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CHAPTER THREE

Cato responded to the imperial secretarys greeting with a cold stare. Despite being born into slavery in the imperial palace, Narcissus had worked hard and been set free by Claudius in the years before he had become Emperor. As a freedman Narcissus had a lower social status than even the humblest Roman citizen, but as one of the closest advisers to the Emperor he had power and influence far beyond that of any aristocrat sitting in the senate. It was Narcissus who also controlled the spy network dedicated to sniffing out threats to his master. In this role he had made use of the services of Cato and Macro before, and was about to again, Cato reflected sourly.

Once the innkeeper had brought a jar of wine and three cups, Narcissus dismissed him. That will do for now, Spurius. Make sure that we are not interrupted, nor overheard.

Yes, master. Spurius bowed his head and then turned to leave. He paused at the door. Master?

What is it?

About my daughter. Is there any news of her?

Pergilla, wasnt it? Yes, Im still trying to persuade the Emperor to grant her freedom. These things take time. You keep your end of the bargain and Ill do all I can for her. Narcissus waved his hand. Now leave us.

Spurius hurried out and Narcissus waited until the sound of footsteps faded and the door at the far end of the linking room closed behind the innkeeper.

Hes a good and faithful servant, but he can be rather demanding at times. Anyway, enough of him! Narcissus leant forward and nodded at the jar. Macro, why dont you pour us all a drink. We should celebrate this reunion of old friends.

Macro shook his head. The last thing you are is a friend of mine.

Narcissus stared at him for a moment and then nodded. Very well then, Centurion. Ill do the honours. He leant forward, pulled out the stopper and poured a dark red wine into each of the cups. Then he set the jar down and raised his cup. At least join me in a toast Death to the enemies of the Emperor.

Macro had been looking longingly at the wine and with only a brief show of reluctance he picked up the nearest of the cups and repeated the toast. He took a sip and made an appreciative noise. So this is what that tight bastard Spurius has been keeping back from us.

Youve not been entertained well then, I take it? asked Narcissus. Spurius was instructed to make you comfortable.

He did his best, said Cato. If the innkeeper was to be believed then he had not been compensated for the imposition of two guests for as many months. Moreover, if Narcissus was using Spuriuss daughter to enforce his will on the innkeeper, Cato was not going to add to the mans problems. We were given a clean room and fed regularly. Spurius has served you well.

I suppose he has. Narcissus glanced at Macros surprised expression and then cocked an eyebrow. Though you dont appear to agree that he has served you particularly well.

Were soldiers, Macro replied. We are used to worse.

So you are. And it is time for you to serve Rome once more. Narcissus took a small mouthful of wine and licked his lips. Falernian. Spurius is trying to impress!

I imagine you will be in a hurry to return to the palace, said Cato. Best that we get straight to business.

How considerate of you, young Cato, Narcissus responded in an icy tone. He set his cup down with a sharp rap. Very well. You recall our last meeting?

On Capreae, yes.

I raised the matter of a new threat posed by the Liberators. Those scum will never rest until the Emperor is disposed of. Naturally, they claim to act in the interests of the senate and people of Rome, but in reality they will plunge Rome back into the dark age of tyrants like Sulla and Marius. The senate would be riven by factions fighting for power. Wed have a civil war on our hands within months of the fall of Claudius. Narcissus paused for a moment. The senate had its uses in an age before Rome acquired an empire. Now, only a supreme authority can provide the order that is needed. The fact is that the senators cannot be trusted with the safety and security of Rome.

Cato laughed drily. And you can be, I suppose.

Narcissus was silent for a moment, his narrow nostrils flared with disdain. Then he nodded. Yes. I, and those who serve me, are all that stand between order and bloody chaos.

That may be true, Cato conceded, but the fact is that the order you claim to protect is almost as bloody from time to time.

There is a price to pay for order. Do you really think peace and prosperity can be maintained without the shedding of a modicum of blood? You two soldiers, of all people, must know that. But what you dont know is that the wars you wage for Rome dont end when the battles are over. There is another battlefield, far from the frontier, that goes on, never ending, and that is the fight for order. That is the war that I wage. My enemies are not screaming barbarians. They are smooth-talking creatures lurking in the shadows who seek personal power at the expense of the public good. They may dress their base ambitions up in the robes of principle, but believe me there is no evil they would not countenance to achieve their ends. That is why Rome needs me, and why she needs you. Men like us are her only hope for survival. Narcissus paused and helped himself to some more wine, and licked his lips.

Its funny, said Cato. When other men act out of self-interest you call it evil. When we do it, were patriots.

That is because our cause is just. Theirs is not.

A difference of perspective.

Dont dignify our enemies with your philosophical abstractions, Cato. Just ask yourself whose Rome you would prefer to live in. Ours, or theirs?

Macro clicked his tongue. He has a point.

There! Narcissus beamed. Even Centurion Macro can see the sense of what I say.

Macro frowned and cocked an eyebrow. Even Centurion Macro Thanks.

Narcissus gave a light laugh and topped up Macros cup. I meant no offence. Just to say that the right and wrong of it is abundantly clear to a man of action, such as yourself.

While Macro reflected on this the imperial secretary moved on hastily. In any case, Cato, there is really very little choice in the matter. While I respect your right to express an opinion, however poorly thought through, you have to do as I say, if you and Macro want to advance your careers, and especially if you want to marry that rather nice daughter of Senator Sempronius.

Cato lowered his head and slowly ran his fingers through the dark curls of his unkempt hair. Narcissus had them exactly where he wanted them. More than anything, he and Macro wanted to return to the army. Cato needed a promotion that would carry with it membership of the equestrian class. Only that would make his marriage into the family of a senator acceptable.

Well, lad, Macro interrupted his chain of thought. What about it? Anything to get us out of this place. Besides, it cant be too bad a job. Nothing more dangerous then weve faced already, surely?

Narcissus pursed his lips but did not say anything.

With a weary sigh Cato raised his head and looked directly at the imperial secretary. What do you want us to do?

Narcissus smiled slowly, with the air of a man accustomed to having his way. Ill begin by explaining something of the background to the situation. He leant back and folded his fingers together. As you already know, the regime was nearly brought down by the conspiracies perpetrated by Messalina. That woman was pure poison. There was no debauchery that was beneath her. The only thing that matched her wanton lack of morals was her ambition. She knew exactly how to wrap Claudius round her finger. Not only him, but many others, including one of the Emperors other advisers, Polybius.

I know the name, said Cato. Didnt he commit suicide?

Thats what he was ordered to do. In the Emperors name. There wasnt even time to appeal to Claudius before he was visited by some Praetorian guardsmen who rather pressed the issue.

Murdered?

The line between murder, execution and suicide has become a little blurred in recent years. Death, one way or another, resolves a political difficulty, or a desire for revenge, or simply comes on a whim from those with the authority to order it. Which is why Messallina could not be permitted to remain in a position where she could exert more influence over the Emperor than his closest advisers. So when she decided to use the Emperors absence from Rome to divorce him, marry her lover and then seize power, we had to act. Claudius was here in Ostia, to inspect the progress of the harbour development. Thats when the news reached me. I could see the imminent danger clearly enough and spoke to those who were closest to the Emperor, Callistus and Pallas. It took all our powers of persuasion to get Claudius to accept the truth about Messallina. Then he denied it all, saying it couldnt be true. Narcissus visibly trembled at the memory. So we encouraged him to drink some wine to soften the blow. That was when we presented him with a warrant for her arrest and execution, among a handful of other warrants issued for the arrest of her allies.

You dog! Macro commented admiringly. What did the Emperor do when he came to his senses?

He grieved for a month. While the three of us disposed of the other members of Messallinas conspiracy. The point of all this is to make you aware of how easily the Emperor is gulled, and that makes him, and Rome, vulnerable.

So whats the story with his new wife? asked Macro. Agrippina. Shes his niece, if I recall right.

Oh, yes. And that caused a fine scandal when Claudius announced his choice of new bride to the public. I had to battle to get the senate to pass a measure to remove such a marriage from the incest laws. Fortunately one of the leading senators was keen to ingratiate himself with the Emperor. He picked up the job and pushed the new law through. Even then it was no easy feat, I can tell you.

Cato had been thinking during the exchange. Whose idea was it to suggest Agrippina?

There was a brief pause before Narcissus replied in a venomous tone, Pallas. He said wed have a better chance of avoiding a repeat of the Messallina episode if we chose a bride from within the family. Besides, Pallas has some influence over her. We calculated that we would be able to keep her in line and ensure that Claudius continued to take advice from us.

And has it worked? Is the new Empress taking to her role with the required degree of compliance?

Narcissus tilted his head to one side. Shes not been much trouble. The only problem is that she came to the marriage with some rather awkward baggage.

Baggage?

Her son. Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. At least that is what he used to be called, before she talked the Emperor into adopting him. Now hes known as Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus. Claudiuss natural son is not taking to the new arrangement. Britannicus refuses to acknowledge his stepbrother and wont call him Nero. So theres no love lost there. Those two are going to be scrambling to succeed Claudius when he goes into the shades, or wherever it is that deified emperors go.

Macro shook his head. Sounds like theres going to be a right old carve-up when the time comes.

Cato thought for a moment before he spoke again. But Britannicus is the Emperors heir, so surely he is first in line to succeed?

If only it was that clear cut, Narcissus replied. Nero is fourteen, four years older than his stepbrother. Britannicus has the additional disadvantage that his mother was Messallina and that puts him under a bit of a cloud as far as his father is concerned. If he should become Emperor then I fear for the enemies of his mother. Hes the kind of boy who would make a priority of revenge.

Macro smiled. So, there is some justice in life. That prospect must be causing you a few restless nights.

Narcissuss expression suddenly hardened. Centurion, if you knew only a fraction of what burdens my mind I doubt whether you would sleep at all. The Emperor is vulnerable to threats from all sides. His health is starting to fail and I must do everything in my power to protect him and ensure that peace and order endure.

And when the old boy dies? What then? Macro asked shrewdly.

Then we must ensure that the right successor is chosen.

Who do you have in mind? asked Cato.

Im not yet certain. Nero and Britannicus are young and each has his own virtues and flaws. When the time comes I, and the Emperors other advisers, will make our choice and point Claudius in the right direction when he names his successor.

Cato pursed his lips briefly. I dont see what all this has to do with Macro and me. Theres nothing we can do to influence events.

I told you, I felt it necessary to brief you on the wider picture, so that you understand the full gravity of the situation when I tell you what I must ask you and Macro to do.

The two officers looked at each other quickly then Cato gestured to Narcissus to continue.

The imperial secretary collected his thoughts and spoke in a subdued tone. With the palace divided, the Liberators have decided to act. The key to any change of power in Rome is to have control of the Praetorian Guard. It was the support of the Praetorians that made Claudiuss accession possible. When the Emperor dies, they are the final arbiter when it comes to the question of who wins the throne. Now, if the Liberators can win control of the Praetorians then the question of which of the Emperors two sons will succeed him becomes academic. They will be cut down, along with the rest of the imperial family, their servants and allies. He paused to let his words sink in. That is why the command of the Guard is split between two prefects and the Emperors immediate bodyguard is made up of German mercenaries men he can trust. However, one of the prefects has been ill for several months, which leaves the Praetorians under the command of the other, Lusius Geta, who is more of a concern. Lately he has been increasing the training of the men, working them hard with regular route marches, weapons exercises and mock battles. Recently the battle training has shifted emphasis. He is now drilling them in street fighting and siege techniques.

Sounds like a conscientious commander to me, said Macro. I would be working the men just as hard in his place.

Im sure you would. But this is not the custom of previous prefects. More worrying still is that most of his officers seem to be fiercely loyal to Geta and hold him in high regard. Naricissus opened his hands. You must see that I have reason to regard the man with a degree of suspicion.

Macro shrugged, but Cato nodded slightly.

Theres more. Last month one of the tribunes of the Guard was killed on the road.

Cato nodded. Balbus.

Thats right. How did you know?

I read of it in the gazette. Not much else for me to do with my time. I gather Balbus was killed by brigands.

Thats the version that was put out. What the report did not mention is that he was in command of a bullion convoy sent from the mint in Narbonensis. The search party found his body stripped by the side of the road, no doubt to make Balbus look like the victim of a robbery. It didnt take them long to locate the remains of the wagons from the convoy. But the bullion chests were gone. About two million denarii lost in all.

Macro whistled.

Quite. A vast sum, and the thing is, only a handful of men, imperial servants and Praetorians, knew about the convoy. This was an inside job. No question of it. Ive had those in the know questioned, and some of them put under torture, but my interrogators got nothing out of them. Either they are innocent, or they are tough enough not to crack under pressure.

Perhaps word of the convoy leaked out, Cato suggested. Someone overheard or saw something that gave it away.

Its possible. But I trust my men to be discreet. They know the price for disappointing me will be severe. So that leaves the Praetorians. Either their security is slack, or there are traitors in their ranks. Thats how it seemed to me until a few days ago. Then we had a stroke of good fortune. One of the Praetorians got drunk and started a fight in some drinking hole close to the Great Circus. He was confined to quarters. On closer investigation it was discovered that he had been spending money all day buying drinks for comrades and passers-by. He had also lost a small fortune in silver at the races, and yet he had not drawn any money from his savings at the barracks. I gave orders for him to be released and his centurion put him on fatigues for a month. Two nights ago I ordered my agents to snatch him and take him to a safe house outside the city for questioning. He proved to be a tough customer and more rigorous methods of interrogation were necessary, alas. Before he died he confessed to being involved in the attack on the convoy and he gave up one name. A centurion who is serving in the cohort entrusted with guarding the imperial palace, Marcus Lurco. According to the man, Lurco is one of the leading conspirators. So now we know that there is a faction of traitors in the Praetorian Guard.

Did the Praetorian mention any link to the Liberators? asked Cato.

He did. Narcissus took a breath. The situation is serious. Theres only one reason why they would be after such a fortune. Theyre amassing a war chest. Once they have enough, its my belief that theyll use the money to bribe the Praetorian Guard to back them when they attempt to overthrow the Emperor.

There was a brief silence. Macro drained his cup and poured himself another while trying to look thoughtfully engaged. All of which is very interesting, but whats this got to do with us?

Its simple. I need some men on the inside who I can trust completely. I want you and Cato to join the Praetorian Guard, penetrate the conspiracy, identify the leaders and then, if necessary, eliminate them. Oh, and locate and return the stolen bullion.

Macro stared at him and then laughed. Easy as that. Surely you have agents who are used to all this cloak-and-dagger bollocks? Were soldiers and wouldnt have a clue about how to go and stab a man in the back. There has to be someone better than us you can use.

Oh, I have a small circle of men I can rely on. A very small circle, and men I can ill afford to lose. Besides, for this job I need men who can pass as soldiers. Narcissus paused and smiled thinly. Lets not beat about the bush. You two are expendable. Besides, I know you will accept. How can you do otherwise?

Macro shook his head. Wed be mad to accept such a task.

You have no other choice, given that what you desire is within my power to grant or withhold, as I see fit. His gaze switched to Cato. Is that not so?

Cato nodded reluctantly. Hes right, Macro. If we want to return to the army and if Im to have my promotion, what else can we do?

Precisely.

No, Macro replied. Think about it, Cato. Were soldiers. Were trained to fight. Not to spy, not to play the part of some imperial agent. Theyd see through us in an instant. Im not going to end up with my throat cut and my body dumped in the Great Sewer. Not me. I wont do it. Nor will you if you have any sense.

This is not some scheme I dreamed up on the road from Rome. Narcissus spoke with icy intensity. I have considered the matter carefully and I am certain that you two have a far better chance of succeeding than my agents. You are experienced soldiers and will fit in with the Praetorians where my men would stick out like sore thumbs. You are also virtually unknown in Rome, whereas my men are familiar faces. If I use anyone else then I will have to hire men in from outside the capital, men whose ability I dont know, and who I have no idea how far I can trust. The truth is, we need each other. If you see this through, I give you my word of honour that you will both be generously rewarded.

Im not sure your word is good enough, said Macro.

How do you plan to get us into the Praetorian Guard? Cato intervened. If a pair of officers turn up and start asking questions, the opposition are bound to be suspicious.

Of course, thats why you will be joining the Praetorians as rankers. Two veterans of the Second Legion just returned from Britannia. Your appointment to the Guard is a reward for gallant service against the barbarians. Its a credible cover story, and its close enough to your experience for you not to have to act much. All that will be different is your rank. It shouldnt be too hard a role to play.

Easy for you to say, Macro grumbled. What if we run into anyone weve met before?

Its unlikely. Its over three years since you were last in Rome, and then you were renting rooms in the Subura while you were on half-pay. No one in the Praetorian Guard knows you. Apart from a handful of my clerks who might remember your faces, you shouldnt be recognised by anyone at the palace.

What about Senator Sempronius? Cato asked. And Julia? If we encounter them our identities will be exposed.

Ive thought of that. Narcissus smiled. Ive arranged for the senator to conduct an inventory of the Emperors estates in Campania. Ive instructed him to take his daughter with him so that she can enjoy the social scene. Its a light enough task, but one that will keep them out of the way until spring. By which time I trust that you two will have unearthed the traitors in the Praetorian Guard and any of their accomplices in the city.

There are others who will recognise us. Senator Vespasian for example.

Narcissus nodded. Im aware of that. Vespasian has been elected one of the consuls this year and will be busy in the senate.

Vespasian is a consul? Macro smiled. Good on him.

While I share your regard for his abilities, I have to say that Vespasians elevation to the consulship is something of a concern. He may be more ambitious than I previously gave him credit for.

Oh, come on! Macro shook his head. You cant be suspicious of Vespasian. After all that he has done for the Emperor? Why, if it wasnt for him then I dare say the campaign in Britannia would have been a disaster. And there was that business with the pirates. He served Claudius loyally.

I know. But it is my job to look for danger signals. Any displays of ambition have to be carefully scrutinised. So, Vespasian is being watched closely. Narcissus paused before he continued. It would be most unwise to take the risk of our being seen together, so you will report to me via one of my agents, Septimus. Aside from me, hell be the only one in the know. You can meet him at the Vineyard of Dionysus in the Boarium in two days time.

How will we know him? asked Cato.

Narcissus pulled a ring from the little finger of his left hand and passed it to Cato. Wear this. My agent will have its twin.

Cato held the ring up to examine it and saw that a design had been artfully carved into the red stone: a depiction of Roma astride a sphinx. Nice.

Of course Ill have that back once its served its purpose. Narcissus looked at them both. Well then, any further questions?

Just one. Macro leant forward. What happens to us if we decline your kind offer of employment?

Narcissus fixed him with a cold stare. I havent considered that yet. For the very good reason that I cannot imagine you would be so foolish as to refuse the job.

Then you had better start considering. Macro sat back and folded his arms. Find some other mugs to do your dirty work. Im a good soldier. Therell be an opening for me sometime or other. I can wait.

For how long, I wonder? Perhaps not for as long as I might wish to keep you rotting here.

Macros expression darkened. Fuck you. Fuck you and your nasty little schemes. Macro bunched his hands into fists and for a moment Cato was afraid his friend might take it into his head to pulverise the imperial secretary. The same thought occurred to Narcissus who flinched back. Macro glowered at him for a moment then stood up abruptly. Cato, lets go and get a drink. Some other place. The airs foul here.

No, Cato answered firmly. We have to do it. Im not staying in Ostia any longer than I can help it.

Macro stared down at his comrade for a moment and then shook his head. Youre a fool, Cato. This snake will get us killed. Why should we succeed in uncovering the Liberators when the Emperors agents have failed all these years?

Nevertheless, Ill do it. And youll come with me.

Bah! Macro threw up his hands. I thought I knew you. I thought you were smarter than this. Seems I was wrong. Youre on your own, Cato. Ill have no part of this.

Macro strode to the door and wrenched it open, slamming it behind him. Cato heard his footsteps receding with a sinking feeling in his heart. Macro was right about the dangers, and Cato realised that he had little confidence that he could see such a mission through without the tough and dependable Macro at his side. For the first time in many months, he felt a pang of fear. The prospect of facing the Emperors shadowy enemies on his own was daunting.

I shouldnt worry about him. Narcissus chuckled. Now hes had a chance to unleash his anger at me, hell come round soon enough.

I hope youre right.

Trust me, I can read almost any man like a scroll. And our friend Macro is a somewhat less challenging read than most. Am I wrong? You know him well enough.

Cato reflected for a moment. Macro is capable of surprising turns of thought. You should not underestimate him. But yes, I think hell come with me. Once hes had a chance to simmer down and reflect on the fact that you might make his life very difficult. I take it you meant that.

Narcissuss thin lips twisted into a faint smile as he rose to leave. What do you think?

Fair enough. But I have one piece of advice for you, if you want this mission to go well. Cato paused. Never ever call him a friend to his face again.


CHAPTER TWO | Praetorian | CHAPTER FOUR