CHAPTER NINETEEN

As so often happens in April, a violent thunderstorm swept in from the west during the night and for the next two days and nights ominous dark clouds crowded the sky above Rome. The streets were shrouded in gloom, except for when brilliant bursts of lightning lit them up for an instant. Rain pelted down, hammering the tiled roofs, window shutters and paved streets. Rushing torrents swept down the streets and alleys of the capital, washing the dirt away and tumbling into the drains that fed the Great Sewer snaking beneath the heart of Rome before it joined the Tiber.

The population of the city sheltered indoors and for two days the streets were empty of the scavenging bands of the impoverished looking for scraps of food. The Emperor and his family did not venture out either. They remained in the palace and the men of Burrus’s cohort of the Praetorian Guard took it in turns to march from the camp to the palace through the downpour, huddled in their cloaks. Despite the animal fat worked into the wool to render them waterproof, the rain found its way through and into the tunics beneath the armour, chilling the flesh of the guardsmen as they stood on duty, shivering, until they were relieved in turn and marched back to their barracks in the Praetorian camp.

There was no chance for Cato and Macro to check the safe house for any messages as the new acting centurion of the Sixth Century refused to allow any of his men to leave the camp when off duty. At his first morning parade as their new commander Tigellinus announced that the century’s discipline had become lax under his predecessor. Henceforth, there would be an evening parade and extra drill, as well as their usual guard duty at the palace. The new optio was also relishing his promotion and bawled out his commands in emulation of Tigellinus. Tigellinus moved into Lurco’s quarters and left Macro and Cato to cope with Fuscius, who now decided everything in the section room, from what time the lamp was extinguished at night to which pegs were reserved for the optio’s use alone.

Macro did his best to keep his simmering irritation hidden. Cato, meanwhile, continued to ponder the mystery of the missing grain. He went over every detail of the search that he and Macro had conducted at the warehouse, as well as the information he had gleaned from the grain merchants’ guild and the clerk at the offices of Gaius Frontinus. How could so much grain disappear into the city without any apparent trace? It was a maddening puzzle for Cato which vexed him as he polished his kit and spread his cloak and tunics out to dry on the small wooden rack that was set up close to the section room’s compact brazier. Meanwhile, Macro dutifully headed out each evening to carry out his punishment in the latrines at the end of the block nearest the wall of the camp.

At last, on the third morning the storm blew away, leaving a clear blue sky in its wake and the sun soon began to heat the roofs and streets of Rome, sending tendrils of vapour twisting languidly into the air before they dispersed. The people began to emerge on to the streets, and once more the bodies of those who had starved to death or succumbed to an illness in their weakened state were carried out of the city gates in carts to be added to the many hundreds that had been placed in mass graves along the roads leading out of Rome.

Word arrived from the palace that the Emperor and his retinue would set out to inspect the engineering works and the preparations for the spectacle up at the Albine Lake. Burrus gave the command for the Fifth and Sixth centuries to form up and Tigellinus stormed through the barracks bellowing at his men to get their kit and form up ready to march. The soldiers of each section scrambled out, some still fastening chinstraps and buckling on their armour. When the last man was ready Tigellinus called them to attention and then inspected the ranks, pulling his men up on every minor infraction while Fuscius noted the crime and punishment on a waxed tablet. When the inspection was complete Tigellinus moved back and faced his new command, his fists resting on his hips.

‘No doubt some of you are still wondering what’s become of Lurco. As far as you’re concerned he’s dead. As far as he’s concerned he might as well be, once Tribune Burrus gets his hands on him.’ Tigellinus paused while some of the men chuckled. Then he drew a deep breath and continued, ‘I’m your centurion now. I set the standard and I will command the best century in the entire Praetorian Guard. That means I will be hard on you. I will have discipline. I will have smartly turned-out soldiers and I will have heroes, if the need arises. Any man who falls short of my requirements had better be ready to transfer out of the Guard to some lesser formation. If such a man chooses to stay then I will break him. Is that clear?’

‘Yes, sir!’ the men responded unevenly.

‘I didn’t bloody hear you!’ Tigellinus bellowed. ‘You sound like a bloody rabble! I said, is that clear?’

‘Yes, sir!’ the soldiers shouted in one voice that echoed back off the wall of the opposite barrack block.

‘That’s better.’ Tigellinus nodded. ‘You’ve already proved to the Emperor that you are good in a fight. He has honoured us by making this unit his personal escort. I mean to keep that honour for the foreseeable future, gentlemen. Whenever the Emperor leaves the palace I want my men to be guarding him. I want us to remain his first and last line of defence. We will be the shield and sword at his side. He will continue to put his faith in us, to trust us with his life, and the lives of his family. I need hardly remind you how grateful emperors can be to those who give them good service. Do your duty and we’ll all do well out of this. Don’t let me down.’ He ran his eyes along the ranks of his men and then turned to Fuscius. ‘That’s all. Have the men form up by the main gate, ready to march, Optio.’

‘Yes, sir!’ Fuscius stood to attention, and remained there until Tigellinus had left the small parade ground. Then he called out, ‘Sixth Century, left face!’

The two lines turned and stood ready for the next order.

‘March!’

As the column moved forward, Macro spoke quietly to Cato, now marching ahead of him. ‘What do you make of that?’

‘You know what I think,’ Cato answered. ‘We keep our eyes and ears open and watch like a hawk.’

The men of the Fifth and Sixth centuries marched up to where Tribune Burrus was waiting, mounted on an immaculately groomed black horse. When the column stood ready he waved a hand towards the gate and the leading rank moved off. They entered Rome and marched down to the palace where the imperial retinue joined the column before it marched back out of the city and headed towards the lake, over ten miles from the capital. The Emperor was attended by fewer advisers than usual, Cato noticed. There was Narcissus, but no sign of Pallas or the Empress, or the two boys.

The rain-washed countryside smelt fresh and the warmth heralded the coming of spring. The first buds were emerging on the branches of many of the fruit trees lining the route. The litters carrying the imperial party were between the two centuries of Praetorians and from the rear Cato could just make them out when he craned his neck to look over the gleaming helmets and javelin tips rippling ahead of him. As the column passed between small villages, the inhabitants came to watch their Emperor pass by and offered a cheer as Claudius raised a hand in greeting. On either side of the litters marched the German bodyguards, their barbarian appearance unnerving the more timorous villagers.

They reached the lake in the early afternoon and the men were allowed to fall out of line and rest while the Emperor and his advisers inspected the preparations for the Naumachia. The imperial grandstand was nearly complete, constructed on an artificial mound that had been raised at the edge of the lake. Along the shore carpenters were hard at work preparing the barges and river craft that had been hauled up from the Tiber to serve as the two fleets that would battle it out on the waters of the lake. Makeshift masts rose from the decks of the vessels with spars, sails and rigging that were more decorative than functional. Rowing benches were fixed along the sides and stout rams attached to the bows of each boat. From a distance they might pass for the warships of the Roman navy, but on a much reduced scale. A quarter of a mile away from the activity on the shore of the lake stood the stockades where those who were to fight were to be held for the duration of the spectacle.

‘Unbelievable,’ Macro commented ruefully as he and Cato surveyed the scene from a rocky outcrop a short distance from where the men of the escort relaxed on the verdant grass either side of the road leading back to Rome. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it. It looks more like the preparations for a major campaign than a bloody gladiator show.’

‘I don’t recall there being quite as much effort being put into the invasion of Britannia,’ Cato responded with an ironic grin. ‘But then Claudius was only out to win a new province for the empire. Now he’s out to win the heart of the mob, an objective of far more strategic importance at present – assuming he lives long enough to appease their taste for gladiator fights, not to mention their hunger. I’d say the odds are stacking up against Claudius.’

They turned their attention to the imperial party as the official in charge of organising the spectacle made his report to the Emperor. Even at a distance of over a hundred paces Cato could see that Claudius was giving the man his full attention. Every now and then his head twitched violently as he limped alongside the official.

‘Not such an enviable thing being the Emperor, is it?’ Cato said in a reflective tone. ‘Enemies on all sides, and those closest to him are by far the more dangerous.’

‘You talk utter bollocks at times, Cato,’ Macro responded. ‘You think our lives are any less at risk than Claudius’s? I don’t think so, and I have the scars to prove it, and so do you. In any case, there are one or two perks that go with the job of being the absolute ruler of the greatest empire in the world. I think I might just get used to the occupational hazards.’

‘It’s one thing to face a man with a sword in a straight fight. Quite another to walk into a room full of people, knowing that many of them would as happily stab you in the back as offer you a greeting and promise undying loyalty. Speaking of which, where’s Tigellinus?’ Cato scanned the imperial party, anxiously looking for the centurion.

‘He’s over there, with Burrus and the others.’ Macro pointed towards the handful of men clustered around Tribune Burrus who was still in the saddle. Cato saw the tall figure of the centurion and let out a quiet sigh of relief. Macro heard the soft escape of breath and looked at his friend.

‘When do you think Tigellinus is going to make his move?’

Cato thought for a moment. ‘He might make an attempt at the first chance he gets, provided he has no regard for his own life. But from what I’ve seen of the man, I doubt he’ll throw it away if there is any hope of saving it. If I were Tigellinus I’d bide my time until I was close to the Emperor, and with as few others surrounding him as possible. Then I might have a chance to escape after striking the blow. So, when the Sixth Century is close to the Emperor, we stay closer still to Tigellinus.’

The Emperor completed his tour of the preparations and returned to his litter. As the imperial retinue began to make its way along the shore to the engineering works at the end of the lake nearest the Tiber, the optio called the men back into formation. The guards swiftly marched to take up their positions around the Emperor and then fell into step with the slaves carrying the heavy gilded litter. The party wound its way along the edge of the lake until it reached the first of the stepped dams that led down towards the tributory of the Tiber, three miles away.

The imperial column halted. A small party of engineers in plain tunics approached and bowed in front of the litter. Claudius swung his legs over the side and hobbled over to the youthful-looking man leading the engineers.

‘My dear Ap-apollodorus!’ Claudius greeted him. ‘How is the work progressing? Nearly completed, I trust? I expect the storm has put you behind schedule.’

The engineer gave a deep bow, as did his companions. ‘No, sire. The works were completed according to schedule. And I have prepared something interesting to amuse the mob when the Naumachia begins.’

‘Oh?’ Claudius cocked an eyebrow. ‘And what would that be?’

‘I’d prefer it to remain a surprise, sire. I’m certain you will be impressed.’

Claudius frowned briefly, and then his expression relaxed. ‘Very well, young man. But you are certain the weather has caused no delays? Be honest n-now.’

‘I would not let a bit of rain and wind cause me to break my word to you.’

‘Good man!’ Claudius beamed and clasped the engineer’s forearm. ‘I wish all m-my officials were as eff-efficient as you.’

The Emperor turned to Narcissus, standing a short distance behind him. ‘You and Pallas could learn much from this young f-fell-fellow.’

The imperial secretary forced a smile. ‘It would be a shame to take such a promising talent under my wing and rob you of the skills of an accomplished engineer, sire. Apollodorus’s undoubted talents are better deployed in the field, rather than the palace – although Pallas might benefit from his expertise.’

‘Pallas?’ The Emperor thought for a moment and then nodded. ‘Yes, yes. He does seem to be r-r-rather off form these days. Tired and distracted.’ Claudius smiled indulgently. ‘I imagine the fellow’s in love. It tends to be a wearisome process.’

‘Yes, sire. Perhaps Pallas should be sent to Capri for a rest. I would be glad to oversee his staff during his absence.’

‘I’m sure you would.’ Claudius smiled. ‘Then again, perhaps you also need a rest, my friend.’

‘Not at all, sire.’ Narcissus stood as erect as he could. ‘My place is at your side. I live only to serve you.’

‘How fortunate I am to have such servants. C-come, Narcissus! Let us learn something of the art of engineering from our d-d-dear Appollod-d-dorus here.’

The engineer bowed his head again, and then began to talk through the procedure he had devised to drain the Albine Lake. Cato listened as best he could to the engineer’s lecture but his eyes were fixed on Tigellinus. The centurion stood at the head of the century, no more than fifty feet from the Emperor. His hand was resting on the pommel of his sword, his fingers drumming against the sword handle. Between him and Claudius stood a loose screen of German bodyguards. The Emperor was safe for the moment, Cato decided.

Apollodorus gestured down the vale leading to the river. ‘As the Emperor can see, I have ordered the construction of a series of dams, each with a sluice, so that we can control the flow of water as we drain the area around the lake. If we had simply cut a channel from the lake to the river, as I believe your adviser, Pallas, originally suggested, then we might well have caused the Tiber to overflow and flood the centre of Rome as the main body of water reached the city.’

Narcissus chuckled. ‘Not one of my friend’s finer moments, alas. Still, Pallas has his talents, whatever they may be.’

‘Quite right.’ Claudius nodded. ‘My wife, the Empress, rates him highly indeed.’

Macro whispered. ‘Oh, I’m sure she does.’

‘Shhh!’ Cato hissed.

The engineer led the way down the track that had been cut into the slope of the vale. Every half mile or so was another dam, behind which the water flowing out of the lake filled an expanse of the vale. Late in the afternoon the procession finally reached the last and biggest of the dams. At its foot a small stream flowed round a curve in the vale, the sides of which were appreciably steeper than up by the lake. The stream was fed by a culvert dug round the end of the dam. A handful of workmen stood off to one side, loading unused timber on to a wagon. They briefly bowed towards the Emperor and then continued with their task.

Apollodorus paused at the base of the dam where long, thick lengths of timber braced the stakes driven vertically into the ground. A number of ropes had been tied round the central buttress timbers and led up to the sides of the vale where they were fed through large pulleys, secured to stakes.

Narcissus looked up warily at the dam towering some fifty feet above him. ‘Are we quite safe here?’

‘Perfectly!’ Apollodorus smiled confidently. He stepped forward and slapped one of the buttress timbers. ‘It will take a hundred men pulling on the ropes to dislodge each of these. When the time comes, that is exactly what will happen, once we’ve cleared the route that the flow will take down to the tributary leading into the Tiber. For now, nothing short of an earthquake will shift these. Once the water behind this dam has drained, we’ll move up the vale, draining each pool in turn until we reach the lake. That way we can control the flow of water and there’ll be only the slightest of rises in the level of the Tiber for a short time.’ He stood back and looked up at the dam with undisguised pride in his achievement. Then, conscious of the Emperor once again, Apollodorus turned to him hurriedly. ‘The celebration to mark the completion of the project is ready, sire. Just round the bend in the vale there, on the bank of the river. If you would do me the honour?’

‘What? Oh, yes. Yes, of course!’ Claudius smiled. ‘It would be m-m-my pleasure, young man. Lead the way!’

Narcissus stepped forward. ‘Sire, it is late in the day. It is already unlikely that we will return to the city by nightfall. It would be wise to set off for Rome without delay.’

‘Nonsense!’ Claudius frowned. ‘What? Are you afraid of the dark? In any c-case, this man has done a wonderful j-jo-job. The least we can do is celebrate his success.’

Narcissus bowed his head. ‘As you wish, sire.’

The Emperor patted Apollodorus on the back. ‘Lead on, my boy! L-lead on!’

The vale curved gently to the right before giving out on to an expanse of open ground. Two hundred paces beyond, the river gleamed in the sunshine as it flowed towards Rome. Several tables had been arranged together and covered with an expanse of red cloth. On the table sat a huge cake, artfully constructed to resemble the dam they had just seen. Thirty or forty of Apollodorus’s staff stood waiting beyond the table and bowed their heads at the Emperor’s approach.

Claudius smiled in delight as he reached the table and inspected the cake. ‘Excellent! Most excellent! I trust it tastes as good as it looks?’

‘It should, sire. The best cooks scoured Rome for ingredients to prepare it.’

‘This looks delicious. I’ll be the first to taste it, if I may?’

‘Of course, sire.’ Apollonius clicked his fingers and a slave ran forward with a spoon for the Emperor. Claudius paused a moment and then dipped it into the blue jelly behind the dam and turned to his retinue. ‘Tribune Burrus. One of your men please.’ Claudius turned to the engineer. ‘I m-me-mean no offence, but I have to be sure.’

‘I understand, sire.’

Burrus turned in his saddle to survey the men of the Sixth Century. Before he could speak, Tigellinus stepped forward. ‘I volunteer, sir!’

Burrus opened his mouth, as if to speak, then shrugged and nodded. Cato felt his muscles tense as the centurion paced forward, between two of the German bodyguards. He stopped a short distance from the Emperor and there was a brief pause before Claudius offered the spoon up to his mouth. Tigellinus leant forward and consumed the mouthful. His jaws worked briefly and then he swallowed. There was another pause before Claudius arched his eyebrows. ‘Well?’

‘Bloody tasty, sir!’ Tigellinus barked.

‘No ill effects?’

‘None, sir.’

‘Very well.’ Claudius waved him away and Tigellinus backed off through the cordon of German bodyguards. Cato let out a pent-up breath and felt his body relax.

‘We’ll have some of this delicious cake and then return to R-r-rome,’ the Emperor announced. ‘Tribune, you may order your men to stand down while I eat.’

‘Praetorian Guard!’ Burrus called out. ‘Fall out!’

The guardsmen, on reduced rations, looked on enviously, having moved off a short distance to allow Claudius and his small retinue to pick at the cake and indulge in small talk. Cato noted with a smile that Narcissus was doing his best to insert himself between his master and the engineer and respond to the words of the Emperor with his customary obsequiousness while frowning frostily at every comment made by Apollodorus.

Macro was staring wistfully at the cake. ‘I could murder some of that.’

‘It looks far too rich,’ Cato responded dismissively. ‘Probably give you indigestion.’

‘I could live with it.’ Macro tore his gaze away and looked at his friend. ‘I was a bit worried there, when our friend Tigellinus stepped up to test the food.’

‘Me too. Seems I was right. Whatever his plan is, it doesn’t involve suicide.’

‘Except by indigestion.’ Macro turned to look for the centurion as he and Cato leant on their shields. Tigellinus had moved a short distance off and had unfastened his chinstraps and removed his helmet. He mopped his brow and then began to unbuckle his breastplate. He glanced briefly back up the vale with a strained expression. Easing his armour on to the ground, Tigellinus stretched his shoulders, raising his arms into the air.

Macro turned back to look at the small party of dignitaries crowded around the cake, scooping away at the choice ingredients. His stomach grumbled loudly enough for Cato to hear and the two exchanged a smile. Cato opened his mouth to comment, but before he could speak a dull crash reverberated through the air. Everyone turned in the direction of the sound. A moment later there was another crash that merged into a cacophony of splintering timber and falling rocks. Then a rushing roar that swelled up and filled the air. A sudden breeze stirred at the end of the vale, and strengthened.

‘What the fuck is that?’ Macro turned towards the din.

But Cato knew instantly what the sound was and his stomach knotted in icy terror. He glanced towards the Emperor, staring up the vale, a spoon heaped with jelly halfway to his mouth. As Cato turned back he saw a dark liquid mass, gleaming and foaming, sweep round the bend in the vale, smashing down the stunted trees that clung to the steep slopes, dislodging boulders and mounds of earth, carrying all before it. The vast body of water that had been held back by the final dam roared out of the vale, directly towards the imperial party and its escort.

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