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The surface of the Tiber was dotted with flotsam and patches of sewage as the barge approached Rome late in the afternoon. A team of mules was towing the vessel against the current and their driver, a skinny, barefoot slave boy, flicked his whip once in a while to keep the pace up. Ahead a thick pall of woodsmoke hung over the city as the inhabitants struggled to stay warm through the dreary winter months, adding the output of the communal fires they were permitted to the smoke of the tanneries, smiths and bathhouses that plied their trade in the capital.

Cato wrinkled his nose as a foul odour swept across the surface of the river, blown by the stiff easterly breeze.

You forget how bad the place stinks, Macro muttered sourly at his side as they stood on the small foredeck of the barge. They were the only passengers. The rest of the available space was piled with jars of olive oil from Hispania. So heavily laden was the barge that there was scarcely a foot of freeboard above the glistening sweep of the Tiber.

Oh, it aint so bad! a cheery voice sounded from behind them and the two soldiers turned to see the captain of the barge approaching them round the jars. The mans thin frame was evident even under his tunic and thick cloak. A felt cap was jammed on his head from which protruded straggles of dark hair. He smiled, revealing a jagged display of teeth that reminded Cato of a cluster of long-neglected and stained tombstones. They say you get used to it soon enough when you live here. Course, I dont, seeing as me and the lad there make the trip up from Ostia only five or six times a month. He gestured to his son on the steering oar at the rear of the barge, gangly like his father and no more than ten years old. Ostia smells like a bloody perfume market by comparison.

You dont say, Macro responded drily.

Too right. The barge captain nodded. So, what are you visiting Rome for, my friends? Soldiers on leave, eh? Back from the provinces?

Macros eyes narrowed suspiciously. What we are and what our business may be is none of yours friend.

The other man raised his hands defensively, but continued smiling. No offence! Not meaning to pry, like. Just a polite question. I could see you was soldiers, soon as you boarded in Ostia. Like I said to my son, thems soldiers. You can see it in the way they hold themselves. Proud and erect like. Warriors. You can see it from their scars too, I said. It was obvious. So, no offence meant, sirs.

None taken. Cato smiled back. And youre right, weve just come back from campaigning in Britannia.

Britannia? The man scratched his cheek. Think Ive heard of it. Wheres that then?

Across the sea from Gaul.

Oh yes, I have it now! That was the place there was all that rumpus about when the Emperor celebrated a triumph some years ago.


So whats this about the campaign still going on? We was told the place was conquered.

Weve beaten the most important tribes. The armys just mopping up the remnants, Cato explained smoothly. It had been nearly four years since they had been in Britannia and although he had heard fragments of news about the progress of the campaign, it was clear that the barge captain knew far less. Narcissus had promised him a detailed report, along with their documents appointing them to the Praetorian Guard, and forged letters of commendation from the governor of the new province, when they met their contact in Rome. In fact, my comrade and I fought in the decisive battle. We led our legion in the charge and captured a Celt chief. Thats why were here. The governor recommended us for an appointment in the Praetorian Guard as a reward.

The barge captains eyes widened and he shook his head. Whod have believed it? Two bloomin war heroes on me barge. Wait till the lad hears this! Hes always wanted to be a soldier when he grows up. I always thought it must be a good life. Nice pay. Looked after well. And theres the uniform! Turns the ladies heads, does that. Then theres the good outdoor life and the chance for glory and spoils, eh? Isnt that right?

Oh yes. Macro smiled. Its a great life all right. One long party I thought when I signed up. Never imagined Id be fighting hairy-arsed barbarians in a frozen, bog-strewn wasteland. Strange how things turn out. He winked at the captain. The only thing that keeps me up at night is worrying how Im going to spend all that money Im paid.

Ignore my companion, said Cato. He got out of bed the wrong side this morning. Literally. He had a skinful last night and smacked his head on the wall when he woke up.

Very funny, Macro growled. I had a reason to get drunk, didnt I? A bloody good reason. I already think I should have stayed where I was.

The barge captain looked astonished. What, and miss out on being a Praetorian?

Macro eyed him coldly. I can assure you, if I could avoid it, I would with all my heart.

Cato intervened quickly. Thats just the hangover talking. Im sure hell get over it. He just needs a little bit of peace and quiet.

I can see that clear enough! The barge captain roared with laughter at Macros fragile expression. Still, Id get used to it, if I was you. Ive seen them Praetorians drink in some of the inns close to the wharves. They dont half go at it, and they can be a right handful when theyre in their cups, I can tell you! He paused and frowned. And heavy handed with it of late.

Oh? Cato looked at him inquiringly. Theres been trouble?

The barge captain nodded. A fair bit these last months. The grain supply has been running low, what with that business in Egypt last year. Price has been rising steadily. The mob dont like it one bit and theres been a few shops looted and some grain merchants beaten up. So the Praetorian Guard started cracking heads together. Well, more than that. Theyve gone and killed some people. He looked at the two soldiers warily. Had to, I suppose. I mean, youve got to have order, havent you?

Yes, Macro said tersely.

Anyway, we dont want to keep you from your duties. Cato nodded towards the rear of the barge.

Oh, dont worry about that. The lad can handle it all right up until I heave the mooring ropes ashore. He smiled cheerfully. No need to break up the party.

Theres no party, said Macro. Now go about your business.

The barge captain looked surprised, then a little hurt, and he turned and unhurriedly made his way back to the stern.

Cato sighed. Was that necessary?

What? Me getting rid of the chirpy sod? I thought so, before you blabbed every detail of our affairs. The mans got a mouth as wide as the Tiber. Half of Rome is going to know weve arrived before the day is out.

And whats the problem with that? Cato glanced back towards the stern where the captain had taken the steering oar from his son and was staring ahead intently. Whats he going to say? Just that he carried two soldiers upriver from Ostia and that they were on their way to join the Praetorian Guard. Thats not going to harm us in any way. On the contrary. If anyone starts to check up on us then he will be able to confirm the cover story. And anyone who speaks to him is going to realise at once that hes too guileless to spout a line that he has been told to deliver. Cato paused to let Macro think it through. Relax. You have to try not to think like a spy otherwise youll stop behaving like a soldier. If that happens the enemy will see through us in an instant.

Enemy? Macro puffed his cheeks out. What a fine to-do this is. Here we are pretending to be Praetorians so that we can hunt down and kill some other Roman citizens who just happen to have a different set of political values. At the same time theyre busy plotting the murder of their Emperor and anyone who stands between them and that aim. And all the while the frontier of the empire is teeming with real enemies who would like nothing better than for us to turn on each other. Forgive me for sounding naive, Cato, but isnt this all just a little fucked up?

Cato was silent for a moment before he replied. Yes. Its a mess. But thats not our concern. Were here to do one job. Whatever you may think, this isnt that different from our duties as soldiers. Were here to scout the enemy out, then infiltrate their position and take them on. Macro, it isnt the job of soldiers to think beyond that. We dont get to debate the whys and wherefores of the campaigns we fight for Rome. Its the same with the job at hand. Right or wrong, we swore an oath to the Emperor and that makes anyone who decides to be his enemy, our enemy. Besides, Rome could do worse than have Claudius on the throne, a lot worse.

Cato eased himself down on to the foredeck and stared towards the vast sprawl of palaces, temples, theatres, markets, bathhouses, private homes and teeming apartment blocks that covered the hills of Rome. Macros bitter expression faded and he chuckled to himself.

Whats so damned funny?

Just thinking. When we first met I was the one who was stuck on the certainties of duty, and you who was forever putting the other side of things. By the gods, it used to drive me mad.

People change.

I dont think so. At least, not that much. No, I think I understand you well enough, Cato. This is all about getting that promotion, so that you get Julia. Funny how a man will try to justify with reason the desires of his heart.

Cato glared back at him, angry with himself for being so transparent. Then he relented. The thing was, he was shocked to discover that he had half believed what he had said to Macro. The only shred of comfort was that Macro, above all people, knew him well enough to see through his argument. He would have to hope that he played his part well in the coming days. If not, then he would surely be found out and killed.

The barge eased towards the vast warehouses that stood at the foot of the Aventine Hill. In front of the warehouses was the river port where hundreds of barges and smaller craft crowded a wharf that stretched along the bank of the Tiber. In the distance, where the river bent to the west, Cato could see the Sublician Bridge where the swift current flowing beneath the wooden trestles of the footbridge effectively ended the upriver commercial traffic for the barges from Ostia. Dusk was not far off and already some of the details of the city were merging into indistinct grey shapes in the distance.

The mule team reached the terminus at the start of the wharf and the slave untied the yoke and handed the tow cable to a gang of burly men who were waiting to haul the barge on to a mooring. The captain released the steering paddle and then he and his son took some thick timber poles to fend the barge off the vessels that were already moored alongside the wharf. Sometimes the boats were tied up two or three deep so that gangplanks were laid across the sides and the cargoes loaded or unloaded across the intervening hulls. The captain glanced ahead and seeing that there was little sign of a berthing space for some stretch he indicated a single craft a short distance away.

There! he called, pointing out the spot to the men pulling on the tow rope. Their leader nodded and shortly afterwards the barge was tied up alongside. Cato and Macro picked up their kitbags and marching yokes and waited until the gangways were tied securely before they made to quit the boat.

Best of luck with the new posting! The captain beamed as he ushered his son towards them. This is my boy. Come to meet the heroes of the campaign in Britannia. Say hello, lad.

The boy looked up shyly and whispered a greeting that was drowned out by the shouts and cries of the gangs of porters on the wharf. Cato smiled down at him and gently squeezed the boys shoulder.

Your father says you want to join the legions. Do you think you are tough enough?

The boy shook his head quickly. Not yet.

Im sure you will be one day. You should have seen me when I was your age. Nothing but skin and bones, and I turned out all right.

Macro looked at him with feigned shock, but Cato ignored his friend and continued, Work your body hard and you could be a hero one day, and make your father proud.

Or, Macro spoke under his breath, you could end up as the dogsbody of a scheming imperial freedman

The barge captains smile faded a little. Im proud of him already.

Of course you are, Cato replied quickly. Come on, Macro, lets be off.

Swinging his kitbag up on to the fork at the end of the marching yoke, Cato carefully picked his way along the gangplank extending over the next boat and then up on to the wharf, feeling greatly relieved to have solid ground beneath his boots, even if it was covered with filth. Macro joined him and both men looked around for a moment to get their bearings.

Where did you say we were to meet that contact of Narcissus? asked Macro.

An inn called the Vineyard of Dionysus, on the north side of the Boarium. From what Narcissus said, it should be over that way. Cato indicated the civic buildings rising up beyond the end of the warehouse complex and they set off along the wharf. After the relative quiet of the streets of Ostia, the empires capital was a seething turmoil of noise and sights and the sweaty stench of people mingled with acrid woodsmoke. Gangs of slaves, some chained together, struggled under the burden of bales of exotic materials, jars of wine and oil and smaller sealed pots packed in straw-filled cases that contained perfumes and scents from the east. Others carried ivory tusks, or lengths of rare hardwoods. Around them skirted the captains of the barges, merchants and petty traders and the air was filled with voices, in a smattering of tongues: Latin, Greek, Celtic dialects, Hebrew and others that Cato had never heard before. The dusk was thickening in the dark winter air. Amid the gloom, fires flickered in braziers and cast pools of lurid red light across the paved wharf strewn with mud and rubbish. A few dogs and feral cats darted through the crowds, sniffing for food. Beggars squatted in archways and in front of locked doors, rattling wooden or brass bowls as they cried out for spare coins.

Cato edged through the press and Macro followed closely, careful to keep a firm grip on his yoke. Every so often he glanced over his shoulder to make sure that his kitbag was safe from petty thieves. He had heard stories of sharp knives being used to cut open the goatskin containers, so that a swift hand might pluck something out without the victim knowing until it was too late.

Shit, its like being stuck in the middle of a battle.

Without the danger, Cato replied tersely then added, or the blood, the bodies, the screams and the great big icy hand of terror clamped round the back of your neck. But otherwise, yes.


The crowd thinned out a little as they neared the arched entrance to the Boarium market. Like the warehouses, it was built on a grand scale with a columned entrance, above which loomed a pediment topped with statues of statesmen from the republican era, their original paint now obscured by a patina of grime and bird shit. The tang of blood and meat from the butchers stalls filled the air. On the other side of the entrance a wide vista opened out, large enough to camp a legion in, Cato estimated. The temporary stalls were already being dismantled and packed, with the traders goods, on to small handcarts to be taken to the secure stores at the side of the Boarium. Elsewhere the permanent stalls were being closed up for the night. Around the edge of the Boarium was a two-storey colonnade. The ground level was used for shops and inns, while above were the offices of those officials who collected duties and the rents of the traders. Many of the citys bankers rented premises on the second level as well, aloof from the bustle below as they counted their profits.

The Vineyard of Dionysus was easy enough to find. A large painted placard had been fixed over the entrance to the premises. A crudely painted man with a big grin was holding a brimming drinking horn against a backdrop of heavily laden grape vines, amid which, in a fascinating variety of positions, amorous couples were going at it hammer and tongs. Macro paused outside with a quizzical expression.

That one there, thats just not possible.

It is after youve had your fill of our wines! announced a cheery voice. A thickset man with heavily oiled hair detached himself from the pillars either side of the entrance and beckoned them inside. The wares of the Vineyard of Dionysus are famous across Rome. Welcome, friends! Please step inside. Theres a table for all, a warm fire, good food, fine wines and the best of company, he winked, for a modest price, sirs.

We need food and drink, Cato replied. Thats all.

For now, Macro added, still scanning the illustrations above the door. Well see how we go, eh?

The tout waved his customers inside before they could move on and then followed them. The interior was larger than Cato had expected, stretching back some sixty feet. A counter was set halfway down the side of one wall, flanked by alcoves, two of which had their curtains drawn. A thin, heavily made-up woman with wiry red hair sat in another alcove with a bored expression, her head propped on her hand as she stared blankly across the room. The place was filled with the first of the evening trade men from the Boarium who had packed up their stalls or finished their business for the day. Most were having a quick drink before returning home for the night. There were a few old soaks among them, bleary eyed and with stark veins on their noses and cheeks, who were only just starting a long evening drinking themselves into oblivion.

The tout who had picked them off the street called out to the innkeeper who nodded and chalked up two strokes on the wall above the wine jars to add to the tally of those that the tout had already brought in.

Heres your table. The tout gestured to a plain bench with four stools a short distance inside the door. Cato and Macro nodded their thanks and squeezed past the other customers and set their yokes down against the wall before sitting.

Macro glanced round and sniffed. Narcissus chose well.

Yes. The kind of place where men can get lost in the crowd. Nice and discreet.

I was thinking it was well chosen because it was my kind of place. Cheap, cheerful and waiting for a punch-up to start any moment.

There is that, Cato replied offhandedly. He scanned the room for any sign of their contact. Only a handful of customers seemed to be drinking on their own but none seemed to return his gaze in any meaningful way. A moment later the innkeeper threaded his way over to them.

What would you like, gents?

What have you got? asked Macro.

Its on the wall. The man pointed to a long list of regional wines that had been chalked up on a board behind the counter.

Mmmm! Macro smiled as he ran his eye down the wines. Hows the Etruscan?


Oh, all right. The Calabrian?



The innkeeper shook his head.

Well, what have you got?

Today its the Ligurian or the Belgic. Thats it.

Belgic? Cato raised an eyebrow. I thought they made beer?

They do. The innkeeper scratched his nose. They should stick to beer in my opinion.

I see. Cato shrugged. The Ligurian then. One small jar and three cups.

Yes, sir. Good choice. The innkeeper bowed his head and turned back to the counter.

Is he trying to be funny? Macro scowled. Anyway, Ligurian? Never heard of it.

Then tonight should be something of an education for us.

The innkeeper returned with the wine and the cups and set them down on the table. Five sestertii.

Five? Macro shook his head. Thats robbery.

Thats the price, mate.

Very well, Cato cut in, fishing the coins out of the small sum that Narcissus had advanced them. There.

The innkeeper swept the coins off the top of the table and nodded his thanks.

Cato picked up the jar and sniffed the contents. His nose wrinkled at the sharp acidic odour. Then he poured them each a cup of the dark, almost black, wine. Macro raised his in a mock toast and took a mouthful. At once he made a face.

By the gods, I hope theres better inns close to the Praetorian camp.

Cato took a cautious sip and felt the sour, fiery flow all the way down into his guts. He set the cup down and leant against the wall behind his back. Just have to hope our contact turns up soon.

Macro nodded. They sat and waited in silence, while around them the locals drank copious amounts of the only available wine, seemingly oblivious to its rough flavour. There was a cheerful atmosphere, except at the table where the two soldiers sat, waiting with growing impatience as night fell outside. At length Macro stirred, drained his cup with a wince, and stood up. He gestured towards the woman still sitting in the alcove.

Im, er, just going over there.

Not now, Macro. Were waiting for someone. Another time.

Well, he aint showed up yet, so I might as well enjoy myself.

We shouldnt risk drawing attention to ourselves.

Im not. Macro nodded towards the drawn curtains. Just fitting in with the locals, as it were.

As he spoke, one of the curtains covering the alcoves was gently drawn back and a tall sinewy man with short dark hair eased himself out of the alcove. He had already pulled on his tunic, and held a neck cloth in one hand. Behind him a woman was slipping on the short tunic that signified her trade. He turned and tossed a few coins on to the couch and then made his way out into the middle of the room.

There, said Macro. No ones paying him any attention.

Cato watched as the man glanced round and then saw the two empty stools at their table. He came over. May I?

Cato shook his head. No. Were waiting for a friend.

I know. Thats me. The man smiled and then sat down opposite the two soldiers. He raised his hand so that they could see his ring and then laid it down close by Catos hand so that he could see that the designs were identical. Cato looked at him carefully, noting the dark eyes, smoothly shaven cheeks and the small tattoo of a half-moon and star on his neck, before it was hidden by the strip of cloth he arranged loosely about his neck. Cato felt a stab of mistrust even as the man lowered his voice and spoke. Narcissus sent me.

Really? Then whats your name, friend?

Oscanus Optimus Septimus, he said in a low tone that Cato could just make out. And Ill have that ring back, if you dont mind. He held out his hand.

Cato hesitated a moment before he took off the ring and handed it over. I assume thats not your real name.

It serves. And as far as anyone is concerned from here on in, you are Guardsmen Titus Ovidius Capito and Vibius Gallus Calidus, is that clear? It would not be wise to reveal your real identities to me.

The names were neatly written on the documents that Cato had been given; he had taken the identity of Capito, and Macro had that of Calidus, both veterans of the Second Legion.

That mark on your neck, Macro commented. I take it you served on the eastern frontier.

Septimus narrowed his eyes slightly. I might have.

In the legions or the auxiliary cohorts?

Septimus was silent for a moment and then shrugged. Not that it matters, but I did a stint in a cavalry cohort before I was recruited by Narcissus. He gestured towards his neck. That was the cohorts emblem. Most of the lads have the tattoo. Bit of a pain now as I have to keep it covered up in my line of work.

I can imagine, said Macro. He took a deep breath and exhaled impatiently. Anyway, youre late. Kept us waiting while you saw to your woman over there.

Septimus frowned. My woman? Hardly. I was using her as a cover.

Whichever way you like it.

Narcissuss agent scowled at Macro. If I had a woman, it wouldnt be one like her. Anyway, her alcove provided a good place to keep an eye on you when you turned up. And the other customers. Just to make sure you werent being watched, or followed. Sorry for the wait, but I had to be sure. This business is too dangerous to take any chances. Right, the introductions are over. Lets go.

Go? Cato leant forward slightly. Go where?

To a safe house. Where we can talk without any risk of being overheard. Its also a place where we can meet and where you can drop off any messages safely. You shouldnt have any trouble getting to and from the Praetorian camp the soldiers pass in and out of their barracks freely. Thats how well communicate for the most part. Septimus looked round warily. Follow me. But lets make it look casual. Better finish our drinks first.

He poured himself a cup and raised his voice. For the road!

Macro and Cato followed suit and forced down what remained in their cups, then reached for their packs and stood up. By now the inn was filling with customers and they had to push their way to the entrance. Outside the tout was still looking for further custom. He smiled as he saw them. Leaving so soon? The night is barely beginning, sirs. Stay awhile and drink your fill.

Macro stopped in front of him. He drew a breath and spoke loudly enough so that passers-by could clearly hear him. Anyone who drinks their fill of the slop in this place is going to be staying for more than a while. Its poison.

The tout tried to laugh it off and clapped Macro on the shoulder as he turned to join Cato and Septimus. In a flash, Macro spun round and slammed his fist into the touts stomach. As the man collapsed, gasping for breath, Macro backed off with a look of bitter satisfaction.

Thatll knock the wind out of the bugger. Stop him peddling his wares for a bit.

Septimus glanced nervously at the people who had stopped to witness Macros action.

Macro, Cato hissed. Lets go before you attract any more attention, shall we?

They strode unhurriedly along the edge of the Boarium and left by the wide street that passed between the Palatine Hill and the Capitoline. To their right the edifices of the imperial palace complex covered the hill; torches and braziers lit the columns and statues that looked down on the rest of Rome. On the left loomed the mass of the Temple of Jupiter, built on a rock with sheer sides in places and accessed by a wide ramp that zigzagged up to the temple precinct. They entered the Forum and crossed in front of the senate house. A party of finely dressed youths came the other way, talking loudly as they boasted of their ambitions for the nights entertainment. They quietened down a little as they passed the two soldiers and the imperial agent then continued as before when they were a safe distance beyond. On the far side of the Forum another street led past the Temple of Peace and up into the Subura, one of the poorer quarters of the city where crime was rife and the buildings so poorly constructed that hardly a month went by without one of the ramshackle tenement blocks collapsing or burning down.

Narcissus isnt putting us up in the bloody Subura, I trust, Macro said quietly to Cato. Had enough of it the last time we had to stay in Rome.

Septimus glanced back. Its not far now. On the edge of the Subura, as it happens. So that its convenient for you to get to from the Praetorian camp. Dont worry. The apartment is in one of the better tenement blocks. At least thats what the landlord said when I took it.

And you believed him?

Doesnt concern me. I dont have to live there.

The street began to incline and they passed between the first of the tall brick structures where most of the citys inhabitants lived. The tenements crowded the street and towered high above so that the dim gloom of the night sky provided almost no illumination. A few lamps burned in the entrances to the buildings but the streets were in darkness. Which was no bad thing, Cato reflected as the foul air filled his nostrils. He did not want to know what he was stepping in. Around and above them, they could hear voices. Some laughter, some quiet conversations, occasional angry shouts or the crying of infants and the splatter of slops being emptied into the streets.

Here we are, Septimus announced, climbing a few steps up from the street into a narrow entrance. An oil lamp flickered in its bracket and revealed a muscular man in a plain tunic sitting on a stool just inside the doorway. He took a good look at Septimus and nodded before he lit a taper from the lamp and handed it to the imperial agent. There was a short corridor with a narrow staircase at the end of it. As he led the way up the stairs Septimus raised a hand in front of the taper to protect the flame. On the fourth floor he stopped in front of a door and opened the latch. He led the way inside and Macro and Cato lowered their packs on to the floorboards.

Just a moment, Ill light a lamp, said Septimus and he reached up on to a shelf. The pale flicker of the taper flared for a moment and then the flame settled into a steady glow and he removed the taper and blew it out. There.

He placed the lamp back on the shelf and turned round. By its wan glow Cato could see that the room was empty except for two bedrolls. It was barely ten feet across and another doorway led through into a similar-sized room.

Not much in the way of creature comforts, complained Macro, prodding one of the bedrolls with the toe of his boot.

We like it that way, said Septimus. Theres nothing to steal. In any case, the watchman keeps an eye on the place most of the time. He reached inside his tunic for a small pouch and took out a small bundle of scrolls and two sets of waxed slates, and handed them over. The rest of your documents and the report on Britannia. You can sleep here tonight and then make your way up to the Praetorian camp in the morning. If you need to leave me a message then put it over there beneath the shelf. The floorboard is loose and theres a small space underneath. Make sure that you come up here and check as regularly as you can. If theres a message, then turn the lantern towards the door. Otherwise point it away. If its pointing any other way then well know that the apartment has been compromised.

Compromised? Macro chuckled. Whats that? Secret agent talk?

We understand, said Cato. I assume we can use this place to hide if we need to. Or conceal something.

Septimus nodded. And if you need to meet me for any reason. Just make sure that you are never followed here. If the enemy manages to do that then they can keep tabs on the visitors and trace me back to Narcissus. Watch your back at all times and dont take any chances. He looked at Macro. Is that clear?

Ill be fine, youll see. Its him you need to look out for. Cato.

No! Septimus thrust up his hand. Only use your cover names from now on. At all times. Whoever you were before today must be left behind. From now on its Capito and Calidus. He stared at them a moment and then made towards the door. Get some sleep. Tomorrow you join the Praetorian Guard.