Macro held up the plain white toga and shook his head. ‘This is no good for a soldier. We’re supposed to wear this over the left shoulder and arm, right?’
On the other side of the section room Cato nodded.
‘It’s madness,’ Macro continued. ‘You can’t swing a sword properly with this on. You’d trip over it and do yourself an injury long before you could take down an opponent.’
He bundled the toga up, tossed it on to his bed and sat down with a disgusted expression before glancing over the rest of the kit they had been issued from the camp’s stores. The toga was the formal uniform for the Guard when on duty in the city. A sop to those inhabitants of Rome who still clung to the values of the old Republic when the presence of armed men on the streets was held to be a threat to their liberty. For a similar reason, Claudius had taken to wearing an unadorned toga on many ceremonial occasions, without even the narrow purple stripe of a junior magistrate. The display of humility played well with the mob and the more easily impressed members of the senate. As far as Macro was concerned, the toga was wholly impracticable for those soldiers who were supposed to be guarding the imperial palace.
‘What about the German bodyguards?’ Macro looked at Cato. ‘Do they have to wear this?’
‘No. But then they’re barbarians, from Batavia, I believe. It would offend public sensibilities for them to be seen in togas.’
‘Bollocks,’ Macro mumbled. His gaze returned to the rest of the issued items. In addition to functional armour, there was a brass cuirass, an attic helmet with a decorated crown and slim cheek-guards that served little practical use, and almost no neck guard. Then there were the off-white tunics and light-brown cloaks that would readily pick up the dirt and grime of Rome’s streets and require constant cleaning. At least the short sword, oval shield and heavy javelin looked like proper soldier’s kit. Cato had already folded his toga, tunics and cloak and placed them neatly on the shelf above his bed. With a sigh, Macro began to follow suit.
‘What was all that about the failing spirits of the lads in Britannia?’ he asked.
Cato hissed, then stood up and crossed to the door. He glanced outside. They had been assigned a comfortable room on the upper storey with another two men from the Sixth Century of the Third Cohort, the unit presently assigned to protect the imperial palace and the Emperor’s entourage whenever Claudius emerged on to the streets to visit the senate or enjoy the entertainments of the theatre, arena or racetrack. In the legions the soldiers were obliged to bunk eight to a room, or share a tent on campaign, crowded together. Here in the Guard there were four men to a room, which was airy and well lit by the shuttered window on the wall. Out in the corridor Cato could see a few figures some distance away, leaning on the rail overlooking the avenue of trees that approached the Praetorians’ bathhouse. Even that was on a grand scale compared to the usual offering of a legionary fortress. A suite of chambers was arranged to one side of a sand-covered exercise yard, all contained within a low plastered wall. The other Praetorians ignored him. A few of the doors were open along the corridor but the conversations of those within were impossible to overhear. Cato returned to his bed and sat on the edge.
‘Keep your voice down when we talk. And we have to make sure that we use our assumed names at all times.’
‘I know,’ Macro grumbled, finishing folding the last of his tunics and cloaks. He sat down opposite Cato. ‘I’m sorry about earlier. It’s just that I don’t hold with this going undercover business.’
‘Well, you’d better. We’re spies for the present, and there’s nothing we can do about it until the job is done. If we fail, Narcissus will throw us to the wolves. That’s if we survive the tender mercies of the Liberators.’
‘I know, I know,’ Macro responded wearily. ‘I’ll keep my mind on the work in hand, I swear it. But tell me, Capito,’ he could not help smiling a little at using the assumed name, ‘why did you feed Sinius that line about the situation in Britannia?’
‘I had to tell him something, to make sure he believed our cover story. But then it occurred to me, if I spoke of their discontent, it had to be of interest to the other side. Even if Sinius has nothing to do with the conspiracy, there’s a good chance he’ll talk about what we’ve said with the other officers. That puts our names about and hints that we might be amenable to an approach from those who are opposed to the Emperor.’ Cato puffed out his cheeks. ‘Anyway, that’s what I thought.’
Macro nodded. ‘Sounds good. As ever, you have a devious turn of mind, my friend. No wonder Narcissus likes you so much.’ He gave Cato a searching look. ‘Before too long I imagine you’ll be taking over his job in the palace. You’d be good at it.’
Cato stared at him and responded in a deliberate low, hard voice. ‘I might just do that.’
For a moment they stared at each other and then Macro slapped Cato on the shoulder. ‘You nearly had me there!’
Macro roared with laughter, and Cato joined in. They were still laughing when the sound of footsteps approached and a figure appeared in the doorway. Cato looked round to see a thin man with a narrow face watching them coldly. His skin was badly pockmarked and his hair was streaked with grey. Cato guessed that he was a few years older than Macro. He stood up and offered his hand to the man.
‘The name’s Titus Ovidius Capito. Late of the Second Legion, before I was transferred to the Praetorians.’
‘Capito.’ The man nodded. ‘Glad to see you’re in high spirits. You’re also in my section, as it happens.’ He jerked his thumb at his chest. ‘Name’s Lucius Pollinus Tigellinus. Optio of this century, second-in-command to Centurion Lurco. Your friend there is the other new boy?’
Macro stood up. ‘The friend can talk for himself. Vibius Gallus Calidus. Also of the Second.’
Tigellinus sniffed. ‘An undistinguished unit as far as I recall. You may have impressed your superiors in Britannia but you’re going to have to start all over again to impress me, and Tribune Burrus.’
‘We’ll do our best,’ said Cato.
‘Good, then you’d better get your service tunics on and report to the Tribune.’ Tigellinus pointed at their legion issue. ‘Best get rid of those rags. Sell ‘em in the market, you won’t need ‘em again, and I won’t allow them to clutter up my shelves. I’d move yourselves. The tribune hates slackers.’
He turned away and strode off down the corridor. An instant later a fresh face appeared at the door and entered the room. He was a young man, possibly the same age as the Praetorian who had escorted them to headquarters, but to Cato’s eyes he seemed too fresh faced to be a soldier. The thought caught him by surprise as he realised that he was only a few years older than the young Praetorian standing before him. A few years of experience that made all the difference, he reflected.
The Praetorian looked round to make sure that Tigellinus was not within earshot before he spoke. ‘Don’t worry about him. Tigellinus gives all the new arrivals a hard time. Says it does ‘em good to keep them on their toes. Should have seen how he used to treat me.’ He smiled. ‘Fuscius is the name.’
Macro smiled back. ‘I’m Calidus and the lanky one there is Capito. Transferred from the legions.’
‘I guessed as much when I saw the …’ His words trailed off as he pointed at the scar across Cato’s face. ‘How did you get that?’
‘Sword cut,’ Cato explained flatly. ‘Last year in … Britannia. Took it when we were ambushed by some Durotrigan tribesmen.’
Fuscius stared at him for a moment longer in frank admiration, then realised that he must look foolish and flushed with embarrassment. ‘I’ll wager you have quite a few tales you could tell about Britannia.’
‘How much will you wager?’ Macro asked drily. ‘If you want decent stories then you come to me, young ‘un.’
‘Oh?’ Fuscius did not know how to proceed without offending either man so he just mumbled something as he squeezed past and made for one of the beds either side of the window. ‘Anyway, it’s good to have someone else in the room. Tigellinus isn’t much of a talker. Well, he does talk, but mostly to complain about things.’
‘So we’ve noticed,’ said Cato as he pulled his red tunic off and slipped on his newly issued Praetorian tunic. ‘Come on, Calidus, better hurry.’
‘When you’ve done for the day, some of the lads and I are going out for a drink tonight,’ Fuscius said. ‘Fancy joining us?’
‘Sounds good,’ Cato replied as he smoothed the tunic down and fastened his thick military belt round his middle. ‘Calidus?’
‘Why not? Could use a decent drink after that filthy muck we drank when we arrived.’
‘Good, then let’s find the tribune.’
Tribune Burrus was an aged veteran. From the number of scars he bore on his face and arms, he had served a good many years in the legions before being appointed to the Praetorian Guard. Aside from a fringe of white hair, he was bald. One eye had been lost and a leather patch covered the socket, tied in place with a thin strap. He was tall and thickset and Cato realised that he must have been a formidable figure in his time. Now, though, he was serving his last few years in the Guard before he took his gratuity and left the army. He might use his elevation to the equestrian class to take up an administrative job in Rome, or one of the other cities and towns in Italia, but Cato guessed that the man would prefer the company of old soldiers to bureaucrats. The tribune would end his days in some military colony, respected by men who knew his quality, even as he grew stooped and frail.
‘Well, don’t just dawdle by the bloody door!’ Burrus snapped.
When Cato and Macro were standing to attention in front of him, the tribune scrutinised them for a moment before he continued, ‘Proper soldiers at last! About damn time. I’ve seen too many of these soft city boys joining the ranks of late. Especially after the casualties we took in Britannia. But you’ll remember that battle outside Camulodunum. It was your legion that saved us from that trap. My, but those bloody Celts were devious bastards. Fought hard, too, and brought out the best in the Praetorians, even though we were roughly handled. So,’ he concluded, ‘it’s good to have two veterans join the cohort. Though I see that one of you is still a bit on the young side, eh? Which one are you?’
‘You’ll have served seven years then.’
‘Nearer eight, sir. I joined about the time I turned seventeen.’
Burrus frowned. ‘That’s against regs. Eighteen is the minimum age.’
‘I was sent to the army by my father as soon as he thought I was ready for it.’ Cato spoke tonelessly as he gave his cover story.
‘He must be a proud man indeed. You’ve done well for yourself.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
Burrus turned his attention to Macro. ‘What’s your story? From the look of you, you’re an old sweat. How many years have you served, Calidus?’
‘Twenty-three years, sir.’
‘Good gods, and still only a legionary? You should have been killed off or promoted to centurion by now, optio at the very least. What’s your excuse?’
Macro swallowed his bitterness and answered directly. ‘I’m a ranker first and last, sir. Didn’t see any reason to go and get myself promoted. I like plain soldiering. I fight hard and have put down a good many of Rome’s enemies in my time.’
‘A good fighter’s one thing, but do you think you can cope with the demands of being a Praetorian? You will be constantly before the eyes of the senators and the people. There’s more to being a good soldier than killing enemies. If you fuck up and embarrass the Praetorian Guard then you’ll embarrass the Emperor and, worse, far worse, you will shame me. If that should happen I will jump on you like a mountain of shit, is that clear, Calidus?’
There was a pause while the tribune let his warning sink in, then he cleared his throat and continued in a more moderate tone. ‘I’ll tell you what I tell every recruit at the moment. You’ve joined us at a difficult time. The Emperor is getting on and won’t last forever, even if some fool of a senator gets him voted a divinity. It’s a shame because as emperors go he’s been one of the better ones. However, he’s flesh and blood, and he will die. Our job is to make sure that is down to natural causes. Now, I know the old joke about natural causes in the imperial family include a host of unusual ailments such as poisoning, a knife in the back or a sword in the guts, being smothered by a pillow, and so on. That will not happen during my time in command of the palace cohort. So you will keep your eyes open when you’re on duty. I don’t trust those German pricks in the personal bodyguard any further than I could spit ‘em. Our job is to stop anyone getting close enough to Claudius for those Germans to have to earn their money. As far as I am concerned, my men are the first and final line of defence. If either of you have to throw yourselves in front of an assassin’s knife to save the Emperor then you’ll do it without hesitation. If not, then there’s no place for you in my cohort. Clear?’
‘Yes, sir,’ Cato and Macro replied at once.
‘Good. As I said, it’s a difficult situation. There are various factions in the palace who are already making their plans for the succession. Some are backing Britannicus, others the upstart Nero. Besides that, there’s the bloody freedmen who advise the Emperor, Pallas, Narcissus and Callistus, shifty little grafters every one of ‘em. They’ll be looking to make an alliance with their chosen candidate for the purple. That’s fine by me, just as long as they don’t do anything to try and accelerate the process. Watch for threats from within as well dangers from without. Any questions?’ He looked at each of them. ‘No? Then I’ll have Tigellinus go through the basic protocols with you tomorrow. You better be fast learners, as I’ll have you on duty the day after that. It’s a case of swim or sink, lads. Dismissed!’