Vespasian smiled, even as he rubbed the red marks on his wrist where Titus had sunk his teeth in. That little boy could use some firm discipline, he decided. He simply had to stop biting, throwing things at people and running off with articles he was forbidden to touch. Earlier in the evening the little terror had burst into the nightly briefing of the tribunes. Scampering under the table he had raided the confidential papers safe-box and run off with Claudius's scroll. If it hadn't been for Plinius barring the tent flap, Titus would have got clean away. As it was, the tribune grabbed the boy and swung him up into his arms to return him to an embarrassed Flavia, who had appeared from the legate's personal quarters. The boy swung his hand out and caught Plinius on the chin, just as his mother wrestled the scroll from Titus's grip. Laughter rolled around the tent as the exasperated mother momentarily lost the scroll in the folds of her gown before handing it to the injured tribune and leaving with the writhing, giggling Titus pinned to her chest.
'May I have that scroll please?' asked Vespasian as evenly as possible.
After a cursory – but not openly curious – examination Plinius returned it to his legate.
'Thank you.' Vespasian restored it quickly to the safe-box and returned to the matter at hand. 'As you gentlemen know, there have been rumours that the army gathering at Gesoriacum is on the verge of mutiny. I had a message from General Plautius late this afternoon, brought to me by a household slave. I'm afraid there's some substance to the rumours.'
He looked up and met the surprised, and anxious, expressions of his officers. There was a silent pause, broken only by the sound of Titus playing somewhere nearby. The officers shifted uneasily. Many careers were riding on the success of the invasion. If the campaign failed, all those associated with it would have blotted reputations. Worse still, for those with an appreciation of the wider political implications, the authority of the Emperor himself would be questioned. Claudius had survived one attempted coup already and until he won the acclaim of the mob in Rome and of the armies spread across the Empire, his hold on power would be tenuous. A successful invasion would tie down a large body of troops and distract the legions from their recent distasteful interest in politics.
'Six days ago a cohort from the Ninth Legion refused to embark on to ships bound for a squadron reconnaissance of the British coast. When the centurions tried to force the men aboard there was a brief struggle which left two centurions dead and four wounded.'
'Has word of this got out to the rest of the army?' Vitellius asked.
'Of course,' Vespasian said with a smile. 'What did you expect? I've seen at first hand how well soldiers keep secrets.'
Some of the tribunes blushed as Vitellius continued. 'Do we know why that cohort mutinied?'
'It seems that someone has been stirring up the superstitious fears of our troops about what they may encounter when they land in Britain. The usual stuff and nonsense about fire-breathing monsters and other demons. I know it's rubbish but, even if we don't believe it, most legionaries do. As things stand, the troops have refused to go on any ships, even for training purposes.'
'What's being done about it, sir?'
'We're to continue marching towards Gesoriacum but have been ordered to stop ten miles short, in a holding area, until the mutiny is quelled – with or without our intervention. The new chief of the imperial staff was at Lugdunum when the news broke. He's making for the army at top speed and we're to supply an escort from Durocortorum. Apparently he has asked for men from our unit since they have not yet been contaminated by the mutiny.'
'Contaminated?' Plinius raised his eyebrows.
'His words, Tribune, not mine.'
'Sir!' Plinius protested. 'I didn't mean to imply-'
'That's all right. Narcissus is not the most tactful of men at times, but there we are.'
'Narcissus?' Vitellius muttered, just loud enough to be heard by the others.
'Narcissus.' Vespasian nodded. 'You don't seem to approve, Vitellius.'
'I'm not sure I approve of any man who wields power disproportionate to his social standing, if I may be so bold, sir.' Some of the other tribunes – those unaware of their legate's provincial origins – laughed.
'What I meant to say, sir,' Vitellius continued, 'is that I'm not sure why the Emperor would find it necessary to send his freedman… his chief secretary, to deal with the situation in person. It's not as if it's something the army can't handle for itself.'
'It's a big operation,' Vespasian replied. 'I would have thought Narcissus would want to make sure it ran as smoothly as possible, for the Emperor's sake.'
'Nevertheless, it is peculiar, sir,' Plinius added quietly.
Vespasian leaned back from the table. 'There is nothing peculiar in this. You know the man's reputation – he's more gauche than sinister. Narcissus will be escorted to the coast and that's the end of it. If he's playing a deeper game then it's one I'm not aware of. Or perhaps some of you gentlemen are privy to information that is being withheld from me. Well?'
No one dared meet his eye, either through guilt or fear of seeming guilty, and Vespasian sighed wearily. 'I'm getting just a little sick of high politics at the moment, gentlemen. Whatever our futures hold, we happen to be soldiers under strict orders which I intend to obey to the best of my ability. All other considerations should be pushed from your minds. Do I make myself clear? Good! Now, I don't need to remind you of the need for strict secrecy in this matter. If word of the mutiny spreads to our men then the entire army is as good as useless. Jupiter knows how it'll end. Any questions?'
The tribunes remained silent.
'Your orders for tomorrow will be passed to you before morning assembly. Dismissed.'
Later, with an empty tent to himself, Vespasian lay back on the couch and closed his eyes. From all around came the sounds of the Legion settling in for the night; the shouts of sentries and duty officers, the hubbub of men relaxing after the day's exertion, even some laughter. That was good. As long as the men were happy he could be sure that they remained loyal to the authority that bound them all together. Mutiny was the one thing that a commander feared above everything else. After all, what was it that compelled thousands of men to bend their efforts to his will, even to the point of death? The moment the common soldiery decided to disobey their officers the army ceased to be.
The news from the coast was bad, and by now would be spreading east down the roads. It was only a matter of time before the Legion ran into the rumours seeping out from Gesoriacum. Then he would have to proceed with the utmost caution; a fine balance would be needed between upholding the harsh discipline of everyday army life and not provoking the men into open revolt. He wondered about the loyalty of the rank and file. They seemed to respect him well enough and had done little to disappoint him on the march so far. The grizzled senior centurion had assured him that there were far fewer stragglers than normal for such a hard march. And yet he couldn't help wondering how fickle those men outside his tent headquarters might prove to be if given the chance. The mutiny had to be quashed so the invasion could proceed. Narcissus had better be as good an operator as his reputation suggested. Certainly Flavia believed he would be up to the job, when the matter had been quietly discussed over dinner.
Then there was the other issue. The second part of the message brought to him that afternoon had confirmed the presence of a conspirator in his Legion. But he was to be reassured by the fact that the imperial agent would be able to deal with the traitor. The imperial agent's identity would remain a secret to all but the Emperor's inner circle. This, the message assured him, was to ensure that Vespasian could concentrate on the business of running his Legion.
'As if…' Vespasian grumbled. He found that he now thought hard about every word spoken in front of his senior officers for fear of alerting the conspirator, or of voicing thoughts that the imperial agent might possibly construe as disloyal. Although he had his doubts about Vitellius, there was as yet no proof, or any overt indication, that the tribune was plotting against the Emperor. For all Vespasian knew it might just as easily be that bookworm Plinius. The distracted academic behaviour might well be a clever front for his real activities. Try as he might, Vespasian could not picture Plinius as a spy. Yet, in the absence of proof, he had to suspect everyone – not just his senior officers.
The presence of the imperial agent was far from reassuring. Vespasian was certain that the man's job was to keep as close an eye on the Legion's commander as it was to track down any unknown traitors. And he wondered who that agent might be; in the current political turmoil it might be any officer under his command. For that matter, it might well be that youngster who had joined the Legion straight from the imperial palace. He made a mental note to have the lad closely watched and then swore out loud.
Of course he wouldn't do that. Otherwise where would it all end? A legion riven by men spying on men spying on men. A mental image of the Legion marching into battle with every soldier casting suspicious sidelong glances at his neighbour sprang up into his head and he laughed.
Well then, let someone else worry about the espionage. He would try and concentrate on making his Legion fight well in the coming campaign. That was bound to enhance his reputation far more than plotting in dark corners. He smiled at his own naivety and went to bed.