The entrance to the legate's house was brightly lit when Cato arrived, after a fast run from the barracks. He stopped for a moment to catch his breath and place the grass crown back on his head. For the moment, the phalera hung from a ribbon around his neck over the front of his tunic. Later it would be fixed to his harness where it would remain for the rest of his life and be buried with him. Composed, he strode up to the gate where a household steward sat at a desk in the porch behind the two guards. The guards crossed spears to indicate Cato was to halt.
'Name, please?' the steward asked.
'Quintus Licinius Cato.'
'Cato,' murmured the steward as he made a mark on a wax slate with his stylus. 'You're late, Cato, very late. Admit him.'
The spears parted and Cato passed through the gateway to the interior courtyard.
'Straight ahead.' The steward pointed to the main hall, wrinkling his nose and frowning as Cato went by. From the windows above the colonnade came the glow of a brightly lit interior, and the sounds of music and laughter spilled out above the hubbub of general conversation. It was bad form to arrive so late to a party but it would have been unthinkable to have ignored the invitation, just as it was impossible to disobey Bestia's orders to sluice and scrub the latrine channels. Tonight's fatigues had taken longer than usual due to a stomach bug that was going through the Legion at a ferocious rate. Cato had been left with little time to change into his best tunic and run through the fortress to arrive even at this late hour. With a bitter sense of dread for the inevitable interrogation about his tardiness, Cato walked over to the hall at a condemned man's pace. He rapped the door. Instantly the latch leapt up and the door swung inwards to reveal the household's majordomo, hardly able to conceal his irritation.
'There you are at last! You'd better have a good explanation for the legate.'
'I'll apologise as soon as there's a quiet moment,' Cato promised. 'Is there any way I can get to my place unobtrusively?'
'Hardly, young man. Follow me.'
The majordomo shut the door and led Cato through a heavy curtain into a large hall. Though minute by imperial palace standards, Cato mused, the room had been made as comfortable as it could possibly be this close to the ends of the Empire. The hall was brightly lit from scores of oil lamps suspended from the joists. Two long benches ran down each side of the hall, covered with cushions for the diners who ate off the low tables in front of them. Cato was surprised to see that all the tribunes and nearly every centurion was present, together with a number of wives. In the open space between the tables a pair of wrestlers were grunting and straining in a tight embrace as they groped for a decisive hand-hold. At one end of the hall a small group of pipe players strove to be heard above the din of the guests. Cato hurriedly looked for a gap on the nearest bench to quietly slip into, but the majordomo beckoned to him and slowly proceeded down the side of the hall to the head table where Vespasian and his most honoured guests reclined. With horror Cato saw a conspicuous gap between Macro and Vespasian. The legate frowned as they approached, but only for a moment before he forced a smile on to his lips and waved a greeting.
'Optio! I wondered where you had got to.'
'I'm sorry, sir,' Cato replied as he slipped forward on to the couch beside Macro. 'I had some duties I was ordered to complete first.'
'I'd rather not say over dinner, sir.'
'Not much of that left, I'm afraid. Rufulus! See what you can find for the optio, must be some choice titbits left.'
'Yes, sir.' The majordomo bowed, darting a sharp glare at Cato.
'While you're waiting you might try some of the stuffed dormice.' Vespasian proffered a gold serving dish around which lay an arrangement of tiny baked mice. 'They're filled with some of the local herbs and cheese. Not quite what you're used to at the palace, I suspect, but it's a pleasant enough gastronomic reminder of home. Take one.'
Cato did as he was told. While the mice had been slightly overbaked, they made a pleasant change from standard legionary fare. As Cato happily crunched on the tasty morsels, the legate ordered a slave to bring the late arrival a selection of delicacies.
'Have some wine.' Vespasian pointed out a row of Samian decanters. 'There's a decent Caecuban and a tolerable Massic. I'm saving the last of my Falernian for a toast.'
Cato's eyes glittered at the prospect. 'Your cook has done his Apicius proud. Thank you for inviting me.'
'My pleasure, son. You did well in that little business with the locals. Now I'll leave you to your meal before it goes completely cold. I want to introduce you to a few people later on. Some you will already know.' Vespasian smiled. 'My wife says she is particularly keen to catch up on some of the palace gossip. That is, if I can tear her away from Tribune Vitellius.' He nodded towards the end of the head table where Cato could see the tribune over the shoulder of a slim woman. The pair seemed to be deep in conversation. Suddenly the legate's wife shook with laughter and Vespasian frowned momentarily. He switched his attention back to the waiting optio. 'As I said, that can wait for later. But for now I'm afraid I have to talk shop with the camp prefect. Please excuse me and enjoy the meal.'
The legate turned his back and Cato shifted on to his stomach, feasting his eyes on the spread before him, before he allowed his tastebuds a turn.
'What the hell is that smell?' Macro sniffed accusingly.
'I'm afraid it's me, sir,' Cato replied, filling his cup with a dark red Massic.
'What is it? You stink like a cheap tart.'
'That's because it's a scent Pyrax bought for a cheap tart.'
'You're wearing a scent?' Macro recoiled in horror.
'Had to, sir. I've been up to my knees in shit all afternoon. I cleaned myself down as best I could but there's no shifting the smell. Pyrax suggested I try to cover over it with his scent.'
'He did, did he?'
'Yes, sir. Said it was better to smell like a tart than a turd, or something.'
'How's the leg today, sir?' Cato asked, reaching for another dormouse.
'Getting better. But still a few weeks before I'm allowed back on my feet. I'm not looking forward to spending most of it in a transport wagon.'
'Any idea where the Legion's being sent?'
'Shhh! Keep your mouth shut! We're not supposed to know yet. I think that's why we've all been invited.'
'Why else invite so many if it's just a quiet dinner to celebrate the investiture? There's bound to be more to it than that.'
Flavia laughed politely, but discreetly, at the tribune's joke; one had to be careful when discussing Emperor Claudius. At the same time she wished to probe Vitellius a little further so the amused expression remained on her face.
'That's a good story Vitellius. Very good. But I wonder, do you think Claudius is right for the job?'
'What do I think of Claudius?' He scrutinised her closely before replying. 'It's a bit too early to make a judgement, wouldn't you say?'
'I have friends in Rome who tell me that people are already saying that Claudius won't last long, that he's mad or, at the very least, a simpleton. And that he lets his freedmen run the empire in his name. Particularly that fellow Narcissus.'
'Yes, I've heard that too.' Vitellius smiled, amused by the way in which people discussing the Emperor always voiced their own opinions through the mouths of anonymous friends. 'But it's early days, he's bound to delegate some tasks while he learns the ropes.'
'I suppose you're right,' Flavia replied as she picked a scrap of meat from one of the bones lying on her plate. 'But I wonder how one man can ever be expected to rule the Empire – such a burden. I know I'm only a woman and have a limited perspective on affairs of state, but I would have thought that such a task required the energies of more than one man. Surely there are enough wise heads in the Senate who can be relied on to help the Emperor rule?'
'To help the Emperor rule? Or to rule in his place? And then we're back to the bloodshed of the Republic. Nearly every politician a soldier and every soldier a politician, and once you're in that situation there are no longer any elections – just wars.'
'Not that we have elections any more,' Flavia smiled.
'No. No, we don't. But how long has it been since Romans slaughtered Romans in the name of their general's political ambitions?'
'As far as I recall, not since the divine Augustus wiped out all his rivals and imposed his dynasty upon us. And, let's face it, the Emperors have rather a lot of blood on their hands. There are many in Rome who suffered at the hands of Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula. And who is to say that the present incumbent won't continue the tradition?'
'Maybe. But how many more might have died if Augustus had not seized control of the army from the Senate and made it the tool of one man?'
'So it's simply a question of the relative death-rates, then?'
'Look here,' Vitellius asked quietly. 'Are you really suggesting that we return to the Republic?'
'No, I don't think so,' Flavia replied sweetly. 'But – just for the sake of argument between friends over a comfortable meal – don't you think a return to senatorial rule would be preferable to the present situation?'
'An interesting question, Flavia. Very interesting. Of course there are arguments that can be made in favour of either arrangement. I'm sure there's a considerable pool of talent that could be drawn on if the Senate had all its powers restored, but I fear that there are rather more senators with designs on accruing power to themselves than there are those who genuinely wish to serve Rome. You only have to look at that nasty business in Dalmatia last year. Poor Claudius had only just been confirmed as Emperor when the mutiny occurred. If a few more legions had joined Scribonianus and the other plotters then who knows how it would have ended? We're lucky Narcissus's agents managed to nip that one in the bud.'
'Nipped in the bud?' Flavia mused. 'That's a nice euphemism for the dozens who were killed. I lost some good friends before I left Rome. I'm sure you did as well. And they're still hunting down the surviving members of the plot. Not a comfortable time in which to live.'
'They brought it on themselves, Flavia. Before you gamble in such affairs you should consider the stakes. It's all or nothing. They lost and Claudius won. Do you think they would have been any more merciful to him if it had worked out the other way round?'
'No. I don't suppose they would.' She nodded thoughtfully.
'Not that there was ever much chance of them succeeding,' Vitellius continued. 'The fools had been old-fashioned enough to appeal to the legionaries' patriotism rather than their purses. The moment Narcissus showed up with Claudius's gold it was all over.'
'It would seem,' Flavia looked him deep in the eyes, 'that the moral of the tale is that the army is only as loyal as the imperial treasury is deep.'
'Why, Flavia!' Vitellius laughed. 'I couldn't have put it better myself! But I'm afraid you are right. At the end of the day it's all down to whoever can offer the troops the most money. Ancestors, wisdom and integrity mean nothing any more. Money is the font of all power. If you have it then the world turns for you, if not then you are quite helpless.'
'Well, men.' Flavia sipped at her wine. 'I hope our Emperor can afford to remain in the job. Otherwise, as you say, it's just a question of time before the army looks to a wealthier patron.'
'Yes,' Vitellius said. 'Just a question of time. But enough of politics, for now. You're an interesting woman. I really do wish I'd had the opportunity to share a decent conversation with you before tonight.'
'That would have been nice. I'm afraid Vespasian does tend to try and keep me under lock and key, army bases being what they are.'
'And I'm sure,' Vitellius leaned closer, 'that you're smart enough to run rings round such restrictions, should you want to.'
'Yes… should I want to.'
'And is that why you married him?'
Flavia looked up and saw that his eyes were openly appraising her as his lips melted into the smooth smile of a seducer.
'No.' Flavia shook her head. 'I married Vespasian because I love him. And there's more steel in him than you can imagine. You'd do well to remember that.'
The tribune's brow creased and he was quite still as he accepted the rebuff. Then he refilled his glass, without offering to do the same for Flavia, and raised it.
'To your husband,' he said quietly. 'What you say about him may well be true… for now.'
Flavia's eyes flickered up and a warm smile flushed across her face as Vespasian rose to his feet. Vitellius quickly glanced over his shoulder and saw the legate approaching with the newly decorated optio at his shoulder. With a sigh of reluctance he eased himself round and stood up.
'I wondered when you would get round to bringing that poor boy over here.' Flavia laughed as she held out both her hands towards Cato. The optio did a quick double take and gulped.
'The same. And how's my little Cato? Not so little these days, it seems. Let me have a good look at you!'
'It seems the optio and my wife were friends back in their palace days,' Vespasian explained to Vitellius. 'So it's something of a reunion.'
'Such a small world, sir,' the tribune replied smoothly. 'We seem to live in a time of great coincidences.'
'Yes. I need a quiet word with you. I'm sure my wife would be only too pleased to join the optio and catch up on several years of gossip. My dear?'
'Of course.' Flavia nodded gracefully and led Cato towards the head of the table.
'Lady Flavia, I had no idea you were here.'
'Why should you?' She smiled. 'Officers' wives are seldom seen out of their quarters. And only a lunatic would expose themselves to the ravages of a German winter by choice.'
'Did you know I was here?'
'Of course. There can't be that many Catos joining the Legion from the palace. And as soon as my husband mentioned the – now what was it he said? – the "bookish beanpole", I knew it had to be you. I've been simply dying for a chance to see you again but Vespasian said I had to let you settle in first – the last thing you needed was some interfering woman mollycoddling you in front of the other men.'
'Yes.' Cato winced at the image. 'My lady, I can't tell you how glad I am to see a familiar face in this place.'
'Come, let's sit.' Flavia settled on to her husband's couch and patted the space beside her. Cato looked around but no-one seemed to be paying undue attention. He had been in the army long enough to feel uncomfortable about social intercourse between widely different ranks.
'Now, Cato, you must tell me how it's going. I can't imagine how you, of all people, have ended up here. It must be quite a change in lifestyle?'
Cato, uncomfortably aware of Macro sitting just to his side, phrased his response carefully.
'Yes, my lady, quite a change. But it seems to be a good enough life, and should be the making of me.'
Flavia raised her eyebrows. 'You really have changed, haven't you?'
'May I introduce my centurion to you?' Cato rose slightly to indicate Macro.
'Ma'am.' Macro nodded politely as he wiped the grease from his lips with the back of his hand. 'Lucius Cornelius Macro, commanding the Sixth Century, Fourth Cohort,' he continued automatically.
'Pleased to meet you, centurion. I trust you are looking after my friend?'
'Hmm. No more or less than any other of my men,' Macro replied resentfully. 'In any case, the lad can look after himself.'
'So I've heard. Now then, Cato, you must fill me in on what's been going on in the palace since I left.'
As Cato talked, Macro hovered on the brink of the conversation until boredom set in. With a shrug he turned back to his food and made the most of the unaccustomed luxury of the feast before him. For her part Flavia listened intently and interrupted Cato with frequent questions about the endless rise and fall of sundry palace officials. At length she had pumped Cato dry of information and leaned back on one arm.
'So, the same seething hotbed of scandal and intrigue that it ever was. That much has not changed.'
'Indeed, it's almost impossible to avoid the gossip.'
'I have to admit I really miss Rome.'
'You could have stayed there, my lady. It's not unknown for legates to leave their wives at home while on active service.'
'True, but I've found Rome a little uncomfortable since that nasty business with Scribonianus in Dalmatia last year. Too many people spending their time denouncing others as conspirators. It's put quite a dampener on the social scene – you have no idea how much of a challenge it is planning a dinner party while the imperial agents are busy whittling down your guest list.'
Cato nodded. 'By the time I left the palace I'd heard that Claudius had already signed over a hundred death warrants. I'm sure there can't be many conspirators left by now.'
'Narcissus has been a busy man, it would appear.'
'And a very important one since Claudius put him in charge of the imperial general staff.'
'Has Narcissus changed much since I left?'
'Not that you'd notice,' Cato replied. 'But most people are careful what they say around him these days – now that he has the Emperor's ear.'
'Does he still look the same?' asked Flavia, absently gazing at her fingers as they stretched the hem of her palla.
Cato reflected a moment before replying. 'A little greyer around the temples but not so different from when you knew him.'
'I see- I see. And I trust our little secret is still safe?' she asked softly.
He had been expecting the question for some time and nodded as he looked her firmly in the eye and replied. 'Quite safe, my lady. I gave you my word. It still stands and will until I die.'
An embarrassing silence settled between them as they both thought back to the night of a terrible storm raging over Rome, when a little boy, scared out of his wits by the thunder and lightning, had huddled in the corner of a small ante-room where a man and a woman were coupling in the glare of light flashing through the windows. Later, when the man had gone, Flavia discovered Cato trembling in the corner of the room. For a brief moment she had simply stared at him, afraid of the consequences of what he must have seen. Seizing his shoulders, she had sworn him to secrecy. Then, seeing the elemental terror in his expression, some instinct awoke inside her and she'd shielded his small body from the storm as best she could. Afterwards, despite the social gulf between them, she had felt a sense of responsibility for Cato and seen that he was well cared for by the other palace slaves. Then she had left the imperial household and met Vespasian.
Flavia decided to move the conversation on to safer ground. 'Now, Cato, what do you miss most about Rome?'
'The libraries,' he answered without hesitation. 'The nearest I get to a good read here is some weather-beaten army manual. When I left Rome I was reading Livy's histories. It'll be a while before I get a chance to continue them.'
'Histories!' Flavia exclaimed. 'What on earth are you reading histories for? I thought you young men liked poetry – Lucretius, Catullus, Ovid – that sort of thing.'
'Ovid is a little hard to come by, my lady,' Cato reminded her. 'In any case, I'm afraid my tastes are a bit conservative. I've only really bothered with Virgil.'
'Virgil's such a boring old stick,' Flavia complained. 'Not an ounce of feeling, or empathy. It's just turgid elegance.'
'I really must disagree. I find him quite sublime at times – able to put concepts into words in a timeless way. When all today's cheap romantic poets are mere shadows in the memory of men, Virgil will still be a vibrant influence flowing down through the centuries.'
'Most poetically phrased, Cato, but do you speak of time or legionaries?'
'Hardly the latter.' Cato laughed with the legate's wife. 'Literary aesthetics are not foremost in the minds of such men.'
'Pass the mice,' Macro interrupted.
'Yes, sir,' Cato responded guiltily. 'There you are, sir.'
'Do you read much?' Flavia asked Macro. 'I ask only to reassure myself that Cato here is a bit wide of the mark. I can't believe that my husband's officers would ignore the muses.'
'Do you read poetry, Centurion?'
'Not often, ma'am, I'm too busy most of the time.'
'But you do read poetry,' Flavia insisted.
'Of course, ma'am.'
'So who's your favourite?'
'Who's my favourite? Well, let me think. Probably that chap young Cato just mentioned.'
'Really?' Flavia frowned. 'And which of Virgil's works do you rate most highly?'
'Difficult question, ma'am. I think all of his stuff is good.'
'Coward!' laughed Flavia. 'Frankly, I doubt whether you have read anything of his, or any poet, for that matter. In fact, I doubt whether you read at all.'
She laughed again, but Macro looked down at his food in silence and Cato, sensed his centurion's acute discomfort.
'Shhh!' Flavia raised a finger to her lips. 'I think the legate is about to speak.'
Sure enough Vespasian downed the last of his wine and stood up. He tipped a wink to the majordomo who ordered the servants to quickly distribute the decanters of Falernian to all tables. Then he rapped his staff down on to the mosaic floor. The room slowly fell silent as all eyes turned to the head table. Vespasian waited for complete quiet before he began to speak.
'Gentlemen, and ladies, it cannot have escaped your attention that the Legion has been preparing for relocation in recent weeks. I can tonight confirm that imperial staff has issued us with our marching orders. The Legion is to proceed with all due haste to the west coast of Gaul…'
If Vespasian was expecting some excited response he was to be disappointed. Many officers in the room looked away in embarrassment, shuffling uncomfortably. One or two polite souls did try and look surprised, as if this was indeed news to them, but they were seen through in an instant, and Vespasian continued with an evident sourness to his tone.
'On arrival we are to join up with elements of four other legions to train for the invasion of Britain. A fleet is being assembled even now and before the year is out a new province will have been added to the empire in the name of and glorification of Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus. The Legion begins moving in two months' time, our fortress to be garrisoned by a mixed auxiliary cohort from Macedonia in our absence. Right, you know the routine. From tomorrow you get straight to it. All that remains tonight is a toast. So, fill your cups and raise them to the Emperor!'
As the orderly and Cato helped lift Macro off the litter into his bed the centurion grabbed hold of Cato's tunic and dragged him close.
'You stay. I want a word in private.' Macro's face was grim.
Left alone with his superior, his mind sharpened by the cold night air, Cato wondered what on earth he could have done to bring on this sudden change in mood. For a moment Centurion Macro stared up at Cato intently before he could nerve himself to say what was on his mind.
'Cato, can I trust you?'
'Can I trust you with a secret? Something I dare not tell anyone else?'
Cato gulped nervously, and instinctively took a step away from the centurion's bed. 'Well, that depends, sir. I mean, naturally I'm flattered, but you know how it is, some men do and some don't. It just happens that I don't, sir. No offence or anything.'
'What the fuck are you going on about?' Macro frowned as he raised himself up on an elbow. 'If you think, for one moment, that I'm some kind of arse bandit then I'll take your fucking head off. Understand?'
'Yes, sir.' Cato relaxed. 'So how can I help?'
'You can help… You can help by teaching me to read.'
'Yes, read, damn it! You know, all those bloody words and stuff. I want to learn how it all works. All right, that's a bit too strong. I don't want to read any more than the next man. Fact is, I have to read and write, if I'm going to stay a centurion. And that bitch of woman nearly had me by the short and curlies tonight. But some day it'll come out and, when it does, I'll get busted back to the ranks. Unless I learn my words.'
'I see. And you want me to teach you?'
'Yes. And you promise not to tell a soul. Will you do it?'
Cato thought it over a moment and inevitably his nature led him to the answer. 'Of course I'll teach you, sir.'