CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

As the cry echoed off the walls of the cave Cato leaped over the rocks in front of him and sprinted towards the men and women at the tables. Macro let out a deafening roar that was instantly drowned out by the savage cries of the Germans as they charged. The laughter and drunken talk of Cestius and his men ceased abruptly as they stared at the bearded intruders racing towards them, swords drawn, bellowing barbaric war cries. For a moment Cestius and his men were too stunned to move. Then the spell was broken as Cestius turfed the woman off his lap and sprang to his feet, ripping out his short sword as he did so.

‘Don’t just fucking sit there! Pick up yer tools and get ‘em!’ he shouted.

Cato was charging towards Cestius, visible over the heads of his men, when a stocky man with dark features and hairy arms stepped into his path, swinging up a heavy club pierced with nails. Gritting his teeth, the man swung the club in a savage arc towards Cato’s head. The end of the club, with its lethal spikes, whistled through the air and Cato ducked low as the weapon passed inches from his scalp with a whoosh. The man grunted as the shaft of the weapon struck his other shoulder, hard. Cato thrust his sword up at an angle and the point ripped through the man’s tunic and sliced open the muscles packed over his ribs. Instead of recoiling in surprise and pain, as Cato expected him to, the man just roared with anger, his senses numbed by drink. He swung the club in a vicious backhand. This time Cato stumbled back out of range and the head of the club swept past his face, and on into the head of one of the man’s companions who was staggering drunkenly forward to get into the fight. The full weight of the club struck home and with a sound like an egg being thrown against a wall, the points of the club pierced skin and bone and drove deep into the man’s brain. His head snapped to the side and then he collapsed, dragging the club down with him.

With an angry curse his comrade wrenched violently at the handle of the club, trying to free it, but all he succeeded in doing was waggling his victim’s head about obscenely. The man’s jaw worked furiously and his eyes bulged as blood and brain matter spattered from his wounds. Cato pounced forward and stabbed the man armed with the club deep in the guts. He wrenched his sword free, thrust him aside and moved on, scanning the battling figures for Cestius. The flames of the braziers threw wild shadows as the men fought and the air was filled with thuds and the clatter and ringing of blades. It was hard to make out the features of any man in these conditions, and only the beards and bulk of the Germans singled out one side from the other. To his left Cato could hear Macro somewhere close at hand, bellowing at his enemies as he laid about him with his sword.

Cato caught a glint of metal to his right and spun round to see a man charging him with a dagger held high. His face was distorted by a savage battle cry and his unkempt beard bristled. Cato swung his sword up and knocked the blow aside.

‘Fool!’ he yelled at the man. ‘I’m on your side!’

The man he took for a German growled a surly apology in Latin and then his eyes widened at the same instant that Cato realised his mistake. The wine had taken the edge off the other man’s reactions and Cato struck first, punching the hilt of his sword into his opponent’s nose which gave with a dull crack. Blood streaming down his face, the man stumbled back, tripped over a bench and fell, knocked cold as his skull struck the edge of one of the tables. Cato moved on, thrusting between men locked in savage duels, searching for Cestius. There was a sudden flurry of rags as someone slammed into his chest with a shrill screech. Cato absorbed the blow and looked down to see a short fat woman with tangled black hair pummelling his chest with her clenched fists. The moment she realised he was looking down at her, she raked his cheek with her fingernails. Cato felt a burning sensation as she drew blood and he instinctively rammed his knee up and into her chest and then kicked hard. She flew back and slammed into one of the gang members with a deep grunt, then stood fixed in place by the sword that had pierced her back and burst out of her abdomen and through her grubby brown tunic. The man thrust her body forward with his left hand as he ripped his sword free, then punched the bloodied blade at Cato’s face. What he lacked in swordsmanship he made up for in brute strength and Cato’s attempt to parry the blow only just deflected it from his face. Even so the edge of the blade cut into the top of his ear.

‘Bastard!’ Cato cried out in rage. He gritted his teeth and launched himself forward, balling his left hand into a fist. The blow caught his opponent on the jaw. It was a solid punch and would have dazed a normal man. But those who followed Cestius were chosen for their strength and toughness. They were men from the slums of Rome where you either learned to talk with your fists or you were beaten down into the gutter. His head snapped back but then he straightened and laughed at Cato. His expression abruptly changed to one of puzzled surprise as he looked down and saw that Cato’s sword had pierced him in the side, just below the ribs. Cato twisted the blade one way, then the other, working it into the man’s vital organs. Each twist brought a deep agonised groan to the man’s lips. Then Cato ripped the blade out in a dark gush of blood.

The agony of his mortal wound only seemed to enrage the man further and he threw himself at Cato and both fell on top of a table, the impact knocking their swords from their hands. The man’s face was inches from Cato’s; his sour breath stank of cheap wine and roasted meat. One hand was groping its way up Cato’s chest and he realised that the man was reaching for his throat. Cato grabbed the hand and tried to force it aside, but his opponent was too strong for him and Cato felt the fingers pinch viciously into his neck. He was dimly aware of a hot dampness across his stomach and chest as the man’s blood flowed from his wound. Cato clawed at the man’s hand but it clenched more tightly still, and he felt his eyes bulge and a dark red veil begin to close in over his vision.

Some twenty feet away Macro was wrestling with another of Cestius’s men, each grasping the wrist of the other’s sword hand in a deadly test of strength. Their eyes met and the gang member half growled and half chuckled as he strained his muscles and felt Macro’s arms begin to give.

‘That the best you can do?’ the man sneered.

‘Not quite the best,’ Macro spat back. ‘Try this!’

He drew his head back and with a savage jerk head-butted the other man in the face. It was a tactic he had used several times before in battles and skirmishes, but rarely without a helmet on. As their skulls cracked loudly together, the other man’s jaw snapped shut under the impact, his teeth biting deeply into his tongue. Macro felt a piercingly sharp pain across his forehead. His head reeled sickeningly.

‘Fuck, that hurts …’ he groaned. Then, sensing that his opponent’s grip had eased off, Macro thrust him back, ripped his sword arm free and thrust the blade into his opponent’s throat. The gangster collapsed to his knees, blood pumping from his wound. Macro kicked him to the ground. He looked about him. The fight had spread out across the floor of the cave and several bodies lay on the ground or sprawled across the tables and benches. Cestius was exchanging vicious sword blows with one of the Germans while Septimus finished off a wiry man with a thrust to his heart. Macro felt a stab of anxiety as he failed to see any sign of his friend. Then he noticed two figures struggling on top of a table a short distance away. The man on top was one of Cestius’s gang members. Macro could just make out that the individual beneath was tall and thin and his gangling legs were kicking out desperately as he tried to free himself.

‘Not again,’ Macro muttered to himself as he raced across to save Cato. As he pushed past one of Plautus’s men Macro saw Cestius smash his sword down into the skull of the German warrior, cutting through bone and brains. Cestius wrenched his sword free with a vicious yank and then retreated a pace to quickly survey the skirmish. With a bitter frown he turned to run towards the base of the ladder leading up to the tunnel.

‘Shit.’ Macro gritted his teeth in frustration. He was still ten feet from Cato and now a handful of struggling figures had blocked his path. Cato must be saved, but equally Cestius could not be allowed to escape. Then Macro saw Centurion Plautus cut down a man on the other side of the table where Cato was pinned down.

‘Plautus!’ Macro yelled.

The centurion’s head whipped round and Macro thrust his hand towards Cato. ‘Help him!’

Plautus glanced towards the table and nodded and at once Macro pushed his way free of the melee and ran after Cestius. The gang leader had cleared the area where the tables and benches stood and crossed the open floor of the cave. He reached the bottom of the ladder, sheathed his sword and jumped on to the second rung. His hands grasped one of the stout cross timbers above and he began to scale the ladder with nimble agility and was well out of reach by the time Macro reached the foot of the ladder. Cestius’s boots were scrambling over the ledge above the top rung as Macro began to climb after him. He had ascended six feet when he felt the ladder lurch under his grip. He clung on instinctively and looked up. Cestius loomed overhead. He was pushing the ladder out, away from the ledge. For an instant Macro thought that the ladder’s angle was not steep enough to enable Cestius to topple it, but then the man raised his boot and kicked it away with all his might. The ladder swayed back and seemed to steady for a moment before slowly falling back into the cave, carrying Macro with it.

The red mist had almost closed across Cato’s eyes as he stared up into the face of the man throttling him. A froth of bloody spittle had formed at his lips from his bitten tongue and it dripped down on to Cato’s chin. The pressure on Cato’s throat was excruciating and with the last reserves of his strength Cato lashed out with his knees and boots and punched his left hand into the side of the man’s face as hard as he could, again and again. Even as he struggled, some small part of his mind seemed to look down on him with deep regret at the ignominy of dying in the cave, killed by a lowly street villain, while he stank of shit. Hardly a fitting end for the decorated soldier who aspired to marry the daughter of a senator. At that, his heart filled with longing for Julia and a determination not to die here in this cave. Tensing his neck muscles and pressing down as hard as he could with his jaw, Cato stopped clawing at the man’s hand and jabbed his fingers into his eyes as hard as he could.

His opponent bellowed with rage and pain, spattering Cato’s face with blood, but he did not loosen his grip. The pressure that threatened to burst Cato’s head became greater than ever for a brief moment, and he clenched his eyes shut. Then it was gone, and the weight pressing down on his chest abruptly eased. Blinking his eyes open, Cato saw his attacker in the thick hairy arms of Plautus. With a savage twist the officer broke the man’s neck with a loud crunching crack and then threw the body down with a triumphant ‘Ha!’ before he heaved Cato off the table and back on to his feet.

Cato nodded his thanks and then winced. He reached up to his throat and touched it tenderly. It took a moment for the dark mist to clear from his vision and for the nauseating dizziness to pass. As soon as Plautus could see that he was able to fend for himself, he turned away and charged back into the melee.

A quick glance round the cave was enough for Cato to see that Cestius’s men were losing the fight. Most of them were down, as well as several of the Germans and two of the women. Another three had backed off into one corner and were clutching each other in terror as they watched. One woman, stockier and braver than her companions, stood bare chested, a sword in one hand and a dagger in the other as she screamed shrilly at the two grinning Germans moving in on her. Cato recognised her as the woman who had been sitting in Cestius’s lap a short time before. One of the Germans contemptuously lowered his sword and bared his own chest as he approached her. Her screaming stopped and she sprang forward, breasts swaying, and stabbed at him. The German moved nimbly aside with a deep laugh and made to swat her bottom as she blundered by. Instead, she turned neatly and stuck the sword into his side and then swung her other hand and slammed the dagger through his throat. The German’s laughter died on his lips and then turned to a hoarse gurgle as he clawed at the blood coursing from his neck.

‘Barbarian scum!’ she screeched. ‘Die, you pig!’

Those were her last words, as the other German ran her through with a brutal thrust that carried her off her feet before she dropped back on to the ground as the sword blade ripped free from her guts.

Cato tore his eyes away and looked for Cestius. The gang leader was not among those still on their feet. Then he noticed Macro rising up from the ground over to one side of the cave, struggling to get himself free of the ladder that had fallen on him. There was a movement from above on the ledge and Cato saw the unmistakable outline of Cestius against the glow of a torch flickering at the entrance to the tunnel. Then the man turned and snatched the torch out of its bracket before he made off into the tunnel. Cato quickly gave orders to Plautus to remain in the cave and guard the entrances until more men could be sent to secure the grain.

By the time Cato had joined his friend, Macro was back on his feet, wrestling the ladder back into place. He glanced round as he heard Cato’s footsteps and noted the raw scratches and finger marks around Cato’s throat.

‘You still fit to fight, lad?’

‘Yes,’ Cato croaked and winced with agony. He pointed up the ladder.

‘Aye.’ Macro nodded. ‘Let’s get after the bastard.’

With Macro leading the way, they climbed the ladder and stepped up on to the ledge. A faint orange loom from Cestius’s torch was still visible in the tunnel and they ran on, their footsteps echoing off the walls of the tunnel. After a few paces the tunnel began to slope up, continuing in a straight line so that they could see Cestius some distance ahead, outlined by the glow of the torch that he held up and out in front of him. Then the tunnel began to bend to the right and flatten out and for a moment they lost sight of their prey and ran on blindly. Fortunately the tunnel had been well used and the floor was smooth and unobstructed. Rounding the corner they caught sight of Cestius again as he approached a small doorway at the end of the tunnel. The gang leader paused and glanced back. As soon as he heard the footsteps behind him he ducked through the doorway and then there was a sharp grating sound as the door began to close.

‘Shit!’ Macro grunted, pushing his legs harder, Cato panting a short distance behind him. Ahead the aged hinges of the door squealed with protest as the bottom of the door scraped across the fine gravel that had gathered on the stone lintel in the years that the door had been left open. Cestius’s face could be seen by the light of his torch, strained and desperate as he heaved his muscled shoulder against the door. He had already half closed it and now the door seemed to be moving more easily as Macro and Cato sprinted towards him. There was a gap of barely six inches as Macro slammed into the edge of the door, nudging it back a short way. Cato threw himself against the aged wood at Macro’s side, and scrambled for purchase on the ground with his boots. The tunnel filled with the sounds of the three men straining on both sides of the door and for a moment Cestius seemed to be giving ground. Then he let out a sharp hiss of air and heaved with all his strength and the door began to close again.

Macro reached for the handle of his dagger and snatched it out. The gap was already less than a foot but he thrust his arm through, turned it in and stabbed at where he guessed Cestius must be. The blade caught in a fold of material and Macro punched it home, tearing into the flesh beneath. There was a bellow of pain from the other side of the door and the pressure slackened.

‘Heave! Heave the bastard!’ Macro yelled and thrust again, missed, and then snatched his hand back to press on the door. It gave way, gradually. ‘We’ve got him!’

Suddenly the door fell back and Macro tumbled forward on to his knees. Instinctively he threw his weight to one side, crashing against the side of the tunnel, as he anticipated a blow from Cestius. But the gang leader was on the run again, sprinting across the low chamber on the other side of the door. The air smelled of damp and mould and by the flare of Cestius’s torch Cato could see that the stone walls were covered with slimy growths. Macro jumped back on to his feet as Cato ran past him and they chased after Cestius under a low arch on the far side of the chamber and out into a space beyond. It was a long, low storeroom filled with discarded piles of timber, iron hoops, damp heaps of old leather covered in mould and what looked to be broken chariot wheels. Cestius was weaving through the piles of junk, making towards a squared-off doorway at the end of the storeroom. With a grunt Macro squeezed under the arch and straightened up alongside Cato. He cast a quick, curious glance round at his surroundings as they set off after Cestius. A pathway of sorts had been cleared through the junk and with a fleeting moment of satisfaction Cato saw that they were gaining on their prey. Cestius was only some forty feet ahead of them when he ran through the entrance to the storeroom and began to climb a narrow flight of stairs, rising at a sharp angle. Cato and Macro were breathing hard as they reached the steps and ran up them, taking them two at a time.

At the top they emerged into a huge vaulted chamber that stretched out in a shallow curve on either side. The chamber was nearly a hundred feet wide and the far wall was pierced by wide arches that reached up some twenty or so feet. The floor of the chamber was covered in sand which extended out beyond the arches into a vast open space that stretched out into the darkness. Cestius sprinted towards the nearest arch, kicking up divots of sand in his wake.

‘Come on!’ Cato urged.

They ran on, hearts pounding and muscles burning with the effort. They passed through the arch and out into starlight.

‘Bloody hell!’ Macro panted. ‘We’re in the Great Circus.’

On either side of them the sand stretched away towards the dark mass of the spectator seating on either side. Ahead of them rose the central island with its assorted statues and officials’ platforms. When the chariot races took place, this vast space was filled with the deafening roar of two hundred thousand voices, madly cheering on their favourite teams. Now there was an uncanny and immense stillness, and Cato felt his flesh tingle as he continued to pursue Cestius across the smoothly raked sand of the racetrack.

‘We have to catch him before he reaches the far end,’ Macro called to him. ‘If he gets out of the public entrance and on to the streets we’ll lose him.’

Cato nodded and pushed his tiring limbs on. Then, just as Cestius drew parallel with the raised platform of the imperial box, he stumbled and fell headlong. The torch shot out of his hand and hit the ground in a flurry of sparks. He was down only briefly before he clambered to his feet and snatched up the torch, but it was long enough for Cato and Macro to catch up to him, drawing their swords as they did so. Cato edged to one side, and Macro the other, crouching low and ready to strike as they drew ragged breaths of the cool night air. Cestius could see that the route to the public entrance was blocked and he backed away, towards the base of the imperial box, his sword drawn.

‘Give up,’ said Cato. ‘You can’t escape now.’

‘No?’ Cestius licked his dry lips. ‘Let’s see if you two have got what it takes to beat me, eh?’

‘By the gods, you’re full of it,’ Macro growled. ‘Shove an enema up your arse and they’ll be carrying you to your funeral in a bloody thimble.’ He patted his sword against the palm of his left hand. ‘Come on then, you arrogant shit.’

‘Stop.’ Cato held up his hand. ‘I want him alive. Cestius, throw down your sword.’

‘No chance!’ Cestius snarled and quickly stepped forward, sweeping the torch round in an arc so that it flared fiercely as it roared past Cato and Macro, forcing them back a pace. He suddenly frowned. ‘I know you … The Praetorians at the inn. And …’

His rapid recollection was interrupted by distant cries from the starting gates where they had emerged from the storerooms. A handful of figures were trotting across the sand towards them. Staff and officials who worked in the Circus, Cato guessed, come to investigate the disturbance. Cato pointed towards them with his spare hand.

‘You can’t escape. If you fight us you will die. If you give up, you may be spared.’

‘I’m no fool, Praetorian. I know what fate awaits me.’ Cestius crouched low, sword and torch held out, ready to fight. ‘I’ll not give in meekly. If you want me then you’re going to have to kill me first … before I kill you!’

He sprang forward, sweeping his torch out towards Macro and then turned swiftly on Cato to make a thrust with his sword. While Macro fell back before the fiery arc, Cato held his ground and parried the attack, and then responded with a feint that forced Cestius to recover his blade and hold it close, ready to counter Cato’s attack. Instead, Cato held his sword up and stared at his opponent, noticing the dark patch of blood on the right shoulder of Cestius’s tunic, where Macro had stabbed him as they had struggled for control of the door at the end of the tunnel. The point of the big man’s sword quivered as his injury caused his arm to tremble. Cato stepped forward and feinted to the right, then cut under Cestius’s blade and stabbed to the left. It was a simple attack, intended to test the other man’s responses rather than draw blood. With a desperate motion Cestius knocked the sword aside and backed away, closer to the base of the imperial box which was a scant few feet behind him. Cato made to attack again, and this time Macro went in from the other side. Cestius warded them off with a flurry from his torch and sword, and then his heel struck the solid wall behind him. There was no room to manoeuvre any longer and Cato sensed that he would react in the only way left to him now, a wild attack.

‘Careful, Macro.’

‘Don’t worry, I know his kind,’ Macro replied without taking his eyes off Cestius.

The staff of the Circus were much closer now and one of them called out, ‘Oi! What do you three jokers think you’re playing at? You’re not allowed in here. Take your bloody fight somewhere else.’

‘Shut your mouth!’ Macro yelled. ‘We’re Praetorians.’ He gestured with his sword. ‘That one’s a criminal and a traitor we’ve been hunting. Now you either help us take him down, or you answer to the Emperor.’

‘He’s lying!’ Cestius called out. ‘They’re thieves. Tried to rob me before chasing me in here. Save me and I’ll make it worth your while.’

The officials drew up just short of the confrontation, not sure who to believe. With himself and Macro reeking of sewage and wearing heavily soiled tunics, Cato feared that the burden of proof rested on their shoulders. They could not risk any delay. He snatched a deep breath and shouted, ‘Now, Macro! Take him!’

With a roar Macro sprinted in, sword held up and ready to strike, while Cato charged from the side. Cestius tried to parry Macro’s sword with his torch but the blazing length was punched aside and down into the sand. Macro rushed on, slamming into Cestius with his shoulder and sending him crashing back against the wall. An instant later Cato cut down into Cestius’s sword arm, slicing through the muscled flesh and down to the bone, severing tendons so that the other man’s fingers released the sword. Cato’s momentum carried him on; he thudded into Cestius’s side and his sword punched home into the giant’s guts with a wet thud. Cestius let out an explosive grunt and his body stiffened for a moment before he sagged and his legs gave way, and he sank on to the sand. Macro and Cato drew back and regarded him cautiously, but Cato could see by the light of the torch still burning where it lay on the ground that Cestius’s wound was mortal.

He reached down to pick up the gang leader’s sword and toss it to one side, out of reach, before sheathing his own weapon. Macro kept his sword to hand and moved round to confront the other men who looked on in silence. ‘You lot, stay back!’

They needed no prompting and Cato left Macro to keep a watch on them while he concentrated his attention on Cestius. The big man was slumped against the wall, legs stretched out in front of him, his hands clasped over the wound in his side. His eyes were tightly clenched for a moment before he opened them and smiled bitterly at Cato.

‘Told you you’d have to kill me,’ he said softly. He closed his eyes again.

‘Cestius.’ Cato leant forward and shook his shoulder. ‘Cestius!’

The giant’s eyes flickered open. ‘Can’t you let a man die in peace?’

‘No,’ Cato replied harshly. ‘Not until you answer some questions.’

‘Fuck you.’

Cato drew his dagger and held it up for Cestius to see. ‘I can make this painful if you refuse to talk, or quick and painless if you co-operate.’

‘I’m dying. What difference does it make?’

Cato smiled coldly. ‘Do you really want to find out?’

There was a brief silence between the two men before Cestius shook his head faintly.

‘Right, then.’ Cato lowered the dagger. ‘First, who paid you to hoard the grain?’

‘A Praetorian centurion. Sinius.’

Cato nodded. ‘What was the arrangement?’

‘He paid me in silver. I laundered the money through my gang and used the proceeds to buy the grain. I used some of the merchants as fronts. The grain cargoes were stored in a warehouse, and then my lads moved it to the cave.’ Cestius smiled thinly. ‘As you know. We were to take a big cut when Sinius gave the word to start selling the grain. That was the deal.’

Cato nodded. ‘Did Sinius tell you who he was working for?’

‘Not my business to inquire into the reasons for anything. Not these days. More trouble than it’s worth. Not that it stopped Sinius blabbing away that it was for a noble cause. All for the good of Rome.’ Cestius sneered, and then his features contorted and he let out a long, keening moan. Cato squatted down beside him, fearing that he might die before he had given up all the information that he wanted. At length Cestius’s pained expression faded and he licked his lips and fixed his gaze on Cato once again.

‘Did you meet any of the other conspirators?’

Cestius was silent for a moment before he responded. ‘Not among the Liberators.’

Cato leant forward. ‘Then who else?’

Cestius ignored the question and asked one of his own. ‘Who are you working for, Praetorian? Not the Liberators. I know that. Your master is in the imperial household, I’d guess.’

Cato said nothing.

‘Which means Pallas … or Narcissus.’

‘I have one more question,’ Cato said. ‘About the day your gang attacked the imperial party in the Forum. How did you know we were going to be there?’

‘It was planned from the outset. I was paid to have my lads provoke the food riot …’ Cestius began to breathe raggedly. ‘Once it was in full swing we were to stand by to ambush the Emperor and his escort … Would have killed our targets too, if you and your friend there hadn’t got in the way.’

Cato felt his heart quicken. ‘Targets? The Emperor and his family?’

Cestius shook his head. ‘The Empress and her son.’

‘Just them?’ Cato felt a cold tingle at the base of his neck.

‘Yes.’

‘No one else? Are you certain?’

‘He was quite clear about it … Just Agrippina and Nero.’

‘Who? Who gave you the order?’

Cestius winced and sucked in a long shallow breath. Cato reached forward and shook his shoulder roughly.

‘Who paid you to do it? Tell me!’

Cestius licked his dry lips again and this time there was blood in his spittle. A thick dark drop trickled down his chin as he replied. ‘A man from the palace. I’ve done jobs for him before. Made people disappear. Put the frighteners on others. Kind of thing I do well.’ Cestius smiled with pride.

‘Enemies of the Emperor?’

‘Not always.’

‘What was his name?’ Cato demanded.

‘Don’t know. Wasn’t part of the arrangement. He just paid me to do what his master needed done, and not ask questions.’

Cato hissed with frustration. ‘Well, what did he look like? The man who gave you your instructions?’

Cestius shrugged. ‘Just a man. Your build. Few years older …’

‘What else?’ Cato snapped. ‘Any scars, anything to make him stand out?’

‘Yes … A mark, a tattoo here.’ Cestius reached up and touched his neck just below the ear.

Cato felt his blood grow cold and he heard Macro swear softly. ‘What kind of tattoo?’

Cestius thought briefly. ‘Only saw it clearly one time. Once, when we met in the public baths. A crescent moon and star …’

Cato knew at once where he had seen the distinctive mark before, the day they had arrived in Rome.

‘That’s Septimus – has to be,’ Macro muttered to Cato. ‘Septimus? What the hell is going on?’

Cato’s mind was filled with a jumble of recollected images and lines of thought that had seemed confusing or came to a dead end. Now they fell into place, one by one. There was a conspiracy lurking in the shadows even deeper than that being hatched by the Liberators. A monstrous scheme that left Cato marvelling at its brilliant deviousness even as it repulsed him and made him aware for the first time of the scale of the deception that both he and Macro, among many others, had been enduring for years. He stood up quickly and turned to his friend.

‘We have to get back to the palace at once. We must find Narcissus.’

‘Narcissus?’

By the dying flickers of the torch in the sand, Cato looked at his friend intently. ‘We’ve been duped. There’s more than one plot against the Emperor. I suspected there might be. But there’s something else. We have to go, Macro. Now.’

Cestius chuckled.

‘What’s so damned funny?’ asked Macro.

‘Just agreeing with your friend there. Now would be a good time to act.’

Cato rounded on him. ‘Why?’

‘Last word I had from Sinius was that I should be ready to move the grain back to the warehouse first thing tomorrow.’

‘Tomorrow?’ Cato’s brow creased. ‘Then whatever the Liberators are planning is going to happen tonight …’ His guts were seized by an icy dread. ‘Shit, they’re going to try to kill the Emperor tonight. We have to go, now!’

As Cato turned towards the public entrance there was a plaintive groan as Cestius stirred and raised a bloodied hand. ‘Wait! You promised me a quick death, Praetorian.’

‘So I did.’ Cato turned back and briefly stared down at the gang leader before tossing his dagger down into the sand behind him. ‘There. You’ve used one on other men, striking them from the shadows. Now use it on yourself, if you have the guts.’

Cato began to run towards the public entrance and Macro followed him across the sand.

‘Oi! Oi, you!’ One of the Circus staff called after them. ‘You can’t leave him here! Oi! I’m talking to you!’

The man ran a few paces after the two figures receding into the gloom and then stopped. There was a short grunt from the direction of the imperial box and then a long expiring sigh. By the time he turned to see what had happened, the mortally wounded giant had slumped over on to his side and lay still, the handle of a dagger protruding from his chest.

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