With hands on hips and head thrown back, Vespasian looked up into the starry night, through a large scorched hole in the roof of his tent. Lowering his eyes he stared at the silent ring of men standing around the table. The sentries looked down in shame.
'So how do you suppose our thief managed to gain entry to this tent? If you were as conscientious in your duties as you claim.'
'Sir, we were keeping a good watch, as always,' the centurion explained. 'Four men at the entrance, another four patrolling the outside of the tentage. I've checked round and we've found two places where the tent sidings have been slashed open. I suspect our man used those to get in and out, sir.'
'You suspect that, do you?' Vespasian said bitterly. 'That's brilliant Centurion, quite brilliant. And while our man was busy cutting his way in, where were the rest of you?'
'Please, sir, we were being spoken to by the tribune.'
'Gaius Plinius, sir. Duty tribune for the night. Came up and demanded a full inspection.'
'And why did he do that, do you suppose?'
'Begging your pardon, sir, but we were talking about the invasion.'
'Oh, were you? What were you saying?'
'Well, sir-' the centurion was embarrassed. 'Some of the lads have heard that there's monsters living on the islands.'
'And where might they have heard such nonsense?' Vespasian asked, trying not to reveal his anxiety.
The centurion shrugged. 'Just the grapevine, sir.'
Vespasian drew a breath. 'So then, Plinius was disciplining you for talking like a bunch of old women, and that's when you think the intruder made his way into my tent?'
'Right, well, you and the watch will be up on charges. And you're demoted to a line century. Now get out of here.'
As he watched them shuffle out Vespasian knew that the latter punishment was the more telling since the headquarters guard was rightly seen as a cushy number under normal circumstances; better food, lighter duties and a relatively safe position in the line of battle. And now one of them was lying in the hospital tent critically injured. The man had been unconscious and bleeding heavily from a slash wound to the back and side of the head. He was alive, just, but the surgeon had not been convinced that he would survive the night. It was too bad, since the man might have seen his attacker and be able to provide an identification. And that was what Vespasian desperately needed at the moment.
Upon entering the room, half dressed like the others who had been woken by the crashes and thumps coming from the command tent, the first thing he had checked was his document safe-box. One glance was all he needed – the small scroll bearing the confidential seal of Claudius had gone. Everything else remained; that meant the thief knew precisely what he was after, and now he had it. Someone in the camp had possession of a priceless piece of political intelligence that might be used to help topple the Emperor. Not that Vespasian needed the document – he had long since memorised the contents and made his plans. But now someone else had access to the information it contained.
And what would happen to him once word got back to Rome, to Claudius, that he had allowed someone to steal the scroll? No excuse would be accepted, the responsibility was his, and that was why he had punished the sentries harshly; they had to share in the suffering they had caused him.
At least the thief had to be near. Someone in the Legion, more than likely the traitor Plautius's letter referred to. There might yet be time to recover the letter before the Legion reached the coast and merged into the mass of units gathering for the invasion. Some blood had been discovered near the couch, with more splatters around the table, leading from the tent to the churned-up soil where the trail was lost. The man had been wounded, then. Which struck Vespasian as most odd. Since the sentry had been struck from behind in the doorway to the tent it seemed likely he had been surprised. In which case the intruder must have been injured by someone else.
What had happened to Lavinia? Inwardly Cato squirmed with fear and worry. She had never come back, but surely she wouldn't have encountered the intruder while he lay waiting in the tent? He prayed that she was alive and unhurt. He couldn't risk going near headquarters to try and see her for a while. That guard had got a clear look at him and would surely be able to pick him out without any problem. He would have to get word of Lavinia from Flavia; a message must be got through to her as soon as possible. But he did not know how much the legate's wife would know about the situation and how far she could be trusted. If Vespasian discovered that he had been in the tent, then all the evidence would point to him being directly involved in the theft of whatever it was the intruder had taken from the chest. He was in deep trouble and needed an ally. If he could see Flavia – tell her everything he had seen – then maybe she could protect him. She had befriended him and now he needed her. In the morning he would try and see her.
Next morning Cato was rudely woken from a troubled sleep by a rough shaking of his shoulders. He looked up blearily into Pyrax's face. 'W-what?'
'Centurion wants you right away.'
Cato propped himself up on his elbows and, looking out of the tent-flap, saw that the sun had risen for some time. He shook his head and scrambled up.
'How long since morning call?'
'A while.' Pyrax shrugged. 'You missed breakfast and we're about to strike the tents.'
'Why didn't someone wake me?'
'You're a grown-up now, lad, it's up to you to look after yourself.'
'Where's the centurion?'
'In his tent. I'd get over there smartish if I were you. Macro doesn't look too chuffed with his lot-' Pyrax glanced down at Cato. 'What happened to your hand?'
Following his gaze, Cato saw that the thumb and forefinger of his hand were smeared with dried blood.
'Oh that! I, er, managed to get a cut of meat from a beast some of the muleteers slaughtered last night. Roasted it on their fire.'
'Nice of them,' Pyrax said grudgingly. 'But you might have cleaned yourself up afterwards.'
'Sorry,' Cato mumbled. 'I have to go.'
He punched through the half-open flaps and washed his hand with some water from a skin hanging on the tent frame. The blood from the intruder had caked on and had to be scratched off with his nails and wiped clear. With a shock he realised that his dagger must be bloody as well and drew it to find the blade heavily soiled by dried blood. That took somewhat longer to clean and by the time Cato pushed his way into Macro's tent the centurion was steaming. Piso stood at the back of the tent, eyebrows raised in warning.
'What took you so bloody long? I sent for you ages ago.'
'I'm sorry, sir.'
'Why were you late? Explain yourself.'
'I was in the latrines, sir, something I ate last night.'
'Well, take more care over what you eat in future,' Macro said impatiently. 'Now then, we've got work to do. The legate's detached our century from the Legion to perform escort duties. I was given the orders at the morning briefing. We're to advance ahead of the Legion to Durocortorum and meet up with some staff bigwig. Then we're to escort him to General Plautius's headquarters at Gesoriacum. That's all, and since we have to get moving ahead of the column we're going to have to rush. I've already given the orders for the wagon to be loaded and hitched up. I want you to requisition some wine and treats for our guest. The quartermaster's been notified. Piso, you go and get the men moving; I want tents struck and loaded and packs ready before the next watch call. Now get out of here, both of you.'
Outside Cato looked at Piso enquiringly.
'Bad morning,' Piso whispered. 'Some dodgy business up at headquarters last night.'
'Some thief tried to rob the legate. Managed to knife a guard and get away. Now Vespasian's blowing his stack at the officers for not having their men keep a good enough watch.'
'Oh. Did anyone say what was stolen?'
'Nothing of value, apparently. But the poor sod who discovered the thief won't live long.'
'That's too bad.' Cato tried to sound concerned while his heart lifted slightly at the news, and then, as his cursed imagination summoned up an image of the blameless sentry lying bandaged and scarcely alive, he felt ashamed and guilty.
'Don't take it too badly, son.' Piso laid a hand on his shoulder. 'It happens. Just your good fortune it wasn't you.'
The tribune rested his chin on the palms of his hand and stared across to where Pulcher sat on a folding stool nursing his leg. The upper thigh had been punctured to a finger's depth and had bled profusely until he had got far enough away from the tent to apply pressure on the wound. Pulcher had limped back to the tribune's quarters, where he now sat applying a fresh bandage to the area. Luckily, the wound was high enough that the bandage would be concealed under his breeches and no-one need know that he had been injured. But the day's march would be agony, the tribune reflected with a smile. That would encourage the man not to cock it up next time – if there was a next time. Vespasian had issued orders to double the guard from now on and access to the command tent would be almost impossible. The man opposite did not yet know that another attempt would be required.
'I expect you'll be looking forward to returning to Rome,' the tribune asked as he poured the man a cup of wine.
'Too right!' Pulcher grunted. 'I've had enough of this undercover nonsense. I want to get back to soldiering.'
'I hardly think the Praetorian Guard counts as soldiering,' said the tribune mildly.
'It's the kind of soldiering I like.'
'But you did volunteer for this.'
'True. But for the sum of money we arranged anyone would volunteer.'
'But not everyone has your unique talent for ensuring things happen, encouraging loquacity in the tongue-tied, making people disappear – that sort of thing. Speaking of which, are you sure you can't put a face to the man you saw in the tent, the one who managed to pigstick you so efficiently?'
'No.' The reply was laced with anger. 'But when I do find out who it was, they'll suffer before I let them die. That's something I'll take care of for no extra fee.'
'Well, be sure that you do find him. If he knows who you are, he might manage to make you implicate me.'
'There's no chance of that.'
'Don't ever underestimate the power of effectively applied torture to loosen tongues,' the tribune warned him. The other merely sniffed with derision before the tribune continued, 'Now, I'm afraid I've got some bad news for you.'
'You've not done your job.'
'What do you mean?' Pulcher jabbed a finger at the scroll. 'That's what you wanted, and that's what you've fucking got.'
'Oh no,' replied the tribune. 'You don't really think I took the trouble of bringing you all the way up from Rome to get a piece of stationery.'
He flattened the scroll out for the other man to read. But there was nothing to read, it was completely blank.
'It seems someone is a step ahead of us. Looks like Vespasian was smart enough to use his safe-box as a decoy. Or, someone else here has beaten us to the scroll and left this in its place.'