Four days later Cato was sitting on his bed when Macro and the others returned from their patrol in the city. Following the food riot the Emperor had ordered the Praetorian cohorts on to the streets alongside the soldiers of the urban cohorts, leaving the palace under the protection of his German mercenaries. There were checkpoints at all the major junctions of avenues and streets and even the smallest gatherings of men in public places were swiftly broken up. Rewards had been offered for the ringleaders of the riot and their descriptions had been posted on the streets surrounding the Forum. So far only a handful of minor rabble-rousers had been arrested and disposed of, their heads mounted on stakes outside the entrance to the imperial palace. Cestius was still at large, despite the small fortune offered to anyone who could lead the authorities to his hiding place. Such was his fearsome reputation that none of the inhabitants of the Subura dared to admit they had even heard of Cestius when questioned by patrols.
Cato’s wound had been cleaned and stitched up by one of the surgeons in the hospital at the camp who had excused him from duties for ten days to give the wound time to heal. Cato had only ventured out of the camp twice, to visit the safe house and leave a message for Septimus, requesting a meeting to make his report, and then again a day later to see if there had been a reply. There was none and Cato had decided to stay in camp for a few more days before looking again, just in case his excursions drew unwelcome attention.
‘How’s that tiny cut on your arm today?’ asked Macro as he leant his shield against the wall by the door, and started to remove his sword belt and armour.
‘Stiff, but the pain’s bearable, thanks.’
‘As I said, a flesh wound. Little more than a scratch really.’ Macro struggled out of his chain-mail vest and laid it on the floor by his shield before slumping down on his bed. ‘Still, it’s a good way of ducking out of duties.’
‘It has served its purpose.’ Cato smiled briefly before his expression became serious again. ‘How are things in the city?’
‘Quiet. The Emperor has stamped down on it. He’s also sent word to every town and city within a hundred miles to send wagons of grain to Rome. The granaries of the Praetorian Guard are going to be used to eke out what little is left in the imperial store. Which means we will be on half rations from tomorrow. Not the smartest of moves.’ Macro shook his head. ‘We’ll need to keep our strength up if we’re to keep order on the streets. But if it helps appease the mob, then I guess it will serve its purpose for a few days at least. Beats me how Claudius ever let us get into this situation in the first place. He must have known the situation in Egypt was going to disrupt the supply for a while. So why didn’t he plan for it?’
‘Maybe he did but someone sabotaged the plan.’
Macro cocked his head. ‘What are you suggesting?’
‘I’m not quite sure yet.’ Cato reached his left hand up and lightly stroked the dressing over his wound, his fingertips sensing the lumps where the stitches had closed the gash. ‘Have you been keeping an eye on Centurion Lurco?’
‘I have. He’s a useless fart if ever there was one. Frankly, Cato, if he is involved in any conspiracy then I’d say the Emperor has nothing to worry about.’
‘That’s my impression too.’ Cato nodded thoughtfully then continued, ‘But it’s interesting how things are drawing together, wouldn’t you say? The theft of the bullion, Narcissus uncovering a plot, the riot, and then that ambush on us the same day.’
‘No doubt you think there’s a connection between it all,’ Macro suggested wearily.
‘I’m not sure, but at the very least, it’s all pretty suggestive.’
Macro sighed. ‘To your mind, yes. For the rest of us, it’s just a question of the shit being piled on. That or the gods have decided to give us some grief, for whatever reason. Either way, I think you’re jumping at shadows now.’
Cato was silent for a moment before he responded. ‘Maybe it’s the shadows jumping at us.’
‘What is that supposed to mean?’
Cato tried to explain the thoughts that were troubling him. ‘Something’s going on. I can feel it. There’s too much happening to dismiss it as coincidence. All of this makes some kind of sense. Or would, if I could piece it together somehow. Right now I can only speculate, but I’m sure the conspiracy is real.’
‘Not very helpful.’ Macro eased himself forward and folded his legs. ‘Of course, it could be nothing more than the usual mess. The palace has screwed up the grain dole and some greedy bastards have pinched the silver. As for Narcissus’s conspiracy, well, when haven’t the Liberators been plotting the removal of the Emperor and the return of the Republic? We’re on a wild-goose chase, Cato my lad.’
At the mention of his name, Cato growled. ‘Careful!’
‘We’re alone. What does it matter?’
‘It matters because you said it without thinking.’
‘Just like you did back at the inn, eh?’
Cato flushed with shame. ‘Exactly. We can’t afford to make another mistake until this is all over.’
‘Come the day,’ Macro said wearily.
They were interrupted by footsteps and then Fuscius and Tigellinus entered the room and began to remove their kit.
‘Still skiving, Capito?’ asked Tigellinus.
‘Am I ever, Optio?’ Cato forced a grin as he stretched out on his bed. ‘This is the life for me. Resting up while you lot tramp up and down those shit-filled streets of the Subura.’
‘Ain’t that fun?’ Tigellinus put his hands behind his back and rubbed the bottom of his spine. ‘It doesn’t help that the centurion is a bag of nerves. He thinks everyone he sees on the streets has got it in for us. He’s stopped and searched almost every man we’ve run into, and given them a good slapping into the bargain at the slightest excuse. The mad bastard is going to end up causing another riot if he’s not careful.’ He paused. ‘He should never have been appointed to the Guard. Classic case of the stupidity of direct commissions to the centurionate. A centurion needs experience. And guts. You get that the hard way. It ain’t right that he’s our centurion. Should be someone else.’
‘Like you?’ Cato suggested.
‘Why not? I’ve paid my dues.’ The optio gave Cato a cold look. ‘You’re in my good books, Capito. Don’t ruin the moment.’
‘Why am I in favour?’
‘For what you did to save the boy. I saw you throw yourself in the way of that sword. That’s good soldiering. It’s what Praetorians are for. You’re all right by me. And you’ve won yourself some favour with the Empress and her boy.’ He smiled. ‘That may serve you very well indeed some day.’
‘Of course. Think it over. Claudius ain’t going to live forever. Looks to me like young Nero has a good chance of succeeding him, and he owes you. Play your part and you’ll come out of it all smelling of roses. In the meantime, remind me to buy you a drink sometime. Now, I’ve got a report to write for that useless bastard Lurco.’
Tigellinus left the room and they listened to the sound of his boots receding. Fuscius looked at Cato and raised his eyebrows. ‘That’s the first time I ever heard him offer someone a drink. Maybe old Tigellinus has a heart after all.’
‘Then he’ll never make a good centurion,’ said Macro.
‘Really?’ Cato struggled to suppress a smile. ‘And what would you know about that, Calidus?’
‘Trust me, I’ve seen plenty of them come and go in the legions. The best of them are as hard as nails and there’s not a grain of pity in their souls. Of course, there are others.’
‘Like Lurco?’ Fuscius suggested quietly.
Macro nodded. ‘One or two. But they never last. They die quickly. That or they get bucked up to prefect to keep ‘em out of trouble. Has Lurco got influence that you know of?’
The young guardsman looked anxiously towards the door, as if the centurion might be eavesdropping. He leant closer to his comrades and whispered, ‘I heard him boast that the Empress has taken a fancy to him.’
‘Why not? He’s a pretty boy.’ Macro gave Cato a knowing look. ‘In any case, she’s got form and almost everyone knows it.’
‘But not since she married Claudius. She doesn’t want to end up like Messallina.’ Fuscius drew his finger across his throat. ‘If she’s being unfaithful, then she has to be very careful.’
An image of the Empress in the arms of Pallas flitted through Macro’s mind. Agrippina took her risks, but how careful she was in covering her tracks remained to be seen. Macro’s helmet had obscured his face when he had escorted her through the riot and neither she nor Pallas had given any indication that they had recognised him. For the moment he appeared to be safe.
There was a light knock on the door frame as one of the headquarters clerks looked in. ‘You got Guardsman Capito in here?’
‘That’s me.’ Cato raised his hand.
‘Centurion Sinius wants to see you.’
The clerk pursed his lips. ‘When an officer doesn’t say when it’s generally because he means right now. I’d move my arse if I were you.’
‘Thanks.’ Cato stood up and hurriedly put on his boots and military belt. It had started to rain outside so he picked up his cloak and trotted out of the barracks to catch up with the clerk.
‘Did Sinius say what he wanted?’
‘No. And before you ask, I didn’t.’
Cato glanced at the clerk, an overweight soldier with a round, pudding-like face. ‘Are they all as helpful as you at headquarters?’
‘Oh no,’ the man answered in a sour tone. ‘Most of them are complete bastards.’
‘Lucky for me they sent you then.’
The clerk glanced at Cato and shrugged. ‘Sorry, mate. I’m just a bit pissed off that we’re going on half rations.’
‘I can understand that,’ Cato responded with a quick glance at the man’s gut. ‘Someone’s messed up and it’s the rankers who pay the price, eh?’
‘You said it, brother. The Emperor’s been losing his grip these last months. Spending too much time fondling that niece of his. That ain’t right or decent and no good will come of it. Pity that boy of hers isn’t a bit older. Nero’s got promise, if you ask me. And he favours the Praetorian Guard. Give him a few more years and he’ll do fine as the new Emperor.’
‘Assuming the job doesn’t go to Britannicus.’
The clerk snorted with derision. ‘Claudius will be in his grave long before Britannicus is old enough to take the reins.’
‘Then it might be useful if someone encouraged the process along, I’d say.’
The clerk looked at him. ‘I might agree with you, brother, and there are plenty in the camp who would too, but I wouldn’t go and shout it about the place, eh?’
‘Just thinking aloud.’
‘And that’s all very fine now, but words have a way of prompting actions.’ The clerk winked at him. ‘But no more of it.’
They continued to headquarters in silence and the clerk showed him to Centurion Sinius’s door before returning to his duties. Cato had no idea why he had been summoned and thought it might have something to do with his shielding Nero from harm a few days earlier. Perhaps some kind of reward. He stepped up to the door, paused a moment and then knocked.
Cato lifted the latch and entered. Sinius was sitting on a stool beside the small brazier that warmed his office. He looked at Cato and then gestured towards the door. ‘Close that and come over here.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Cato did as he was told and then crossed the room to stand at ease in front of the centurion. There was a pause before Cato cleared his throat. ‘You sent for me, sir.’
‘Yes, I did.’ Sinius regarded him silently for a moment. ‘You’re an interesting man, Capito. Centurion Lurco’s report of the other day’s events makes for interesting reading. Apart from saving the Emperor’s stepson, it was you who took the initiative in abandoning the litters, I understand. He gives you credit for that at least, the rest he claims for himself. But I have already spoken to your optio and discounted most of Lurco’s boasting. You and Calidus are quite a pair. Very cool headed under pressure, it would appear.’
‘We’ve had our share of skirmishes and battles in the legions, sir.’
‘So I imagine. Your actions got the Emperor and his party out of a very dangerous situation. How very loyal of you. You must be very fond of the Emperor.’
‘I just did what I was trained to do.’
‘Perhaps, but to me it would seem that the pair of you make for good junior officer material, so it’s all the more surprising that you were still just common legionaries before you were transferred to the Praetorian Guard. Why was that, I wonder? Care to explain yourself?’
Cato felt an icy stab of anxiety in his guts. ‘I have no idea, sir. I guess our faces didn’t fit.’
‘There’s not much to add to what I said when we spoke before, sir. Calidus and I never saw the point of trying to conquer Britannia. We didn’t hide our feelings. Nor did many others.’
‘I know. I gather there was a brief mutiny in Gesoriacum before the soldiers boarded the invasion fleet.’
‘That’s right, sir.’
‘And you had nothing to do with that, of course.’
Cato hesitated before he replied. He could see where the centurion was trying to lead the discussion and realised there was an opportunity to test Sinius in turn. ‘I didn’t disagree with the ringleaders of the mutiny, sir. I just think they mishandled the situation.’
‘I see. Mishandled. You would have led the mutiny differently if you’d had your way.’
‘I didn’t have anything to do with it, sir. Nor did Calidus. But, since you’re asking me, then yes, if I had been in charge I would have been more ruthless. The senior officers had to be removed. It was a mistake to let them remain free. It was the officers who organised the arrest and execution of the ringleaders. It ended as I knew it would.’
‘And since then your superiors have been reluctant to promote you and Calidus.’
‘That’s how it seems, sir.’
‘Hardly fair, since you took no part in the mutiny. Men like you deserve better. You deserve better leaders, and that starts at the top.’
There was another silence, broken only by the light crackle of flames from the brazier. Then the centurion continued in a quiet voice.
‘You know what I’m talking about, Capito, though you are smart enough not to admit it. When a leader has failed his followers, or when a succession of leaders have failed us, then a reasonable man – a patriotic man – might well ask if there needs to be change. Wouldn’t you agree?’
Cato said nothing, his gaze fixed on the centurion. Sinius let the silence stretch out for a moment.
‘Fair enough. Then let me do the talking. You resent your lack of promotion. You resent being ordered to take part in a campaign that has little purpose. You condemn those who had the chance to reverse that policy but failed through lack of resolution. You want change. You want what is due to you. Am I right?’
Cato did not move for a moment and then barely nodded.
Sinius smiled. ‘Very well. Then let me put a proposal to you. There is a group of individuals who feel as you do. I am one of them. The difference between us is that I am in a position to bring about the change that we both desire. If my associates and I succeed in our ambitions, there will be rewards for us as well as rendering good service to Rome. And why shouldn’t there be? The risk is ours and we should be compensated accordingly. If I were to offer you the chance to join us, what would you say?’
‘I’d say you were a fool, sir. Why should you trust me?’ Cato paused for an instant before he risked his next comment. ‘For all you know I could be a spy.’
‘That’s true. And that is why I have had you and your friend under observation by one of my men since you arrived in the camp. If you were spies, then I’d know about it.’
Cato felt his heart lurch. He had been to the safe house twice and Sinius appeared to know nothing of it. He had taken precautions to ensure that he was not being followed but a skilled tail would not have been thrown off the scent that easily. He did not speak for a moment, to give the impression that he was carefully considering the centurion’s offer.
‘How do I know you’re not an agent, sir? You could be testing my loyalty.’
‘And why would I do that?’ Sinius smiled. ‘Do you think the imperial palace really has the time and inclination to test the loyalty of every new recruit to the Praetorian Guard in this manner?’
Cato pursed his lips. ‘I suppose not.’
‘No indeed. They have their hands full with rather more important matters, I should imagine. Like the business of the food shortage. Well, Capito, what is your response to my offer?’
‘Firstly, you mentioned rewards.’
‘I want promotion, for me and Calidus.’
Sinius’s eyes narrowed a fraction. ‘Calidus is a separate matter.’
‘No, sir. He is of the same mind as me in nearly all things. I trust him with my life.’ It was easy to say because it was the truth and Cato’s sincerity had its effect on the centurion.
‘Very well, my offer extends to you both.’
‘Thank you, sir. I also want money. Gold. A great deal of gold.’
‘That I cannot give you. But I can offer you silver. Quite a fortune, in fact.’ Sinius turned and pointed to the document chest beside his desk. ‘Open that. There is a false bottom with a catch at this end. Inside is a box. Bring it to me.’
Cato did as he was bid. The chest contained scrolls, some blank sheets of papyrus, pens, ink pots and several waxed slates. He cleared them aside from the near end and found a small catch painted to blend in with the dark wood of the chest. The lid lifted to reveal a cavity twice the size of a mess tin. It was almost filled by the box Sinius had described. Cato grasped the handle and picked it up carefully, slightly surprised by its weight. He crossed the room and handed the box to the centurion. Sinius placed it on his lap and flicked the catch and opened the lid. The contents were in shadow for an instant before the orange glow of the flames in the brazier reflected in the sheen of freshly minted silver coins.
‘There’s a thousand denarii there, Capito. It’s yours if you join us, and there’s more where that came from.’
Cato looked down at the coins. They were surely part of the fortune stolen from the bullion convoy. He made himself smile and reached out a hand. ‘May I?’
Cato took a coin at random and raised it up to inspect it closely.
‘They’re genuine,’ said Sinius, and chuckled. ‘Unless the Emperor has been debasing the currency.’
With a nod of satisfaction, Cato replaced the coin and gave the officer a searching stare. ‘If I – if we – agree to join you and your friends, then you’ll just give me this money? There has to be a catch.’
‘Not a catch. More of a test. You do as you are asked and the silver is yours.’
‘What kind of a test?’ Cato asked suspiciously.
‘The kind that puts your loyalty to us beyond doubt, and at the same time furthers our aims.’ Sinius gently closed the lid of the box and looked steadily at Cato. ‘It’s simple enough. I want you to kill Centurion Lurco. He is to disappear without trace. Within the next ten days. Do that and you will be welcomed by my friends. Fail in the act and we will not trust your competence. Fail to even attempt it and we will be obliged to treat you as a threat.’
‘I see.’ Cato smiled grimly. ‘Kill or be killed.’
‘That’s right. The credo of all soldiers, regardless of the circumstances. Should be an easy enough decision for you to make. I give you until dawn to let me know.’