CHAPTER TEN

A thick pall of smoke from the direction of the Forum billowed into the afternoon sky as the column of litters and soldiers made their way down the Viminal Hill towards the centre of the city. Even though news of the riot had spread through the streets, many people were still going about their business and hurried out of the way of Centurion Lurco and the two sections leading the party. The Germans closed ranks around the litters carrying the Emperor, the Empress and the two boys. The rest of the Sixth Century filled in the gaps between the remaining litters and brought up the rear.

Cato, Macro and fourteen other men were under the command of Tigellinus as they marched behind a litter shared by Narcissus and two other advisers, including the man Macro had seen with Agrippina. They were marching four abreast, with Fuscius to Macro’s right and a surly youth beyond him. After a quick look to make certain that the optio was facing forward, Macro spoke softly to Fuscius.

‘See the men in the litter directly ahead of us?’

‘Yes.’

‘I recognise Narcissus, but who are the others?’

‘The one opposite him, the one with the good looks, is Pallas. One of those bloody freedmen the Emperor insists on surrounding himself with. The other one’s Seneca, Nero’s tutor and adviser.’

‘I see.’ Macro glanced to his left at Cato and cocked an eyebrow before realising that it was pointless beneath his helmet. ‘Pallas, eh? I wonder what he’s up to?’

‘Up to?’ Fuscius turned his head to Macro. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Nothing.’

Before they could say another word, Tigellinus glared over his shoulder. ‘Silence in the ranks! Keep your bloody mouths shut and your eyes and ears open!’

They progressed in silence and as they drew closer to the Forum the street ahead of them began to empty. A few small groups of anxious-looking civilians hurried by, squeezing past the column with barely a comment or look of surprise as they glimpsed the imperial litter with its barbarian escort. The roar of the mob was clearly audible now, and soon they could discern distinct shouts of anger and even a shrill scream of terror. The smoke was dense and acrid. Wafts reached the column as it entered the square where Cato and Macro had been involved in the brawl a few nights earlier. Cato looked over towards the inn and saw its owner closing the shutters of a window that looked out on to the public fountain, before scurrying inside and closing the doors. A thin and frail-looking woman sat on the edge of the fountain nursing a crying infant with bulging eyes and skeletal arms. She watched the soldiers and litters passing by for a moment before struggling to her feet and limping across to them, holding her free hand out.

‘Spare a sestertius for me baby?’ Her voice was weak and strained. ‘For the love of Jupiter, spare a coin. We ain’t fed for days, sir.’ She made to intercept Tigellinus but the optio turned on her with a snarl.

‘Clear off, you slut! Take your brat with you. Before I use this!’ He brandished his optio’s staff at the woman and she cowered back with a screech of terror.

Macro gritted his teeth in contempt for the optio and muttered, ‘Glad to see that our optio’s got the guts to stand up to a half-starved woman.’

‘Shhh!’ Cato warned him.

They left the square and continued down the road. A short distance further on, the column came across the first body. An overweight man lay sprawled in the gutter. He had been stripped of all but his loincloth and the mangled stumps on his hand showed where ring fingers had been cut off. His skull had been crushed by frenzied blows. A short distance away was a bakery that had been smashed and looted. The column was passing through the fringes of the Subura, a district of the city that was notorious for its poverty and crime. The crowded tenement blocks reduced the gloomy light further and the rank air caught in Cato’s throat as their footsteps echoed off the grimy walls.

As they reached the foot of the hill, there was a sudden outburst of shouting from the front of the column and Cato craned his neck to see Centurion Lurco confronting a small crowd of men who had spilled out of a side street into the path of the Emperor and his retinue.

‘Clear the way there!’ Lurco shouted, his high voice carrying above the shouting. ‘Make way for the Emperor!’

‘It’s Claudius!’ a voice responded. ‘Stand firm, boys. Let’s put our grievances to the Emperor.’

Lurco threw up his arm ‘Column, halt!’

There was little co-ordination possible among the Praetorians, Germans and slaves carrying the litters and the column shuffled to a disorderly stop. Over the heads of the men in front of him Cato could see that many of the men in the crowd were armed with staves, axes and clubs. Lurco warily stepped forward to confront the crowd as more people joined it, shouting and gesturing angrily.

‘You will clear the way for the Emperor, now! There will not be another warning!’

‘Claudius!’ the ringleader bellowed. ‘Your people are starving! Feed us!’

‘Get out of the way!’ Lurco bellowed then looked back over his shoulder. ‘Draw swords!’ he ordered.

There was a metallic clatter as the soldiers pulled their swords from their scabbards and held them ready. The ringleader stepped forward and Cato recognised him at once.

‘Cestius.’

Macro looked up at Cato. ‘The big bastard from the inn?’

‘Yes.’

‘Shit. He’s trouble.’

Cestius approached the head of the column and called out loudly enough for all his followers to hear clearly, ‘What’s this? A party on its way to a banquet, I’ll be bound.’ He turned back to the crowd. ‘While we go hungry, while our children slowly starve to death, this lot stuff their fat faces with delicacies, then throw it all back up, just so they can feed again!’

Some men in the crowd shouted angrily and waved their fists. Cestius turned towards the soldiers. ‘We’re not moving. We want to put our demands to the Emperor. We want bread and grain at a price we can afford. You, Centurion, get out of our way. We demand to speak to Claudius!’

As the mob roared their approval, Lurco withdrew into the front rank of his men and drew his blade. ‘Protect the litters! On my word, advance at the slow step! Optio, call the pace! Shields front!’

The decurion in charge of the Germans formed his men up around the Emperor’s litter while the Praetorians surrounded the others. They angled their shields to screen those huddling down in the litters and held their short stabbing swords level to the ground, elbows bent and weapon ready to thrust. Cato felt his heart beating quickly and the chill in his guts and limbs that always came upon him before a fight. Then he was aware of movement at the periphery of his vision and glanced to the side just in time to see the dim shapes of men filtering down an alley to his right. He looked quickly to the other side and saw more coming from the other direction, and yet more, further back, sprinting across an intersection as they cut round the column to try to surround it.

‘Look there!’ He pointed them out to Macro with his sword. ‘It’s a trap.’

Before Macro could respond, there was a shout from ahead. ‘Advance!’

‘One! Two!’ Tigellinus called the pace and the leading Praetorians moved forward, shield to shield. Behind the first sections came the Germans and the imperial litter, then Narcissus and the advisers, followed by Tigellinus and his men. For a moment the crowd fell silent and then Cestius roared, ‘Kill! Kill them!’

A brick hurtled over the gap between the soldiers and the mob and glanced off a shield before thudding on to the thick fabric covering the Emperor’s litter. There was a cry of terror from within. More missiles filled the air: bricks, fragments of paving and lumps of filth scooped up from the gutter. More came from the sides, hurled from the alleys at the flanks of the column caught in the narrow street. Step by step they moved forward. Ahead of them the mob held their ground until the last moment and then began to press back, but those behind who could not see the Praetorians did not move and blocked their retreat. Men scrambled to the side of the street in panic and pressed into the arches and doorways of the tenements. Some managed to escape down the side alleys but a number were caught in the path of the Praetorians.

‘Don’t stop for anything!’ Lurco shouted.

With Tigellinus steadily calling the pace, the Praetorians reached the mob and thrust forward with their shields, battering the nearest men. Then the first sword stabbed out, tearing into the side of a struggling figure. He screamed in agony before slumping down on to the street. At last those at the rear of the crowd realised the danger and began to fall back. But it was too late for those at the front. The Praetorians pushed their shields forward relentlessly, stabbing into the flesh of those before them. Some of the wounded fell to the ground where the soldiers trod over them, others were caught tight in the suffocating press of bodies and were stabbed again and again, screaming with pain and terror.

Over the top of his shield Cato saw the tall figure of Cestius push his way through to an alley where he disappeared with several of his men. Ahead, the mob at last began to break up, leaving several dead and injured bodies in its wake. Those who had had enough fled from the scene to find shelter, or easier pickings. But over a hundred remained, staying beyond reach of the swords as they hurled whatever came to hand at the imperial party. The missiles thudded and cracked off shields and helmets, but the slaves carrying the litters had no protection and already four of them had been felled. One was knocked cold by a blow to the head and blood gushed from a long tear in his scalp. Two of the others had also received head wounds. They released their hold on the litters and staggered to the side of the street before collapsing. The last was clutching his smashed elbow and groaning through clenched teeth. The remaining slaves were struggling under their increased burden and their way was impeded by bodies sprawled across their path. Then one of the slaves carrying the imperial secretary’s litter stumbled and the litter thudded down, almost pitching Narcissus into the gutter. Cato saw that the slaves could not hope to make any speed along the street.

‘Get out of the litter!’ he ordered Narcissus. ‘You and the others. You have to abandon the litter. Keep your heads down and stay behind the Praetorians.’

Narcissus nodded and the Emperor’s advisers slithered off the cushioned interior and their expensive boots squelched down into the filth-caked street.

‘Who gave that order?’ Tigellinus yelled from the other side of the litter.

‘Me, sir. Capito.’

‘Are you the bloody centurion, Capito? You don’t give orders, you obey them.’ Tigellinus ducked down to peer through the other side of the litter at the freedmen. ‘Best get back in. I’ll have some of my men make up the slave numbers.’

Narcissus shook his head. ‘They’d only go the same way as the slaves. Your man is right, we have to abandon the litters. I’ll tell the Emperor.’

Tigellinus shot a furious glance at Cato and then nodded. ‘As you wish, sir.’

‘You, Capito, and the short fellow.’ Narcissus beckoned. ‘I need protection. Cover me with your shields. Let’s go.’

With Cato and Macro on either side, holding their shields over the imperial secretary, Narcissus emerged from the ring of Praetorians and the three men made their way the short distance to the Germans screening the imperial litter. Cato winced as a brick struck his shield. At their approach the Germans parted to let them through. Cato saw that five of the twelve slaves carrying the ornately decorated litter had already fallen, and the others could barely keep the litter off the ground. He turned to Narcissus. ‘You have to get the Emperor and the others out, or we won’t be able to move.’

‘I understand.’ Narcissus nodded nervously, ducking as a turd flew close overhead. He drew back the curtain to reveal the Emperor protecting Britannicus in his embrace. Next to him sat the Empress cradling Nero’s head in her lap. Claudius looked up anxiously and his head twitched.

‘Sire, the Praetorians say we have to continue on foot.’

‘On f-f-foot?’

‘Yes, sire. We won’t be able to get the litters much further. It would be dangerous to try.’

‘But there are madmen out there!’ Agrippina protested. ‘Just drop the curtain and get us back to the palace. I order it.’

‘I regret to say that there is no choice in the matter, your imperial majesty. Either we move now or we will be stuck here, at their mercy.’

‘Where are the urban cohorts?’ demanded Agrippina. ‘They should be dealing with those scum. They’ll find us if we stay here.’

Narcissus shook his head. ‘They probably don’t even know what’s happening.’ He turned to the Emperor. ‘We have to continue on foot, sire. Now.’

Claudius turned to his wife. ‘The soldiers know best, my d-dear. Come, let’s not show any fear in front of the m-m-mob.’

Narcissus helped his Emperor out and then handed out Agrippina and the two boys. Claudius put a protective arm round his wife and faced Cato and Macro.

‘You two, guard the children.’

‘Yes, sire.’ Cato bowed his head and then gestured for Nero to join him. ‘Calidus, you take the smaller boy.’

Macro nodded. ‘Over here, young ‘un.’

Britannicus frowned. ‘That is not how you address me, soldier.’

‘It is right now.’ Macro gently took his shoulder and drew him behind his shield.

The decurion of the German bodyguards called to his men to form a cordon round the Emperor and then Narcissus cupped a hand and shouted towards the leading sections a short distance ahead. ‘Centurion! Centurion!’

Lurco heard the shout, glanced back and then ordered his men to hold their position before he made his way to the other party, hunched close into his shield.

‘We’re leaving the litters behind,’ Narcissus explained. ‘Gather your men together and we’ll make our way across the Forum to the palace. It’s not too far now.’

Lurco shook his head desperately. ‘It would be safer to return to the camp. We have to escape. Before it’s too late.’

‘No, sir,’ Cato interrupted and pointed his sword back up the street. ‘Look!’

A hundred paces behind them another small crowd had gathered in the shadows between the tenement blocks and was already beginning to edge towards them.

‘Shit … shit,’ Lurco muttered, his lip beginning to tremble.

Cato made to say something, but Macro acted first. He thrust himself towards the centurion, sheathed his sword and grasped the officer’s shoulder. ‘Pull yourself together, sir,’ he said harshly. ‘Your Emperor’s life is in your hands. All of our lives are. Get the men together, shield to shield, and get them moving, or we’re fucked.’ He saw the dazed look in the officer’s face and shook him hard. ‘Sir!’

Lurco blinked, then his eyes flickered towards the imperial family and he swallowed. ‘Yes, of course. Right.’ He raised his head and called to Tigellinus. ‘Optio!’

‘Sir?’

‘Bring the rest of the century forward. Form up by the Germans!’

While the men guarding the Emperor’s advisers trotted towards them, Lurco turned to Macro and Cato. ‘You guard those children with your lives. Understand?’

‘Yes, sir.’ Macro nodded. ‘They’ll be safe with us.’

Once Pallas and Seneca had joined Claudius and his family, the soldiers closed up behind their shields, protecting the slaves as well, and Lurco gave the order for the makeshift formation to advance. The leading sections waited until the rest caught up and then they continued as one body. Meanwhile the crowd behind them had grown bold enough to come closer and hurl insults before following those up with the first stones and broken roof tiles drawn from a pile of rubble at the corner of one of the alleys. Cato and Macro held their shields up and bent forward to use their bodies to protect their charges. Cato had sheathed his sword and had his right hand on Nero’s shoulder so that they would keep in step. He felt the boy trembling beneath the folds of his toga.

‘It’s all right.’ Cato spoke in a comforting tone. ‘We’ll have you back in the palace as soon as we can.’

Nero didn’t reply for a moment and then Cato just caught his words. ‘I’m scared.’

‘My friend and I have been in far worse situations.’

Nero looked up at him. ‘But I haven’t.’

‘Then look on this as a chance to be brave. It is a good thing to learn while you are young.’

Nero nodded uncertainly and took a deep breath to calm his nerves as they picked their way forward. Around them the Germans began to call out a battle chant in their harsh tongue and rapped the guards of their swords against the inside of their shields. Cato straightened up for a moment and saw that there were no more than fifty paces to go before the street gave out on to the open space in front of the Temple of Minerva, on the edge of the Forum.

‘Not far before we’re in the open, lads,’ Macro called out encouragingly.

There was a shout from above and an instant later a roof tile exploded on the ground beside Macro. Britannicus let out a startled cry as a shard gashed his hand. Macro drew the boy in closer and called out a warning.

‘Some of the bastards are in the buildings. Keep your heads covered!’

More tiles came down from above and risking a quick look Cato glimpsed a figure lean out of a window, take aim and hurl a tile on to the head of one of the Germans. It struck him on the helmet, driving his head away at an angle, and he pitched over to the side. At once two of his comrades sheathed their swords and picked him up under the arms and dragged him along with the formation. With missiles clattering in from all directions, the soldiers instinctively increased their pace and those at the front began to pull away as they sought to get away from the danger from above.

‘Not so fast there!’ Tigellinus yelled. ‘Stay together, damn you!’

He pushed his way to the front, brushing by Centurion Lurco, and used the flat of his sword to smack the shields of those who were moving too fast. ‘No man goes by me! I set the pace and you follow!’

By the time they reached the end of the street, another two men had been struck down among the defenceless slaves huddled together at the rear of the party. One was dead and lay stretched out in the street. The other’s foot had been smashed and he limped along, falling out of formation and desperately struggling to keep up. Then the crowd caught up with him and they showed him no pity, even though he was simply a slave and quite blameless. His screams cut through the air and chilled Cato’s blood before they were mercifully cut off and the mob surged forward once again.

As the party reached the precinct of the temple, the full scale of the riot was apparent for the first time. Several stalls in the Forum close to the senate house were ablaze and the breeze swirled the flames and smoke so that the fire writhed like a wild animal chained to a stake. The avenue leading into the Forum was littered with bodies, many still living, and their piteous cries filled the air. Cato noticed some wore the uniform of the urban cohorts. Many more market stalls had been smashed to pieces and only scattered remnants indicated the trade of the stall’s owner. A handful of ragged beggars and street children were looting the bodies for whatever valuables they could find. At the sight of the clusters of men who preceded the imperial party, most of the looters hurried into the safety of the Subura’s alleys.

As soon as they were out in the open, the optio picked up the pace and the rioters moved out of their way, keeping a wary distance from the soldiers and their swords. Ahead, in the heart of the Forum, the din of the rioters was much louder, amplified and echoing off the temples and palaces that surrounded the Forum. Cato saw that Nero was terrified by the sights and sounds that surrounded him, yet they still had to cross the Forum and gain the entrance to the palace, assuming the mob had not broken through the gates and sacked the complex. With luck there would be some elements of the urban cohorts on hand who would rally to the Emperor and his bodyguards and escort them to safety.

The avenue narrowed between the Markets of Caesar and the Temple of Janus, and then there was a short stretch of colonnade before the main Forum.

‘Not far now!’ the optio called out to the others. ‘Stay together and keep your eyes open.’

The walls on either side closed in and the last of the rioters who had tormented them fell back and only a few more missiles were thrown. After the harsh battering of shields and armour, the scraping thud of the soldiers’ nailed boots suddenly seemed very loud. Cato was aware of the heavy breathing of the German bodyguards and the Emperor was muttering something incomprehensible as he limped along beside his wife, his weak legs making him look like a wet spider dragging himself from a puddle.

The attack came just as they reached the end of the colonnade.

With a roar, men streamed out from between the towering stone columns and threw themselves at the soldiers. Unlike the other rioters, these men were armed with a mix of spears, axes, swords, clubs and daggers, and well prepared for a fight. They drove into the shield cordon from both sides, trying to rip away the shields and strike at the soldiers. Cato pulled Nero closer in to his shield.

‘Stay with me.’ He spoke into Nero’s ear. ‘Whatever happens!’

He looked round and saw that the attackers were concentrating on the front and rear of the column, where the Praetorians were positioned. As yet the Germans had not been engaged and they crouched expectantly, round shields up and their longer swords held at the ready. Then Cato saw a stream of men running from the shadows inside the temple. These were armed with swords and at their head was the now familiar face of Cestius. His expression was fixed in determined hostility as he leaped down into the narrow avenue and made directly for the Emperor and his family. Cestius’s men formed a narrow wedge on either side as they plunged in among the Germans. Cato saw Cestius duck a clumsy sword cut and clamp his hand round the bodyguard’s windpipe and crush it in one quick move. He thrust the gasping man aside and looked round quickly until he saw the two boys. Macro was closer and turned to face the threat, still trying his best to protect Britannicus.

With a savage roar Cestius rushed forward, knocking aside another German. Macro’s sword came up and thrust out. At the last instant Cestius parried it aside with a ringing clash of blades and smashed into Macro and knocked him flat on his back. Britannicus stood alone and defenceless but Cestius spared the boy only a brief glance before sweeping him aside and charging on towards Cato, his teeth bared.

There was no time to think and Cato went down on one knee, angling his shield as he pushed Nero to the ground. A look of surprise flashed across Cestius’s face the instant before he tripped and fell heavily across the shield, flattening those beneath. Cato felt the hot rush of expelled breath from the other man’s lungs. He pushed into the shield, straining with all his might, and Cestius rolled to one side, coming up on his knees, sword raised. His spare hand grabbed at the edge of the shield and he ripped it away to reveal Nero dazed and winded. The giant’s eyes filled with triumphant zeal as the point of his sword descended.

‘No!’ Cato shouted, throwing his body over the boy. The sleeve of his tunic caught the tip of the oncoming blade and there was a sound of ripping material and then a burning streak across his right bicep.

‘Bastard!’ Cestius snarled, drawing back his arm. Then he glanced up and saw Macro looming before him an instant before the boss of Macro’s shield struck him square in the face. Cestius fell back with a groan, his sword clattering to one side. He trembled for an instant and then lay still, his breath rasping.

‘Lad, are you all right?’ Macro called anxiously as he crouched beside Cato. He saw the rent in the tunic and the bright scarlet spreading across the exposed flesh of Cato’s arm and shoulder.

‘Nero?’ Cato turn to look for his charge and saw the boy struggling up into a sitting position, unharmed. The wave of relief lasted only a moment before the burning agony from his wound struck Cato.

‘Cestius is down!’ a voice cried out nearby. ‘Cestius is down! Fall back!’

As quickly as the men had attacked, they broke off, retreating from the soldiers before turning and running back into the colonnade, the sound of their boots echoing off the temple walls. Macro helped Cato to his feet. The swift attack had been deadly enough. Several of the Praetorians and Germans had been struck down, as well as a similar number of the attackers. The Emperor was swallowing nervously and Agrippina’s eyes were wide with terror, but neither they nor their children had been harmed.

‘Pick up the wounded!’ Tigellinus ordered. ‘Close up!’ He looked round for his centurion and saw Lurco rising up from the street with a sheepish expression. ‘We should move on, sir. Quickly, in case those men come back.’

‘Yes.’ Lurco nodded. ‘Of course.’ The centurion cleared his throat. ‘The Sixth Century will advance!’

Once again the column re-formed its shield wall round the freshly wounded, the surviving slaves and civilians and moved out into the Forum. Macro picked up Cato’s sword and replaced it in his friend’s scabbard and then pulled the torn tunic aside to examine the wound. ‘You’re bleeding badly but it looks like a flesh wound. Painful, but you’ll recover.’

‘Since when were you a bloody surgeon?’ Cato replied through clenched teeth as he adjusted his grip on the shield and held it up to protect Nero again. Then he quickly turned back to Macro. ‘Cestius?’

‘What about him?’

‘We should have taken him with us.’

Macro chuckled. ‘You mean we should have killed him.’

‘That was an ambush.’ Cato lowered his voice so that only Macro might hear. ‘There’s more to this than there seems. We need to question Cestius.’

Macro looked round. Several men had already emerged from the colonnade to carry off the bodies of the dead and wounded from the brief skirmish. Cestius had disappeared. ‘It’s too late.’

Cato thought quickly. He could tell Centurion Lurco to turn back and try to recover Cestius before he was taken away, but Lurco was badly shaken and wanted nothing more than to reach safety without delay. The only way Cato could stop him would be to expose his true identity and try to pull rank on the other officer. Narcissus would have to vouch for him. And by the time that was established it would be too late to send men back for Cestius.

‘What’s so important about this Cestius?’ asked Nero.

‘Nothing.’

‘Nothing?’ Nero gasped. ‘That man tried to kill me.’

Cato stared at him briefly then looked up as he kept pace with the other soldiers. The entire length of the Forum was littered with evidence of the severity of the riot. Scores of bodies lay on the ground. The doors of some of the temples had been forced and discarded loot lay on their steps. Several handcarts had been turned over or simply stripped of their contents. To the right, the fire in Caesar’s Market was still raging but a company of fire-fighters was already attempting to contain the blaze, with lines of men passing buckets of water from the public fountains. Elsewhere the men of the urban cohorts had almost cleared the Forum, except for a few running battles with gangs of men throwing rocks around the Temple of Venus to the east. Slowly the tension in the small party eased as they realised that the crisis had passed and they were safe.

A century from one of the urban cohorts was guarding the entrance to the palace and hurriedly drew aside as they saw the Emperor. The column passed through into a small courtyard where Lurco gave the order for his men to fall out. Both the Praetorians and the Germans were shaken by the ordeal and leant on their spears and shields to recover their breath. Now that they were all safe, the normal hierarchy reasserted itself. The surviving slaves were ordered back to their quarters and Claudius was composed as he stood by his wife and called the boys to him. Britannicus clutched his father’s arm. Narcissus hurried over to the Emperor.

‘Sire, are you hurt?’ he asked anxiously.

Claudius shook his head. ‘N-no. Quite all right.’

‘Jupiter be praised!’ Narcissus rejoiced, then turned to the Empress. ‘Your majesty?’

‘Unharmed.’ Agrippina smiled coldly.

Narcissus turned to Britannicus and quickly looked him over to satisfy himself that the boy had received no injuries other than that to his hand. Then he saw Nero and with a flicker of anguish approached the boy who still stood beside Cato.

‘I saw the man attack you. I thank the gods that you were spared.’

Nero nodded towards Cato. ‘This man saved my life.’

Narcissus looked up and met Cato’s gaze without a hint of recognition. ‘Very well, I shall see that he is rewarded.’

‘You do that,’ Macro added quietly.

Nero turned to Cato and looked him in the eye. ‘I am in your debt, soldier. What is your name?’

‘Titus Ovidius Capito, sir.’

Nero’s gaze switched to the blood-soaked tear in the tunic on Cato’s shoulder. ‘Get your wound attended to, Capito. I shall not forget this. I never forget a face. One day, I shall repay you.’ He lowered his voice so that only Cato could hear. ‘One day I shall be Emperor. If you ever need my help, then it is yours. I give you my most sacred promise.’

He grasped Cato’s hand and squeezed it firmly before he released his grip and turned away to join his mother and the Emperor. Narcissus watched him go then turned to fix Cato with an icy stare before he scurried back to comfort his master.

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