Emperor Claudius eased himself down on to the padded throne in the small audience chamber he used for his routine business. Through the arched windows running along one of the walls the first glimmer of the coming dawn illuminated the city’s skyline and the first bird calls of the day carried into the palace. Neither the pink tinge in the sky nor the light-hearted chorus of the sparrows touched the hearts or minds of those gathered in the chamber.
The room was lined with German bodyguards hastily summoned from their quarters where Prefect Geta had confined them a few hours before. The bodies of the prefect and Centurion Sinius lay in the centre of the room. Sinius had a wound to his throat while Geta had been stabbed in the heart. The surviving members of their party stood behind the bodies, their hands bound in front of them, their expressions fearful. Centurion Tigellinus stood a small distance apart, flanked by two of the Germans. Cato and Macro, still in their soiled tunics, were also under guard. The Empress, Nero and Britannicus sat on stools to one side of the Emperor’s throne and on the other side were the Emperor’s closest advisers, Narcissus and Pallas, together with Tribune Burrus.
Claudius’s gaze slowly travelled round the occupants of the chamber and Cato could see that he was still badly shaken by the attempt on his life. A small nick in his cheek had bled unchecked for a while and a streak of dried blood ran down his jowl and had stained a small patch at the top of his white tunic. He leant forward, resting his elbow on his knee as his fingers nervously stroked his jaw. At length he eased himself back and cleared his throat.
‘By the gods, someone is going to p-pay for this.’ He thrust his finger at the two corpses. ‘That is the f-f-fate of anyone connected with this conspiracy. I want their heads mounted in the Forum for all to see. I want their f-families sent into exile. Their sympathisers will be sent to the lions in the ar-arena.’ He swallowed and coughed as he choked on his rage. The coughing continued for a moment, and his head twitched violently as he struggled to regain control. At length the fit passed and he glowered at the bodies in silence, until the silence became unbearable. Narcissus bit his lip and then took a quiet step forward to draw his master’s attention.
‘Sire? Perhaps it would be best to begin with Tribune Burrus’s report,’ Narcissus suggested.
Claudius thought a moment and then nodded. ‘Yes … Yes. Good. Well, Tribune? Explain yourself. Keep it to the p-point.’
All eyes were on Burrus as he strode forward and faced the Emperor directly. As usual he was immaculately turned out and his crested helmet was tucked under his arm. He bowed his head curtly before he began.
‘I called the men out as soon as Optio Fuscius told me what was going on, sire. I took the first available section and gathered more men as we made for the imperial suite. By the time we got to your study the traitors had fled, so I sent the men out to search the gardens. That’s where they found the bodies, and those three.’ He indicated Tigellinus, Cato and Macro. ‘They were making all sorts of claims so I ordered that they be held under guard while I made sure that you and your family were safe, sire, and that there was no sign of any further traitors hiding in the gardens or in the imperial suite. As soon as I discovered Prefect Geta’s part in the plot I gave instructions for his orders to be revoked. The Germans were sent for and the rest of the Praetorians assigned to guard the palace were recalled from outside and repositioned to protect the imperial palace and prevent anyone from entering or leaving without your permission. That’s when I received your summons to come here, sire,’ Burrus concluded with a brief nod.
Claudius nodded and pursed his lips. He pointed to Cato and Macro. ‘And you two? What’s your st-story? I seem to recognise you. Have I seen you before?’
‘Yes, sire,’ Cato answered. ‘During the campaign in Britannia, and here in the palace some years before. And we were there, at your side, when the imperial party was attacked in the Forum. And when the dam collapsed below the Albine Lake.’
‘Oh?’ Claudius narrowed his eyes. ‘I see you wear the tunics of Praetorians, but you look like beggars from the F-f-f-forum. What was your part in the night’s events, eh? Are you part of the conspiracy?’
‘No, sire. Centurion Macro and I led the party that saved you in your study.’
‘Did you now? … Centurion Macro, you say? And who are you then, young man?’
‘Prefect Cato, sir. Before that, a centurion in the Second Legion.’
‘But you wear the tunic of the Praetorians, like those t-traitors lying there on the floor. Burrus, are these two yours?’
‘Yes, sire.’ Burrus frowned. ‘They joined the Guard several weeks ago. Promoted from the legions. At least that was their story. They went by the names of Capito and Calidus. Now they claim to be Prefect Cato and Centurion Macro.’
‘So then.’ Claudius turned back to Cato and Macro. ‘What were two legionary officers doing in the P-p-praetorian Guard, under false names? Unless you were part of the plot against me.’
Narcissus stepped forward with a light cough. ‘Sire, I can vouch for these men. They are indeed officers from the legions. It was I who summoned them to Rome to carry out a mission, in your service, sire.’
‘Mission? What m-mission?’
‘You recall the matter of the theft of the silver bullion, sire?’
‘Of course. I’m old, not st-stupid.’
‘Indeed, sire.’ Narcissus bowed his head. ‘Then you will remember that I reported discovering a connection between the theft of the silver and certain members of the Praetorian Guard. Men who I suspected were linked to the Liberators.’
Claudius nodded. ‘Continue.’
‘In order to pursue my investigation I needed some men on the inside, sire. Cato and Macro have served you well before and such is their loyalty to you that they willingly agreed to risk their lives and go under cover in an effort to penetrate the conspiracy.’
‘Agreed?’ Macro whispered. ‘That’s pushing it.’
‘Their mission was dangerous,’ Narcissus continued. ‘But between their efforts and those of my most trusted agents, we were able to identify the ringleaders of the conspiracy, as well as uncovering the full scope of the plot, sire. We discovered that the traitors were behind the grain shortage. They intended to provoke civil disorder by deliberately starving your people. Luckily the Liberators’ grain hoard has been located and it is now under the protection of one of the urban cohorts, sire.’ Narcissus paused and coughed. ‘I gave the order in your name, if you’ll forgive me.’
The Emperor’s eyes lit up and he leant forward. ‘This grain is safe, you say? Then we must start feeding the m-m-mob as soon as p-possible.’
‘I have already given the orders to begin moving the grain to the palace, sire, so that you may take credit for restoring the grain dole.’
‘Very good!’ Claudius smiled in relief. Then he waved a hand. ‘Go on.’
Narcissus paused a moment as he looked meaningfully at Centurion Tigellinus. ‘Although two of the officers who led the plot are dead, and the other would-be assassins are also dead, or captured, there are still others involved in the conspiracy against you. Or, more precisely, the two conspiracies.’
Claudius frowned. ‘Two? Explain yourself.’
Narcissus gestured towards Cato and Macro. ‘My agents discovered the existence of a parallel plot, sire. The Liberators were not the only traitors working towards your downfall. The collapse of the dam and the attempt to disrupt the Naumachia were the handiwork of other conspirators. Those who hoped to turn the Liberators’ efforts to their own ends …’ Narcissus turned towards Tigellinus and paced slowly round him so that he could look back, in the direction of Pallas, before he resumed. ‘It was only with tonight’s attempt on your life that I began to grasp the scope of their plans. It was their intention to do what they could to help the Liberators murder you, sire. And then make use of the chaos to replace you with their choice of Emperor.’
Cato saw the blood drain from Pallas’s face as the imperial secretary outlined his thoughts. Pallas glanced quickly at Agrippina before he got control of himself and stared rigidly at his rival, Narcissus.
‘Who are these other traitors then?’ the Emperor demanded. ‘Who do they intend to r-replace me with?’
Narcissus turned and bowed his head towards Nero. ‘Your adopted son.’
Claudius sucked in his breath and turned towards Nero. ‘Is this true?’
The boy’s jaw sagged and he shook his head. Before he could speak, Agrippina jumped to her feet with a furious expression and stabbed a finger at Narcissus. ‘He’s a liar! Like all these Greek freedmen you choose to surround yourself with.’
‘How dare you accuse my son?’ Agrippina said furiously. ‘How dare you?’
‘I did not accuse him of taking part in the conspiracy,’ Narcissus responded loudly enough to override her protest. ‘I said that there were others who wished to use Nero to replace the Emperor. Presumably so that they could manipulate him for their own ends.’
‘Who are these traitors?’ Claudius repeated, his mind concentrating sufficiently to eclipse his stammer. ‘Name them.’
‘I can’t, sire. Not yet. Not quite,’ Narcissus apologised, even as he looked at both Pallas and Agrippina. ‘But I know the identity of one man close to the heart of the second conspiracy. Notably this officer.’ He pointed at Centurion Tigellinus. ‘My agents, Cato and Macro, caught him with the bodies of the two officers who led the attempt on your life, Prefect Geta and Centurion Sinius. He was with them then, and he fled with them, and it is clear that he killed them in order to cover up his part in the plot. Naturally, the centurion protested his innocence, and claimed to have chased them down and engaged them in combat before killing them.’
‘That is the truth, sire,’ Tigellinus cut in calmly.
‘No, it is a lie,’ Narcissus responded. ‘As will be proved when you are handed over to my interrogators who will find out exactly who your accomplices are. They have something of a knack for getting answers out of traitors.’
Tigellinus looked at Agrippina and she glanced at Pallas and discreetly made a gesture to urge his intervention. Pallas licked his lips anxiously and then stepped forward.
‘Sire, this man, Centurion Tigellinus, is innocent. I swear it.’
‘Oh?’ Narcissus could not help a small smile. ‘And how can you be so certain?’
‘He is working for me,’ Pallas replied. ‘He has been from the start.’
Claudius looked confused. ‘This traitor is your agent?’
‘He is no traitor, sire,’ Pallas replied. ‘I too had discovered that the Liberators were plotting to bring you down. Like Narcissus I decided to place a man inside the conspiracy to find out who was behind it. Is this not true, Centurion?’
‘That’s right.’ Tigellinus nodded steadily. ‘That was the plan.’
‘Even though we did our best to infiltrate the conspiracy, we were unable to achieve as much as my esteemed colleague and his team.’ Pallas bowed his head politely towards Narcissus who responded to the words of praise with an icy, hate-filled glare. ‘Tigellinus was still in the process of gathering intelligence tonight when your enemies struck, sire. However, he did manage at least to warn the Empress and Prince Nero before they could be attacked.’
Claudius held up a hand to still Pallas’s tongue, and turned to his wife. ‘Is this true?’
Agrippina nodded. ‘He entered my sleeping chamber to tell me and Nero to go and hide. He said he would try to save you.’
Claudius stared at her. ‘Nero was in your room? In your bed?’
‘He could not sleep,’ Agrippina replied steadily. ‘The poor boy had a headache and I was comforting him.’
‘I see.’ Claudius turned to Pallas. ‘And how did you come to know this?’
‘That Tigellinus managed to warn my wife?’
‘She told me, as we were waiting for you here, a moment ago.’
‘Very well.’ The Emperor scratched his chin. ‘I think I’ll hear the rest of it from the centurion’s lips. Speak up, Tigellinus. What happened next?’
‘I left the Empress, sire, and ran to catch up with the traitors, but they had already burst into your study to attack you. I heard sounds of fighting then saw the traitors fleeing. I recognised Geta and Sinius and pursued them. I brought them to bay at the far end of the garden. They were forced to fight and, by the grace of Jupiter, I overcame them. That’s when Capito and – I beg your pardon, sire – that’s when the agents of Narcissus turned up, together with the Praetorians. Too late to be of assistance, alas,’ he added in a regretful tone.
‘So you say,’ Narcissus intervened. ‘But the truth is that you murdered these two officers to prevent them from implicating you. Far from investigating the Liberators’ conspiracy, you were actually doing everything you could to further it so that your masters could seize power in the name of Prince Nero, after the Emperor was killed. It’s clear that you warned the Empress to hide in order to preserve her and her son, and had no intention of doing anything to save the Emperor.’
Tigellinus shrugged. ‘It’s a nice story, freedman. But it’s still just a story.’
‘Oh, it’s more than a story,’ Narcissus sneered. ‘It’s no coincidence that the Empress, the Prince … and Pallas were not with the Emperor the day when the dam was sabotaged.’
‘Was it sabotaged? I had no idea.’
‘Then why did you attempt to kill Claudius when the water rushed down upon us?’
Tigellinus frowned. ‘I did no such thing.’
‘Yes you did.’ Narcissus turned to Cato. ‘Isn’t that right, Prefect Cato? If you had not intervened and reached the Emperor first, he would have been murdered. Is that not so?’
Cato was acutely aware of every eye upon him and felt his heart quicken with anxiety. Even though the truth was that Tigellinus, Pallas and Agrippina had been plotting the death of the Emperor, he was shrewd enough to see that they were covering their tracks adroitly. So far Narcissus had cleverly avoided accusing Pallas and Agrippina directly and had focused his accusations on Tigellinus. Under torture the centurion would inevitably confess their involvement and Narcissus’s case against them would be complete. But what if the imperial secretary failed to bring them down? Cato knew that if that happened, he and Macro would be sure to join Narcissus on their list of enemies – a danger that Cato could not ignore. He cleared his throat.
‘It was peculiar that the centurion was alone in not being surprised by the wave. He had stripped off his armour and was the first to react. That is why I placed myself between him and the Emperor.’
‘I was as surprised as anyone else,’ Tigellinus countered. ‘Should I be blamed for reacting to the danger more swiftly than you? Have you considered that your preventing me from coming to the Emperor’s aid might have actually increased the risk to his life?’
‘I was tasked with protecting the Emperor,’ said Cato. ‘Your actions were suspicious, to say the least. And, as the imperial secretary has pointed out, it was very convenient for you that those with most to gain from the Emperor’s death were not on the scene.’
‘I am not responsible for the whereabouts of members of the imperial household,’ Tigellinius said dismissively. ‘Whereas I am responsible for the safety of the Emperor and went to his aid the moment I perceived the danger to his life.’
‘Enough of your lies!’ Narcissus broke in. ‘Let’s put this matter in the hands of the interrogators. They’ll get to the bottom of things soon enough. Sire, may I give the order?’
Before Claudius could consider the question, Agrippina hurried to his side and knelt beside him. ‘My dearest Claudius, we cannot let this good man suffer just because one of your servants suspects him of some kind of involvement in this awful plot by the Liberators.’ Her voice was low and sweet and she cast a pitying look at Tigellinus. ‘It would be a poor reward for saving my life and that of my son. Besides, Pallas has vouched for him.’
Claudius smiled at her. ‘Yes, but Narcissus has not, and I have learned to trust his judgement over the years.’
Agrippina took his hand and pressed it to the thin folds of material covering her breast. Claudius’s smile took on a distinct leer. She spoke again, in a lower, softer voice that was almost a purr. ‘Narcissus has worked tirelessly for you. I know that. But tired men make mistakes, my love. It’s only to be expected. The poor man is overwrought and is so used to seeing conspiracies that sometimes the simple truth escapes him. You’ve heard his accusations, and you have heard Tigellinus’s explanations of his conduct. I believe him.’
Claudius twisted round to cup her cheek with his spare hand, while keeping the other on her breast. ‘My dear, you are t-t-too good. Too innocent of the ways of men.’
Cato saw the panic etched on Narcissus’s face. The imperial secretary took a step towards his Emperor. ‘Sire, I suggest that we leave my interrogators to settle the matter. If Tigellinus is innocent we shall know soon enough. Better that he suffers a little than permit a traitor to go free.’
‘Please, Claudius, there’s been enough blood shed tonight,’ said Agrippina, then she moved her head slightly so that she could kiss the palm of his hand. As Cato watched, he saw her tongue dart out and flick over the Emperor’s skin and Claudius gave a little shudder of pleasure.
‘You’re right, my love.’ He smiled, then looked up at the others gathered in the audience chamber. ‘The plot against me has been crushed. The ringleaders are dead. All that m-m-matters now is to start feeding the people of Rome again. Pallas, you can take charge of that.’
‘With pleasure, sire.’ Pallas bowed low.
Claudius turned to Narcissus. ‘You have done well, my friend. Once again you have defeated my enemies and I am in your d-debt. But the Empress is right. We must not lash out in a blind panic. The centurion was carrying out Pallas’s instructions. I am indeed fortunate to have two such devoted servants …’ He paused and looked at Cato and Macro. ‘I owe my thanks to you …’ His brow creased.
‘Cato, sir,’ Cato filled in. ‘Prefect Cato and Centurion Macro.’
‘Cato and Macro. Fine work. You shall be rewarded. It is thanks to you that R-rome can be fed once more.’ He rose from his throne and approached them with a grateful smile. Then he stopped at arm’s length and sniffed the air and grimaced. ‘Yes, well. Good j-job. Better go and, er, get yourselves bathed and find some fresh t-t-tunics.’
‘Yes, sire,’ Cato and Macro replied with a smart bow of their heads.
Claudius forced another smile before shuffling back out of range of the odour emanating from their filthy tunics. He took Agrippina’s hand again and beamed dotingly at her. ‘Come, my love. It has been an eventful night. We could b-b-both do with a rest, eh?’
The Empress raised her plucked eyebrows suggestively. Claudius led her towards the rear door of the audience chamber. Then he paused and looked back at the prisoners who had been standing silently, hoping that they might have been overlooked. ‘Oh, and have those men executed. Their heads are to be mounted next to their leaders’. See to it, Pallas.’
Claudius turned back to his wife and continued towards the door with his awkward gait. Britannicus and Nero followed a short distance behind. The rest of the men in the chamber stood in silence until the Emperor and his family had left. Then they began to talk in muted tones. The Germans marched the prisoners away to their deaths while others removed the bodies of Geta and Sinius. Tigellinus turned to Cato and Macro with a smirk. ‘I hope for your sake that our paths don’t cross again.’
‘Don’t worry,’ Macro responded. ‘We’ll be quitting the Praetorians as soon as we can. Back to the proper army for us.’
‘Lucky you. Less pay, fewer prospects and the squalor of the frontier. I am positively consumed with envy.’
Macro grabbed the centurion’s tunic and pulled him close. ‘I know what you are,’ he said in a soft voice, dripping with menace. ‘You may have fooled the Emperor but we know the truth, Cato and me. If our paths do ever cross again, I swear I’ll kill you first and ask questions later.’
‘That would be rather pointless,’ Tigellinus observed as he reached up and pulled his tunic out of Macro’s fingers. ‘Now, if you’ll excuse me, I find your stench offensive.’ He backed away to a safe distance and took his place beside Pallas. The freedman could not help a triumphant grin as he faced Narcissus.
‘It’s not over,’ the imperial secretary said firmly. ‘You’ve won this round, but you won’t be able to fool the Emperor for ever.’
‘I won’t have to. How much longer do you suppose Claudius will live? Five years? Three? One?’ Pallas plucked at the hem of his tunic. ‘My boy is next in line to the purple. Britannicus is a spent force. Face it, you picked the wrong horse, Narcissus. I have Nero, I have his mother and the Emperor has given me the job of handing out the grain. I should think that makes me the most popular man in a starving city, don’t you? Meanwhile, what do you have? The Emperor’s gratitude, that’s what. How long do you think that’s going to work in your favour when Agrippina has her claws stuck into the old boy? Whatever your undoubted talents, I doubt that seducing a randy old man is among them.’ Pallas patted the imperial secretary on the shoulder. ‘Enjoy this moment, my old friend. There won’t be any more opportunities. You have my word on it. Come, Tigellinus.’ He beckoned to the centurion and headed towards the door of the chamber. ‘We must have a little talk about your future.’
Only Narcissus, Cato and Macro remained in the chamber. The imperial secretary stood and stared at the Emperor’s throne with a bitter, weary expression. Macro tugged his friend’s arm and spoke softly. ‘Come on, we’re done here. It’s over.’
‘Over?’ Cato shook his head. ‘How can you say that?’
‘The people will get their grain. The Emperor’s survived an assassination attempt. We’re still alive.’ Macro shrugged. ‘That’s as good a result as you can hope for in my book. Now, I could use a bath, a drink and some sleep. So could you. Let’s go, lad.’
‘Go? Go where? Back to the camp? Isn’t that going to be difficult now that our cover story has been exposed?’
‘Where else can we go? We don’t have any home outside of the barracks, Cato.’
Cato thought a moment, and nodded. Now that the plot had been foiled, they should be safe enough at the camp under their real names. For a few days at least, until some better arrangement could be made. Cato took one last look at the dejected imperial secretary. There was still one matter to be resolved.
‘Narcissus … We’ll talk later.’
‘Yes,’ Narcissus replied vaguely. Then he turned to face Cato with a calculating look. ‘Talk about what?’
‘The Liberators,’ Cato replied deliberately. ‘That, and your promise to find us postings back to the army, with confirmation of my promotion.’
‘I see. Yes.’ Narcissus nodded slowly. ‘We’ll speak later then.’