officers.
As they ran down the long corridor connecting the main part of the palace to the more private and comfortable suites occupied by Claudius and his family, Cato hurriedly thought through the layout of this part of the palace complex. There would still be some men of the Sixth Century at their stations, and perhaps a handful of the German bodyguards who had been with the Emperor when their comrades had been quietly removed from the scene. Therefore the logical route for the assassins to take would be through the terraced gardens and then a final assault through the colonnade that ran along the side of the gardens. It would take them longer than the direct route, but it would avoid having to bluff, or fight, their way through each checkpoint. There was still a chance that they might reach the Emperor first.
Two flights of stairs led up to the highest level of the palace where the sleeping quarters and the gardens overlooked the heart of the city. As they climbed breathlessly up the final set of stairs, Cato heard a cry of alarm, then a shout and the unmistakable clatter of sword blades.
‘On me!’ he called, taking the last three stairs in a frantic leap. The corridor was lit by oil lamps and was some ten feet wide, with doors opening off each side. It stretched the full length of the top level of the palace, and the Emperor’s sleeping chamber and private study were halfway along on the left. The sound of voices and the clash of blades were louder now. As Cato, Macro and the Praetorians sprinted along the marbled floor, a door opened just ahead of them and Britannicus stepped out, bleary eyed. His sleep-clouded mind cleared in an instant as he saw the soldiers pounding towards him, swords drawn.
‘Get back inside!’ Cato shouted as he slithered to a halt. He turned to the nearest of the Praetorians. ‘You! Stay with the Emperor’s son. Lock the door and guard him with your life.’
Without waiting for the man’s response, Cato ran on again. The sounds of the fighting echoed dully off the corridor walls and then, when they were no more than twenty feet from the Emperor’s study, the door burst open and a German fell out, crashing on to the floor. A Praetorian leaped out after him, stabbing down on his sword with his full weight. The blade tore through the German’s stomach and the point burst through his back and struck the marble beneath with a loud crack. The German bellowed with agony and then his face contorted into a snarl as he grabbed the other man’s head in both hands and bit off his nose.
Cato thrust his blade into the Praetorian’s spine as he reached the door and the man gasped, dropping his sword, before he slumped over the body of the German. Rushing inside, Cato saw that he had been right. The shutters that had been drawn across the doors leading out on to the portico and the gardens had been smashed open and the splintered remains hung on the hinges. The main lampstand that stood beside the Emperor’s desk had been knocked over in the fight and the only illumination in the room came from a single lamp holder still casting its wan glow from a small table in one corner.
The room seemed to be filled with leaping shadows as men fought like furies. Cato held his sword out and glanced round, and saw the Emperor back into the wall behind his desk. In front of him stood Narcissus, a dagger held out as he shielded Claudius with his body. A huge German stood to one side a short distance before his master, sweeping the air with a long sword as he screamed out his war cry. There were two more Germans fighting in the room, together with a palace slave. Against them were ranged eight Praetorians, two of whom wore the breastplates of officers. A German, two slaves and two Praetorians were already down on the floor, moaning from their wounds.
Macro reacted to the confused scene first. ‘Form up on the Emperor, lads!’
He led the way, rushing round the side of the room towards Claudius and Narcissus pressed up against the wall behind their German protector. Cato accepted the sense of Macro’s order at once and joined the other men.
‘Stop them!’ a voice cried out. ‘Kill the Emperor! Kill the tyrant!’
Cato recognised the voice – Sinius.
Leaving two of their number locked in combat with the bodyguards in the middle of the study the traitors surged towards the Emperor, rushing round the desk, and one man vaulted over it. The German managed one more swing of his sword, cutting down one of his attackers before the rest swarmed over him, hacking and stabbing with their short swords. He staggered under the impact and then collapsed on to his knees, arms stretched wide as he struggled, even in death, to shield his master. His sacrifice delayed the assassins for only a heartbeat, but it was long enough for Macro to reach the far wall. With a bellow he charged headlong into the men who had killed the German, punching his sword into the face of the first man in his path. As the skull shattered with a wet crack, Macro slammed into the next two men, sending them flying back, one falling at the feet of Narcissus who promptly stabbed him in the back with his dagger, the other stumbling back among his companions.
Cato was close behind his friend and swerved aside to place himself between the traitors and the Emperor as one of the officers thrust his way past the press of bodies caused by Macro’s wild charge. In the gloom Cato could just make out Prefect Geta’s determined expression as he raised his sword and made to strike at Claudius. Cato threw his blade up to deflect the blow and sparks sprang from the expertly forged metal as the weapons struck. He felt the impact of the savage blow travel down his arm and his fingers were momentarily numbed. The prefect’s sword cut through the air to one side of the Emperor and clattered against the wall, gouging a chunk out of the ornately painted plaster. Claudius flinched as a chip of plaster struck him on the cheek. Before Geta could recover his sword to attack again, Cato threw himself forward and slammed his left forearm into the prefect’s chest, throwing him off balance. The Praetorians following on behind Macro and Cato forced themselves between the Emperor and the traitors and the room filled with the desperate grunts and cries of the two sides, together with the scrape of blades as they fought hand to hand.
‘Hold ‘em back!’ Macro bellowed as he fell into place beside Cato.
For a moment the struggle continued and then the first of the traitors retreated, clutching his spare hand to a wound in his sword arm. With no way through to the Emperor, the others backed off one by one. Geta turned to them in fury.
‘Fools! If you don’t kill him now, you are as good as dead. It’s too late to retreat. Strike! Strike a blow for liberty while you still can!’
Geta lashed out with his sword in a series of vicious cuts which Cato parried as best he could until Macro launched himself forward, hammering his sword against the prefect’s, forcing the other man back.
One of the Praetorians made to move forward and help Macro but Cato grabbed his shoulder. ‘Stay where you are! Every man is to hold position. Protect the Emperor until help gets here.’
The two sides drew apart and the din of the fighting was replaced by heavy breathing as the Praetorians and the traitors watched each other warily. Geta glared at the Emperor, then swallowed nervously before he took a half step towards Claudius and the men guarding him. Before he could call on his men to attempt another strike against the Emperor, the sound of shouting and footsteps echoed along the corridor outside the study.
‘That’s Tribune Burrus,’ Cato spoke out to the traitors. ‘Throw down your weapons and surrender.’
‘Surrender and we all die!’ Geta responded loudly. ‘There will be no mercy if we fail now.’
His followers hovered indecisively for an instant before one turned and ran back through the broken shutters. Another made to follow him and then others fled, leaving Geta and Sinius alone. Beyond them, Cato was aware of a third officer, in the shadows by the broken shutters.
‘Cowards!’ Geta yelled bitterly. ‘Cowards all!’
Sinius grabbed his arm and pulled his superior back. ‘There’s nothing we can achieve here, sir! We must go.’
‘Go where?’ Geta asked.
‘There may be another chance, sir. Come!’ Sinius roughly pulled the Praetorian prefect away and then bundled him out of the room towards the gardens. Cato lowered his sword and looked round the room. The wounded were moaning on the floor. Two of the men lay still. Those on either side of him were breathing heavily from their desperate run through the palace and the brief skirmish in the Emperor’s study. The Emperor himself was unhurt but there was no mistaking the terror in his eyes.
‘You men stay here,’ Cato ordered the Praetorians. ‘Macro, with me!’
He tightened his grip on his sword as they strode briskly across the room towards the smashed shutters. They stepped out of the study cautiously, just in case any of the traitors were waiting for them in the colonnade outside. The light of the crescent moon bathed the garden in dark shades of grey and the figures of the traitors were easy enough to see as they fled down the shingle paths through the neat shrubberies and flower beds. Macro started after the nearest of the men but Cato grabbed his arm.
‘No. Leave him. Those are the ones we want.’ He pointed his sword at the three officers running towards the steps leading down to the lower terrace of the garden where there was access to the servants’ quarters beneath the imperial suites. If Geta and the others could reach them, they might lose their pursuers in the labyrinth of service corridors and storerooms before escaping into the city’s streets. Cato and Macro set off after the officers, sprinting down from the colonnade towards the steps. They lost sight of their prey momentarily between two lines of neatly trimmed box hedges and then saw them, a short distance ahead. Geta and his companions dashed down the stairs and headed across a paved area towards the dark entrance to the servants’ quarters. An instant later there was a faint glow there that outlined the stone arch and then the flicker of a torch and the sound of voices.
The three men stopped as they realised there was no escape in that direction. They turned and ran the opposite way, along the balcony that looked directly down on to the Forum. At the far end lay a secluded rose garden surrounded by tall hedges. Cato and Macro chased after them while the first soldiers spilled out from the servants’ entrance. Higher up there were shouts as more men began to search the upper terrace for the traitors. Burrus’s voice carried through the night air as he issued his orders. The three officers hurried round the corner of the rose garden out of sight. Cato stopped and cupped a hand to his mouth.
‘Over here. They’re over here! Hurry!’
He and Macro continued their pursuit, rushing headlong round the edge of the neatly trimmed bushes only to see an empty stretch of path before them, lined with pine trees on one side which filled the air with their rich scent. Cato held up his hand to stop his friend and they stood, hearts pounding, as they strained their eyes to see in the gloom.
‘Where did they go?’ hissed Macro. ‘They have to be close. Best be careful, lad.’
They paced forward warily, senses tuned to detect the slightest sign of movement or sound in the trees on either side of the path. The voices of Burrus’s men rang out across the garden and then Cato saw a party of soldiers appear at the far end of the path. He took a breath and called out.
‘Geta! You’re trapped. There’s nowhere to run. Give yourself up!’
There was no response from close at hand, but the soldiers at the far end of the path began to trot towards Cato. Suddenly, not twenty feet ahead, there was a deep groan and a body slumped out of the shadows and fell across the path, a sword clattering dully to the ground beside the man.
‘What are you doing?’ Geta’s voice rose up in alarm only to be cut off abruptly. There was a rustling between the trees behind the body and then a stifled cry.
‘Shit.’ Macro started forward. ‘The bastards are doing themselves in.’
Cato ran after him. Before they could reach the body, a figure stepped out on to the path, sword in hand, and faced Macro and Cato. As he stepped away from the tree, Cato saw who it was.
They halted, a safe distance beyond sword’s length, and raised their weapons, ready to fight if the centurion chose to resist. Behind him the soldiers approached at the run.
‘You three!’ a voice called out. ‘Drop your swords!’
Tigellinus glanced briefly over his shoulder before he tossed his weapon on to the path. The Praetorians slowed to a stop and their leader carefully stooped to pick up Tigellinus’s sword before he gestured towards Cato and Macro. ‘You too!’
‘What?’ Macro growled. ‘We’re on the same side, man! We’re the ones who sent for Burrus.’
‘We’ll see soon enough,’ the Praetorian replied. ‘Now drop those swords, before me and my lads make you.’
Macro took a step towards them.
‘Do as he says,’ Cato intervened, throwing his weapon at the feet of the soldiers.
Macro hesitated a moment, then shrugged and followed suit.
Once the weapons had been collected and the Praetorians had surrounded Cato, Macro and Tigellinus, the leader of the soldiers prodded the body on the path with his boot and then squinted into the shadows where a second corpse lay.
‘What’s going on here, then?’
Tigellinus cleared his throat. ‘You address me as “sir” when you speak to me, Centurion Tigellinus, commander of the Sixth Century, Third Cohort.’
‘Bollocks,’ Macro spat. ‘You’re nothing but a bloody traitor, like your two friends here.’
‘Friends?’ Tigellinus responded in a surprised tone. ‘I think you are mistaken. I saw these men running from the Emperor’s study. I chased after them and caught up with them here. There was a fight, and I slew them by my own hand.’
Macro was dumbfounded and took a moment to speak. ‘That’s a bloody lie! It was me and Cato who were chasing ‘em, and you too, you traitor!’
‘I haven’t the slightest idea what you are talking about,’ Tigellinus said smoothly.
‘Right, that’s enough!’ the leader of the Praetorians snapped. ‘Shut your mouths, all three of you. Tribune Burrus will soon have the truth out of you, make no mistake.’ He detailed four of his men to pick up the bodies before turning back to his prisoners. ‘Let’s go!’