Cassius Longinus was shrewd enough to wait until they had reached the privacy of the prefect's quarters before he turned on Macro. As the orderly closed the door, the Governor of the province of Syria crossed over to the desk and eased himself down into the chair. He looked up at Macro and Cato standing to one side of the room. Postumus had sidled across to the opposite side and perched on the window frame so that his shadow was thrown across the floor. Longinus regarded Macro for a moment before he spoke.
'Centurion Postumus has told me that you have unlawfully taken control of this cohort. And that you threw him and Prefect Scrofa into a cell. Is this true?'
'If that's what he told you then Postumus is a damned liar, sir.' Macro smiled. 'Of course, now I wish I had actually thrown him bodily into the cell. Then he might not have been able to sneak off at the first opportunity.'
A smile flickered across Longinus' face. 'That's not a very constructive attitude. If we're going to get to the bottom of this then you're going to need to be a bit more cooperative, Centurion Macro. I've been in the saddle for the last two days, and since I have a province to run, I'd like to sort out this situation and get back to my duties.'
'I'm sure you would, sir.'
'I hope I don't detect a note of insolence in your voice.'
'No, sir. It's just my way. I've been a common soldier for too long.'
Longinus stared at him closely.'Don't try to mock me. I will not tolerate it… I understand that you have a certain document. One that you claim entitles you to dismiss the prefect I appointed, and to assume his office instead.'
'That's right, sir.'
'In which case, I'd like to see it.'
'Very well, sir.' Macro indicated a small chest next to the desk. 'If I may?'
'Be my guest.' Longinus leaned back in the chair as Macro strode over, lifted the lid of the chest and took out the leather case in which the scroll had been replaced to protect it. He flipped the lid back and extracted the document and then placed it on the desk in front of Longinus. The Governor casually picked up the parchment, unrolled it and scanned the contents. Then he placed it back on the table.
'Well, Centurion Macro, and Centurion Cato, your credentials are impeccable. The document appears to be authentic, in which case you are fully within your rights to act as you did.'
Postumus, who had been watching with a faintly smug expression, started at this, and pushed himself away from the window frame.
'Sir, I protest! You are the Governor of Syria, appointed by the Emperor himself. They have flagrantly defied the authority of your office!'
Longinus tapped his finger on the scroll.'By the terms of this document their authority supersedes mine. Therefore they have acted lawfully, and I'd be obliged if you'd shut up and wait until you are addressed from now on, Centurion Postumus.'
Postumus opened his mouth to protest, thought better of it and closed it. He nodded and stepped back awkwardly towards the window frame.
'That's better.' Longinus smiled. 'Now then, Centurions Macro and Cato, this is something of an unusual situation. It is not customary for officers of your rank to pop up in a far-flung province with the Emperor's permission to act as you please tucked up your sleeve. So, I'd be grateful if you could explain what is going on here.'
Macro turned to Cato and cocked an eyebrow. It was an awkward situation.They had been sent from Rome to quietly investigate the Governor of Syria and their mission had been dogged by bad luck from the moment they had entered Jerusalem. If only Macro had not lost his original letter of appointment then this present situation could have been avoided. Instead, they had been forced to use the Imperial Secretary's document and thereby reveal that they were acting directly on Emperor Claudius' authority. Cato realised that there was nothing to be gained by denying the truth.
'Sir,' he said softly to Macro,'I think we'd better come clean.'
'What?' Macro shrank from the suggestion. How the hell could he just come straight out and tell one of Rome's most senior officials that the Emperor suspected him of treason? 'Are you mad?'
'Centurion Macro,' Longinus interrupted, then feigned a look of embarrassment. 'I do beg your pardon. Prefect. I think it would be best if we spoke openly. There's nothing to hide any more. I think you should begin by explaining exactly what you are doing here in Judaea.'
Macro swallowed. 'All right then, sir. Since you want it straight. Narcissus had obtained information that you were planning to provoke a revolt in the east in order to gain reinforcements for your army.The same source then said you were intending to use your enlarged army to depose the Emperor and claim the purple for yourself.'
There was a long silence before Longinus produced an amused expression. 'What an astonishing notion. I rather think someone must have been playing a joke on our friend Narcissus.'
'Then he's not seeing the funny side of it, sir. That's why we were sent out here. To see if that's what you are planning to do.'
'And what is your conclusion?'
Macro cleared his throat. He had not felt so nervous in a long time. 'From what we've seen so far, I'd say that your conduct would seem to support the accusations being made against you.'
'Would you now?' Longinus responded tonelessly. 'If that's what you think, then you'd better be able to justify your conclusions. Because if you can't then you're going to make Narcissus look a fool. In that case I would not like to be in your boots. So what evidence have you got against me, Macro?' Before Macro could respond Longinus held up his hand to silence him, and continued. 'Let me tell you what you have got. Nothing. Nothing more than suspicion and coincidence.There are no documents to back up your version of events. And no witnesses.'
'No?' Macro smiled.'What about Postumus there? I'm sure that Narcissus has men who are more than capable of getting information out of him.'
'Assuming he was still around to be interrogated.' Longinus smiled back, and then glanced towards Postumus. 'I mean, of course, that he might flee, or go into hiding before he could be questioned.'
'I'm sure that's what you meant,' said Macro.'After all, you wouldn't want to dispose of such a loyal servant.'
'Quite. So where does that leave us?'
There was another silence as Macro pondered the question. There was no firm evidence against the Governor and everyone in the room knew it. Just as they knew it was clear that he had been plotting against the Emperor. It was Cato who spoke first.
'What if we accept for the moment that Narcissus cannot move against you?'
Longinus raised his eyebrows. 'What if we do?'
'The very fact that we were sent out to investigate the situation means that he must have some grounds for suspecting you, and he will be taking every precaution to ensure that he undermines any plan you might make to turn against the Emperor.'
'So there's no chance that you will be given any reinforcements. No matter how much you present the situation as dangerous to Roman interests, Narcissus will not send you extra forces. In which case, any plot there might have been would be doomed to failure. Wouldn't you agree, sir?'
'Maybe. Assuming such a plot existed.'
'On that basis, there is still some advantage to be wrung out of the situation.'
Longinus stared at Cato, and then made an open gesture with his hands. 'Please explain yourself.'
'Yes, sir.' Cato concentrated for a moment and then spoke again. 'You already know the danger we face from Bannus. If his uprising spreads beyond this immediate area, then the whole province of Judaea could turn on Rome. What you may not know is that we have heard rumours that Parthia has offered to assist Bannus. With weapons, maybe even with men as well. If that is the case, then the stakes are even higher. Apart from having to crush the revolt in Judaea you would need to confront the Parthians and persuade them to withdraw their aid. If they had any doubts about your loyalty to the Emperor, the presence of a maverick Roman general on their borders might cause a diplomatic confrontation that Parthia might use to trigger a new war with Rome, sir.' Cato paused for an instant, worried that he had given his imagination too free a rein. 'At least it's a possibility, sir.'
'It's more than a possibility.' Longinus frowned. 'My spies have been reporting that Parthian troops have been spotted moving up the bank of the Euphrates towards Palymra. Their ambassador says they are carrying out exercises. It could be an unfortunate coincidence.'
'It could be, sir. But it would be rash not to make preparations to counter the threat.'
'If there is a threat. How could they know about Bannus' planned uprising?'
'I'm sure they have spies just as we do, sir.'
'You said there was some advantage to be gained,' Longinus reminded him.
'Yes, sir. If you send us reinforcements to help find and destroy Bannus, then the danger in Judaea can be averted. That leaves you free to confront Parthia.A strong show of force should discourage them from breaking the peace. When everything has settled back down, you can report your achievements to the Emperor and the Senate. I'd say they will regard you as something of a hero. Certainly enough to remove any doubts over your loyalty, sir.'
Longinus considered the prospect Cato had envisaged for him, and then looked at the young officer with a cool smile. 'You have a devious mind, Centurion Cato. I would hate to have you as a political opponent. Worse still, as one of Narcissus' lieutenants. Then you would truly be a man to be wary of.'
'I'm a soldier, sir,' Cato replied stiffly. 'That's all.'
'That's what you say, but this document gives the lie to that.There's far more to you and Macro than meets the eye. But no matter.' Longinus tapped his fingers on the desk for a moment and then nodded. 'Very well, let's do as you suggest. But there's one thing that still puzzles me.'
'I'll accept that the Parthians could have got some intelligence about Bannus, but how could they come to know of Narcissus' suspicions about me? They would have to have spies right in the heart of the imperial service. That, or spies on my staff…' A brief startled look flashed across the Governor's face, but before he could continue there was a strident blaring from a trumpet, the notes blasting out across the fort from the direction of the west-facing gatehouse.
Longinus looked at Macro. 'What's that?'
'The alarm signal, sir.' Macro turned to Cato.'We have to go.'
'Wait!' Longinus rose from behind the desk. 'I'm coming too. And you, Postumus.'
Outside, men were still tumbling from the barracks, clutching equipment as they hurried to take up their positions along the walls of the fort. They stood aside to let the officers trot past and Macro and the others reached the watchtower sweating and breathing heavily. On both sides the auxiliary troops were forming up in sections, sun glinting off their polished helmets as they fastened or adjusted the last items of equipment and then raised their shields and waited for orders. Several sections had been armed with compound bows and they were hurriedly stringing them, one end braced against a boot as the men strained to bend back the other end and attach the loop of the bowstring. The officers in the tower lined the parapet and stared out along the track to where, some distance off, a handful of mounted men were galloping towards the fort. Behind them raced a much larger force.
'Who the hell are they?' asked Longinus.
The two parties of horsemen were still too far away to be certain but as they approached the fort Cato strained his eyes and made out enough details to recognise them for what they were.
'It's one of our patrols.' He turned away, hurried across the tower and called down to the section of soldiers at the gate. 'Open up! Those are our men in front.'
Macro had also summed up the situation, and was issuing orders to the officers on the wall. 'Get some archers ready to cover the patrol! Shoot the moment those bastards behind our men are in range!'
As Macro and Cato returned to the Governor's side, Longinus turned to them and asked, 'So who are those men pursuing your patrol?'
Cato felt a chill feeling in the nape of his neck as he replied. 'I think they're Parthians, sir.'
07 The Eagle In the Sand