By midday the baggage train and rearguard of the Second Legion had passed through Durocortorum and Vespasian gave the order for a short rest period. Progress had been slow because some of the local children had taken it into their heads to sling stones at the oxen pulling the artillery carriages. One viciously aimed shot had struck a larger than average beast in the testicles, causing it to try to turn in its traces as it bellowed with rage and pain. Seeing the small crowd of urchins responsible the beast had plunged after them, toppling the bolt thrower and its carriage into the street. While the beast was pacified and the wreckage cleared, word had to be passed up to the front of the column and back down to the rearguard, ordering a halt. Eventually the carriage and the bolt thrower were pushed down a side street where a detachment of engineers set about making repairs and the column started moving again.
Vespasian, riding back to investigate the delay, had cursed the shortage of draught animals that had necessitated using temperamental male oxen. The beast, comforted by a muleteer, was led away to join the small herd of lame animals destined to provide the column's fresh meat, while the young boy concerned was given a thrashing he would remember for the rest of his life. Not that that in any way comforted Vespasian as he raged inwardly at the delay. Nor was he in an improved mood when the Legion halted at midday. Seated at a table, he gave the order to see his wife's new maidservant.
As he snacked on some tough cold chicken washed down with a nameless local wine – when would these Gauls ever learn the art? – Lavinia was brought before him. His mouth full, he indicated that she should stand by the table where he gazed at her while his jaws worked hard to break the chicken down. She was quite a beauty, he decided, now that he had the chance to look her over properly. Completely wasted as a serving maid; a tidy sum could be fetched for her in Rome as a courtesan.
After a quick sip of wine to clear his palate he was ready to begin. He extracted the ribbon from his tunic and laid it down on the table. He was gratified to see that it was instantly recognised.
'Yes, master. I thought I'd lost it.'
'And well you might, it had nearly slid down behind a cushion on my couch.'
Lavinia reached for it but Vespasian still held it in his grip and her hand dropped back.
'What I'd like to know,' Vespasian smiled, 'is why it was there in the first place?'
'What were you doing in my tent last night?'
'Last night?' Lavinia asked, all wide-eyed innocence.
'That's right. The ribbon wasn't there when I left for bed. So tell me, Lavinia, and tell me straight, what were you doing there?'
'Nothing master! I swear it.' Her eyes pleaded with him to believe her. 'I just went in there to lie down for a moment. I was tired. I wanted somewhere comfortable to rest. The ribbon must have come off then.'
Vespasian stared long and hard at her before he continued. 'You just wanted to rest on my couch? That's all?'
'And you didn't take anything from the tent?'
'And you didn't see anything or anybody while you were there?'
'I see. Here.' He pushed the ribbon towards her and leaned back in his chair, while he considered her claims. She might be telling the truth or she might tell an altogether different tale if a little physical persuasion was applied. But almost as quickly as the thought of torture entered his head, Vespasian dismissed it. He did not doubt its efficacy in loosening tongues, it was just that he had seen too many victims offer up the version of events they knew their tormentors required of them. Hardly an effective way of finding out what had really happened. A new tack was required.
'You've only recently joined the household, according to my wife.'
'Who did you belong to before then?'
'Tribune Plinius, master.'
'Plinius!' Vespasian's eyebrows shot up. That changed things. What was a former slave of Plinius doing in his household? An agent? A spy trying to gain access to his safe-box? Yet, looking at her, it was hard to imagine that she could manage the guile required for the job. Another facade? It was impossible to tell at this stage.
'Why did Plinius sell you?'
'He grew tired of me.'
'You'll forgive me if I find that hard to believe.'
'It's true, master,' Lavinia protested.
'There must be more to it than that. Speak up, girl, and mind it's the truth.'
'There is more, master,' Lavinia admitted and bowed her head, as Flavia had told her to do, before she continued. 'The tribune wanted to use me… in certain ways.'
I bet he did, thought Vespasian.
'But he wanted more than that, he wanted me to have feelings for him. I couldn't bring myself to and he grew angry with me. And when he discovered I loved someone else he flew into a rage and hit me.'
Vespasian tutted in sympathy. 'And who might this other person be, the one you loved?'
'Please, master,' Lavinia looked up, tears glistening at the corners of her eyes. 'I don't want to say.'
'You have to tell me, Lavinia.' Vespasian leaned forward to pat her arm comfortingly. 'I must know who this other man is. It's vital that I know. I can command you to tell me.'
'Vitellius!' she blurted out, and broke down in tears, clutching her hands to her face.
Vitellius. So she loved Vitellius. Enough to do his bidding? A further thought struck Vespasian.
'Have you been seeing Vitellius since you joined our household?'
'You heard me. Are you still seeing him?'
'Did you see him last night? In my tent?'
Lavinia looked up at him with a shocked expression and shook her head.
'But you were planning to. Weren't you?'
'He never turned up, master. I waited, but he never came to me, as he had promised. I waited in the dark and he never came. So I went to bed. I never noticed the ribbon was missing until this morning.'
'I see. Did Vitellius ever ask you to tell him anything about me? Did he ask you anything about my household?'
'We talked,' Lavinia replied carefully. 'But I can't remember much of what we said about my lady Flavia and you, master.'
'And he never asked you to steal, or borrow, anything from my tent?'
'No, master. Never.'
Vespasian stared into her eyes for a long time, trying to determine if she spoke the truth. Lavinia just stared frankly back at him, until she could no longer meet his gaze and stared down at her feet instead. Certainly her story had the ring of truth. But if she still loved Vitellius it was conceivable that she might be persuaded to steal for him, or arrange access to the general's tent so that the senior tribune could steal the secret scroll after she had given up on him and gone to bed.
'You may go now, Lavinia.' Vespasian waved his hand. 'But I want you to remember this: if Vitellius ever asks you for any information about me again, or arranges another meeting, I want to know about it. And I warn you, the consequences of not telling me the truth from now on will be very painful. Very painful indeed. Do we understand one another?'
'Good. Now leave me.'
'So how did it go?' Flavia asked Lavinia that evening as they waited for the tents to be erected.
'I think he believed me, mistress. But why did I have to say that I was meeting Vitellius in the tent that night?'
'Would you rather have told him the truth and got Cato involved?'
'No, mistress. Of course not.'
'Well then, if we're to keep Cato out of the frame we need to put someone else into it. Vitellius fits the bill nicely. Very nicely indeed.'
Lavinia glanced at her mistress in surprise. Clearly there was more to this than simply saving Cato's skin. The pleased expression on Flavia's face as she idly watched the legionaries struggling with the guy ropes went beyond relief for saving the young optio and Lavinia could not help wondering if she, and Cato, might well be small pieces in a deeper game. Flavia suddenly switched her gaze to the slave girl.
'You must remember to stick to the story we agreed, Lavinia. Stick to that and we're all safe, understand? But don't ask me for any further explanations. The less you know, the more honest you will appear. Trust me.'