‘What are we going to do?’ asked Macro as they shut the door of the mess room behind them. They had been playing dice with some of the other men of the century in order to keep up the appearance of being common soldiers. Cato had been careful to lose by a small margin and laugh it off, in order to win the good will of their comrades. Macro, on the other hand, had played to win, and had lost rather more than Cato and was consequently a little bitter as he steered the conversation back to the pressing issue. ‘Lurco is a liability, but I draw the line at doing in one of our own. Even if he is a Praetorian.’
‘We agree to Sinius’s test,’ Cato replied. ‘What else can we do?’
Macro looked shocked. ‘You can’t be serious. Kill a fellow officer? No.’
‘Of course we don’t kill him. But we have to find some way to make him disappear. That’s going to be the tricky bit.’
They made their way up on to the wall of the camp and began to stroll slowly along a section overlooking the city. Sentries were posted in the corner towers and gatehouses of the camp and several other small groups of men were walking along the wall, exchanging cheery greetings with Macro and Cato as they strolled by. Cato wondered if any of these men had been tasked by Sinius with spying on them. When they were clear of the last group he continued his conversation with Macro.
‘At least we know that the bullion is here. If not in the camp, then somewhere in Rome.’
‘Oh, that’s a comfort,’ Macro replied drily. He gestured towards the city where a million people lived. ‘Bound to be easy to find.’
‘It’s a start. In any case, we have to report to Narcissus. He needs to be told about the silver, and the rest of what we’ve discovered.’
‘Fine. And how are we supposed to get to the safe house if we’re being watched?’
‘I’ve been thinking about that. I’ve made two trips there and Sinius doesn’t seem to know about it. The only way that’s possible is if his man was on patrol while I left the camp. The patrols have been going on different watches. Now, it might be a coincidence but both times I left the camp was when Burrus’s cohort was sent into the city. It’s more than likely that Sinius’s man is in our cohort.’
Macro thought through Cato’s line of reasoning and nodded. ‘It’s even more likely that he’s in our century.’
‘Shit.’ Macro hissed through his teeth. ‘It could be anyone, even Tigellinus or Fuscius. Or both.’
‘Then we’d better start by suspecting them, and be on our guard.’ Cato frowned. ‘The thing is, we must get in touch with Narcissus as soon as possible. We’re out on our own here. If anything happens to us he needs to be aware of all that we’ve uncovered. So we’re going for a drink tonight. Somewhere close to the safe house.’
‘The River of Wine?’
Cato nodded. ‘It’s as good a place as any. We know the layout.’
Macro scratched his cheek. ‘And after the other night they know us. I doubt there’ll be a warm welcome.’
‘We’re not looking for a fight, and we can be sure that Cestius and his friends won’t be showing their faces there, if they’ve got any sense. The River of Wine will serve our need perfectly. Come on.’
They signed out with Centurion Lurco’s clerk and left the camp and passed through the city gate. Taking the same street as they had used before, they made their way down the Viminal Hill. They spoke in low tones as they walked. Once in a while Cato looked back, but Sinius’s agent knew his job well enough to remain out of sight.
‘What if we’re not being followed?’ asked Macro. ‘I don’t like this pretending that we’re just out for a stroll. It ain’t natural.’
‘Good. If we acted normally then that in itself would look suspicious. Trust me, we’re doing fine. And we are definitely being followed. Sinius’s man will be watching us like a hawk.’
Ahead, the street bent slightly and ran on for another hundred paces before it reached the square where the inn stood. Cato took a deep breath. ‘Let’s pray this works.’
They strode into the square and made towards the inn. The place had not yet filled up with the usual evening customers and there were several tables free. As soon as they entered, the innkeeper’s face fell and he hurried over to them before they could sit down.
‘I’m sorry, gentlemen, but you’re not welcome here. Please leave. Now. Please.’
Cato raised his hand. ‘Don’t worry, my friend. There’s just the two of us. Here for a quiet drink. We won’t cause any trouble. Just to put your mind at rest …’ Cato reached into his purse and drew out five sestertii and slapped them on the table. ‘Have this on account. What we don’t drink you can keep. How’s that?’
The innkeeper looked at the coins with a torn expression and then nodded. ‘You can stay. But I’ll have my eye on you. The first sign of any trouble and I’ll send my woman for the urban cohort. Now, sir, what’ll you have to drink?’
‘Make it the best wine in the house,’ Macro cut in quickly as he eased himself on to a bench. ‘And for five sestertii it had better be good.’
The innkeeper made a sour face as he scraped the coins into his palm and scurried away.
Cato sat down opposite Macro and then looked round the inn. A small party of men, ten of them, in worn tunics and cloaks sat to the side of the inn, away from the entrance. Cato nodded towards them. ‘That’s what I need.’
Macro twisted round for a quick look. ‘Them? What for?’
‘A way for me to get out of here and to the safe house without our shadow following me. Wait here. If I get them to help us, I want you to go to the bar and order something to eat. Make sure you are visible through the entrance.’
‘You’d better tell me what you’re up to, lad,’ Macro grumbled.
‘You’ll see soon enough. If I go, wait here for me. Keep an eye on the entrance and see if any familiar faces turn up. I’ll be all right. Trust me.’
Cato rose to his feet before his friend could protest any further and made his way over to the workmen. They stared suspiciously at the Praetorian.
Cato smiled. ‘No need to worry. I’m not looking for trouble. I just want to ask a favour.’
‘A favour?’ A short muscular man with cropped dark hair raised his eyebrows. ‘What kind of favour?’
‘One I’m prepared to pay for.’ Cato took out his purse and jingled the coins inside. ‘I’m supposed to be meeting a woman friend tonight, but her husband has got wind that she’s found herself a lover. He’s outside with some friends, waiting for me. They followed me here from the camp. I need to get out of here without them knowing. So, if I could swap cloaks with one of your party who stays with my friend there,’ Cato indicated Macro, ‘and leave with the rest of you, there’s twenty sestertii for your trouble.’
‘For that price she must be quite a woman,’ one of the other men mused.
‘Trust me, she is.’ Cato smiled.
The short man pursed his lips. ‘You want to screw another man’s wife, and you want us to help you. That’s a dirty business, friend. Why should we help you?’
‘Because the woman’s husband is a tax collector.’
‘Why didn’t you say?’ The man grinned. ‘Of course we’ll help – for thirty sestertii.’
Cato’s expression hardened. ‘Thirty? Twenty-five, no more.’
‘So, she’s not so good that you won’t haggle over her, eh?’
Thirty sestertii was more than a month’s wages for a labourer. Cato frowned, as if struggling over the price, and at length he nodded. ‘Thirty then. Fifteen now and the rest when I’m in the clear.’
‘Fair enough, soldier.’
He counted half the money out and then the stocky man turned to one of his mates, a tall skinny rake, in his fifties. ‘Porcinus, you’re the same shape. Give him your cloak.’
‘Give him yours,’ the thin man snapped back.
His colleague turned towards him and pointed a stubby finger at his chest. ‘You’ll do what I say if you know what’s good for you.’
Porcinus opened his mouth to protest, then thought better of it and nodded sullenly. He undid the pin that held the neck of his cloak together and handed it to Cato, taking his in return. As Cato put on the man’s cloak, his nose wrinkled at the scent of urine. ‘You’re fullers, I take it.’
‘That we are.’ The stocky man grinned. ‘Best toga cleaners in the city. Can’t help it if piss is the main ingredient of the process. I dare say your woman might not agree with your choice of rescuers tonight.’
‘I’ll have to take that risk.’ With a reluctant sigh, Cato pulled the hood up over his head. ‘Let’s get going then.’
The men drained their cups and stood, some of them pulling up their hoods like Cato, so that he would not stand out. The man with his Praetorian cloak put it on and went to sit with Macro, his back to the entrance. Macro poured him a cup of the wine that had been placed on the table a moment earlier. The fullers headed for the doorway and noisily made their farewell to the innkeeper. Then, with Cato in their midst, they strolled outside into the square and made for a small alley leading up into the Subura district. That suited Cato well enough, and he joined in their banter, laughing along when someone made a crude joke about the innkeeper’s wife. All the while he kept shooting quick glances at the doorways and side alleys leading off the square. Nothing moved except for a mangy dog trotting from one pile of refuse to the next. Cato stayed with the group of fullers as they left the square and walked up a narrow alley squeezed between the crumbling tenement blocks of Rome’s poorest district. Then, as the alley turned a corner, he patted the stocky man on the shoulder and muttered, ‘I’ll take my leave of you here.’ He handed over the rest of the coins. ‘My thanks to you.’
The fuller’s face was all but invisible in the dark alley as he replied, ‘Give my regards to that lady of yours.’
‘That I will.’
‘And you can hand back Porcinus’s cloak to me as well.’
Cato doubted that Porcinus would ever see his cloak again if he surrendered it now. ‘I haven’t finished with it yet. I’ll give it back to him when I return to the inn.’
‘All right then,’ the fuller responded quietly. ‘Come on, lads.’
Cato backed into an arched doorway as the sound of footsteps padded off over the dirt and refuse that coated the alley. He stood quite still, hardly daring to breathe, until the sound of the fullers faded away against the background noises of the city: occasional shouts and the shrill wail of hungry infants and the clatter of window shutters. He waited longer, to be sure that no one had followed them into the alley. At length Cato eased himself out of the doorway and cautiously made his way to the street where the safe house was. He stopped a short distance from the block and waited again, until he judged that no one was watching the entrance, from the outside at least. Then he crossed the street to the entrance and ducked inside the narrow doorway.
The rank odour of sweat and boiled vegetables filled the darkened stairwell. He trod as lightly as he could on the wooden steps but they creaked alarmingly as he climbed. He heard muted voices from behind some of the doors, and inconsolable sobbing from another. Then he was approaching the fourth storey. Cato slowed, his heart pounding from the climb, and the tension. A thin ray of moonlight shone through an opening in the wall, piercing the gloom and provided faint illumination. There seemed to be no movement on the landing and Cato went to the door and reached for the latch. And froze.
It was the faintest of sounds, like cotton rasping lightly on wood. The sound of a breath being drawn. Cato fumbled with the catch as his right hand dropped to his side and stealthily drew out the dagger from the sheath beneath his cloak. There was a rustle and a rush of footsteps on the stairs above. Cato spun round, throwing back his hood with his spare hand while the other thrust the dagger forward, ready to strike. He caught a dull gleam in the shaft of moonlight and realised that the other man was armed as well. He had his back to the light and his face was in darkness as he stumbled to a halt a short distance beyond Cato’s reach.
‘Stay back!’ Cato hissed. ‘Drop the knife!’
There was tense silence for a beat and then the other man lowered his blade and returned it to its sheath with a soft click. He descended the last two steps to the landing and into the faint light.
‘Septimus …’ Cato let out a deep sigh and his shoulders sagged in relief. ‘Bloody scared the shit out of me.’
Narcissus’s agent chuckled nervously. ‘You didn’t do too badly yourself. Now let’s get inside.’
Once the oil lamp had been lit the two men sat on the bedrolls either side of the pale yellow flame. Septimus had brought some bread and sausage with him wrapped in a fold of cloth and stuffed in his side bag. He offered some to Cato and the two ate from time to time as they talked.
‘I got the message that you wanted to make a report,’ said Septimus, gesturing to the hiding place beneath the floorboards. ‘There’s been a few developments at the palace that Narcissus thinks you should know about. That’s why I’m here. Been waiting for nearly two days.’
‘Why were you waiting on the stairs?’
‘Never pays to shut yourself in a room without any way out. Now, what did you have to report?’
Cato related the details of the meeting he had had with Sinius earlier on and Septimus frowned. ‘He wants you to kill Lurco? But why? He’s one of their men. One of their ringleaders, according to the man we interrogated. It doesn’t make sense.’
‘Unless Lurco has done something to compromise their plans.’
‘Yes, that’s true. It’s never a bad thing to cut out the weak links in the chain.’
Cato could not help smiling at the euphemism. Septimus was clearly the creature of the imperial secretary, and just as ruthless. He brushed the thought aside and decided to voice his doubts.
‘I’ve had some time to study Lurco and I can’t say that he strikes me as the conspirator type. He lacks the nerve to see something like that through.’
‘Then he’s a cowardly traitor,’ Septimus sneered.
‘But do the Liberators strike you as being cowardly? They may hide in the shadows but it takes courage to oppose the Emperor. They stand to lose everything if they are discovered. That takes guts. More guts than I think our Centurion Lurco has.’
Septimus was silent for a moment. ‘So what are you suggesting?’
‘That the man you questioned gave up the wrong name. To put you off the scent. I’m not surprised. I’d have tried to do the same in his position.’
‘Lurco is innocent then?’
‘I don’t know for certain. All I’m saying is that I find it hard to believe he could be working for the Liberators. Let’s assume that the man you interrogated was attempting to wrong-foot you. He was trying to hide the name of his true master, so he names Lurco instead, to protect Centurion Sinius.’
‘That would make sense.’ Septimus frowned. ‘But that still doesn’t explain why Sinius wants you to kill Lurco.’
‘He said it was a test.’
‘There are better ways to test you. Why pick a senior officer? Why not a ranker, someone who would not provoke nearly so much interest?’
‘Unless that’s the point,’ Cato suggested. ‘To increase the stakes and ensure that Macro and I are irrevocably committed. That said, I can’t help feeling there’s something more to the choice of target. They want Lurco out of the way for a reason, I’m sure of it.’
Cato shook his head. ‘I have no clear idea. Not yet.’
Septimus folded his arms together and leant back against the cracked plaster on the wall. ‘What do you think we should do about this test of yours?’
‘I don’t see that we have a choice,’ Cato replied. ‘Not if we want to get any further in uncovering the plot. We have to do as Centurion Sinius asks.’
Septimus’s eyes widened. ‘You mean to kill Lurco?’
‘No. Of course not. But Lurco has to be removed. In such a way that it looks to Sinius that he has been killed. There’s something else you need to tell Narcissus.’
‘Sinius offered to pay me and Macro to do the job. He showed me a small chest of newly minted denarii.’
Septimus leant forward. ‘From the stolen bullion?’
‘I think so.’
‘Then there is a link between the robbery and the Liberators, as we’d feared.’
Cato nodded. ‘Narcissus is going to have his hands full. First the conspiracy, then the food riot, and that attempt on the lives of the imperial family.’
A brief look of surprise flitted across the other man’s expression. ‘What do you mean?’
It was Cato’s turn to be surprised. ‘He didn’t tell you? When the Emperor was on his way back to the palace from the Accession games, he was ambushed close to the Forum. A gang of armed men attacked the party and a handful broke through the ring of bodyguards. One of them made an attempt on Nero before they were thrown back.’
‘Oh, yes. I heard there’d been an … incident,’ Septimus said uncertainly. ‘Narcissus has men out on the street looking for the perpetrators.’
‘I take it that Cestius has not been found yet?’
‘He was the man who led the attack and nearly managed to kill Nero. There’s a good chance there’s some connection between him and the Liberators.’ Cato thought briefly. ‘They’ve made one attempt. There may be others.’
‘I’ll warn Narcissus.’ Septimus was silent for a moment. ‘Is there anything else to report?’
Cato shook his head. ‘What was it that Narcissus wanted you to pass on to us?’
Septimus shifted and rubbed his back. ‘As you know, Claudius agreed to the betrothal of his daughter Octavia to Nero last year. He didn’t want to make the arrangement too quickly in case it seemed like the ground was being prepared to name Nero as his heir. However, the Empress pushed him into it. Then, several days ago, the Emperor told his advisers that he was thinking of conferring the title of proconsul on Nero.’
‘Proconsul?’ Cato could not hide his astonishment. The title was assumed by the gilded few in the senate who had completed their year as consul. Even though the rank had become largely honorific since the end of the Republic, it was still a bold decision to award the consulship to a boy of fourteen. ‘That’s going to put a few noses out of joint in the senate.’
‘Indeed. Narcissus tried to persuade the Emperor to abandon the notion, but Pallas backed the Emperor and Narcissus lost the argument.’
‘Pallas?’ Cato had not yet revealed what Macro had seen below the imperial box on the day of the Accession games. He had no more desire to be embroiled in the personal relations between the Emperor and his wife than Macro. Nevertheless, Pallas was up to something. Cato scratched his chin and continued. ‘Do you know if the idea to confer the title came from Claudius?’
‘I doubt it. It is not the kind of decision that he would be confident of taking on his own.’
‘Then he was prompted by someone. Most likely Agrippina. Positioning her son for the succession.’
‘That’s what Narcissus thinks.’
‘And Pallas? What is his involvement in this?’
Septimus was silent for a moment before he replied. ‘Pallas is a confidante of the Empress, as well as being one of Claudius’s closest advisers.’
Cato smiled. ‘Something of a conflict of interests there, I’d say.’
‘Unless he, too, is preparing a place for himself in the succession.’
‘Is that what Narcissus thinks?’
‘The imperial secretary sees it as a possible course of action he needs to be aware of,’ Septimus replied warily. ‘As long as Pallas does nothing to, ah, accelerate the succession of the Emperor then Narcissus cannot act openly against him.’
‘But I dare say he is prepared to act against Pallas in a covert manner, if he isn’t already doing so.’
‘That is not for me to say, and it is not within your remit to even think about it,’ Septimus said coldly. ‘Your job is to gather intelligence and only act as Narcissus directs you to. Is that clear?’
‘Of course. Nonetheless, Centurion Macro and I prefer to be aware of the wider situation. We have our reasons to be wary of your master.’ Cato paused and then leant forward slightly. ‘Macro and I will leave Rome when our task is complete, but you will remain here. I’d be careful not to tie my fortunes to those of Narcissus if I were in your place.’
‘You are speaking out of turn, Cato. I am loyal to Narcissus. It’s a rare quality these days, I know,’ he said drily, ‘but at least some of us know what it means to be loyal, and follow our orders without question.’
‘Fair enough.’ Cato shrugged. ‘It’s your funeral.’
The other man glared at him, tiny darts of reflected flame glowing in his eyes. Then Septimus lowered his gaze and cleared his throat and spoke in a less impassioned manner. ‘What are you going to do about Lurco?’
‘I’ve got an idea. But we’re going to need to bring him here. Then I’ll need you to get him away from Rome, until the business with Sinius and his friends is over. Can that be arranged?’
‘I’ll see to it. The centurion can have a quiet holiday at the empire’s expense. Can’t vouch for the quality of the accommodation though,’ Septimus added, and then was silent for a moment. ‘I’d better get back to the palace and report to Narcissus. I’ll come here every evening from now on. I get the feeling we’re running out of time as far as the conspiracy is concerned.’ He stirred and eased himself on to his feet with a grunt. ‘I’ll leave first. Give me a while before you follow, just in case the entrance is being watched.’
He crossed to the door, gently eased the latch up and left the room as quietly as possible. Cato heard some of the steps creak faintly and then there was silence in the stairwell. Cato pulled the borrowed cloak tighter about his shoulders, his nose wrinkling with distaste at the reek of urine. He sat still for a while as he pondered the situation. Macro was right. This was no business for a pair of soldiers to be involved in. The two of them were far more use to Rome out on the frontiers fighting barbarians. That was simple thinking, Cato chided himself. The empire faced enemies from all sides and it was the duty of a soldier to deal with any threats. Besides, Narcissus had promised to reward them if they successfully carried out the task he had set. Thought of that set Cato’s mind towards Julia.
He had been trying not to think of her, but she was a distraction that was hard to ignore, like a permanent ache in his heart. The moment he let his mind wander, it was likely to turn to memories of Julia and the anxiety over the prospect of not spending the future with her. They had not seen each other for over a year. While Cato had been involved in the hunt for the fugitive gladiator, Ajax, and the campaign against the Nubians in Egypt, Julia had been living in Rome, enjoying the society of the rich and powerful. She was young and beautiful and bound to attract attention.
Cato’s anguish welled up painfully as he recalled just how beautiful she was, and how she had given herself to him, heart and body, in the months they had been together in Syria and Crete. The fact was they had been apart longer now than they had spent together, and though his feelings for her had been constant, nourished by the prospect of reunion, he had no idea if she still felt the same about him. His instinct said she did, but Cato was distrustful of himself. It could just as easily be naive wishfulness. The rational part of his mind coldly determined that it was more than likely her affections had faded. What was the memory of a young soldier to her now when she was surrounded by the refinement and glamour of Rome’s high-born society?
Cato reached up a hand to his face and traced his fingertips across his cheek, as she had done when they first made love. He closed his eyes and forced himself to recall every detail of the setting, every sound and scent of the small garden beneath a Syrian moon. His mind painted her into the scene with every embellishment that he could summon, far beyond the skills that the rough hand of nature used in fashioning the real world. Then his fingertips brushed over the hard lumpy skin of the scar and his heart burned with disgust and fear. Cato’s eyes flickered open. He breathed deeply for a moment before picking up the lamp and rising to his feet. He placed the lamp back on the shelf and blew out the flame.
Outside in the street he glanced around but there was no sign of movement so he turned back towards the main street running down the Viminal Hill. As he approached the square, Cato stopped for a moment and thought quickly, picturing the entrance to the inn where Macro sat waiting. There were two alleys a short distance apart that offered the best view of the River of Wine. Cato approached the square from the far end of the alley nearest to the inn. Resting one hand on the handle of his dagger, he crept forward, feeling his way along the rough wall and carefully testing each footstep as he went. There was a shallow bend a short distance before the alley gave out on to the square and as he reached it, Cato held his breath and peered round the corner. At first he saw nothing, but then the faintest loom of mist curled gently from behind a buttress close to the end of the alley. It came again and Cato realised that someone was breathing. From where he was he could not see anybody, so he steeled himself and continued forward slowly, until he had a view of the profile of a man watching the inn across the square. Cato stood quite still and waited. At last the man shifted his position slightly and afforded Cato a quick three-quarter view of his features. Cato smiled thinly as he recognised the man beyond any doubt.
He slowly worked his way back round the corner and up the alley. There he pulled the hood of the cloak up and continued until he came to the junction with the next thoroughfare. He made his way to the edge of the square and affecting a drunkard’s gait he half walked, half staggered across to the entrance of the inn, being careful not to glance towards the alley from where Sinius’s spy kept watch. Cato stumbled through the door and veered off towards the table where Macro and Porcinus were sitting. As soon as he was out of sight of the alley, Cato stood straight and flicked the hood back.
Macro smiled with relief. ‘You’ve been quite a while. Done what you needed to?’
‘Yes.’ Cato undid the pin fastening of the foul-smelling cloak and tossed it to Porcinus.
‘You finished with me then, sir?’ asked the fuller. ‘I can go?’
‘Yes. Better catch up with your mates before they spend all the money I gave ‘em.’
‘Too bloody right.’ Porcinus hurriedly swapped Cato’s cloak for his own and nodded a swift farewell before he hurried off. Cato took his place on the bench opposite Macro.
‘I’ve told Septimus everything I can. He’ll report back to Narcissus. Now we need to decide what to do about Lurco. We’ll need to work fast.’
‘Why? What’s the rush?’
Cato thought for a moment. ‘The Liberators have made one attempt on the imperial family. They failed last time, and they’ll be planning something else. The sooner we work our way into the conspiracy the better. Oh, and there’s one other thing.’
‘I know who Sinius is using to watch us. He’s in an alley across the square. It’s Tigellinus.’