The victory road clung to the side of the Palatine Hill, sloping first from the west, then turning to climb across the northern face. A faint haze hung in the air, but the low sun quickly cleared it and halfway up the hill Valerius, who had dressed in his finest for the occasion, turned to look out over the centuries-old glory of the Forum and the shimmering sea of terracotta roofs that disguised the festering reality of the Subura. He wondered if he would look upon it again. At his back soared the marble splendour of Nero’s sprawling palace, home of every Caesar since Tiberius. Many of the men who had followed this path had entered it and never left. In theory, no Roman citizen could be tortured or sentenced to death unless he was guilty of treason. Caligula, and, in his final years, Claudius, had shown that the reality could be very different. Their blood ran in Nero’s veins.
But some journeys had to be made, even if each step was reluctantly taken. He squared his shoulders and approached the gatehouse, where he surprised a pair of black-clad guards lounging sleepily against the wall.
‘Gaius Valerius Verrens.’
The senior of the two yawned. ‘Early, aren’t you? We don’t generally have anyone official at this hour.’ He studied a list pinned to the gatehouse door and shook his head. ‘Doesn’t say you’re expected. I’ll need your pass.’ He held out a hand.
Valerius shook his head. ‘The invitation was delivered verbally.’ The Praetorian noticed the stress on the word ‘invitation’ and raised his eyes.
‘Verrens?’ The tone was polite but the way the two Praetorians straightened told Valerius everything he needed to know about the speaker. Stunted but solidly built and in early middle age, he wore his hair cropped short and had features that might have been crafted with a blunt knife. The skin on the left side of his face had the texture of melted candle wax and made Valerius wonder if he’d been caught in a fire at some point. It was a face that would scare children and repel women. On another man it might have inspired pity, but not on this man. You knew instantly that the mind behind the mask was as ugly as the misshapen features he presented to the world.
‘At your service.’ Valerius kept his voice neutral, but didn’t bow, which made the face twist into a parody of a smile.
‘Lucius Licinius Rodan.’
Now Valerius understood why the Praetorians were so nervous. Officially a lowly centurion of the Praetorian Guard, Rodan was the one who, if Nero had an enemy, would ensure he was an enemy no more. By assassination if necessary, but the Praetorian was rumoured to prefer more subtle methods. Perhaps the man’s younger son would be found with his throat cut; would he risk the elder? His wife might be molested in his house; who was to know when the molesters would return? If his horses burned to death in their stalls, he would understand that his family would be next. Rodan was one of the most dangerous men in Rome and his presence made this meeting all the more unpredictable.
‘Has he been searched yet? No? Then what are you waiting for?’ Expert hands ran over Valerius’s body, missing nothing. The Praetorian delicately held up Valerius’s walnut fist for inspection.
‘It could make a good bludgeon,’ he suggested.
‘Fool.’ Rodan shook his head. ‘I think we can leave him his hand. After all, he did lose it in the service of Rome. Follow me.’
The gateway led directly into the palace gardens where a path wound along an avenue of pear and apple trees, through parkland studded with fountains and flower beds. Valerius walked a pace behind his host, whose bearing made it clear that a missing hand and a military honour did not add up to any form of recognition in Rodan’s world. Rodan provided a reminder of his power a few moments later. A group of slaves were working to replace plants near the path when one of them accidentally sprinkled a few grains of soil on the Praetorian’s gold court slippers.
Rodan halted as if he’d walked into a wall. ‘Overseer!’ he shouted. ‘This man assaulted me. He is to be taken to the Castra Praetoria for questioning.’
The slave, a thin dark-haired boy of about fourteen, turned death pale. His hands brushed desperately at Rodan’s feet until there was no sign of the offending dirt. ‘No, sir, please, sir, I beg…’ Without warning, Rodan kicked the boy full in the face with enough force to break his jaw. Valerius saw three white teeth fly as the young slave somersaulted backwards to lie groaning on the path. Rodan stood over him, casually considering whether to kick him a second time before deciding that the lesson had been absorbed. Two men picked up the slave boy and carried him away. Valerius had come across men in the legions who meted out violence as readily as Rodan, but never quite so coldly. He comforted himself with the thought that they were always the ones carried from the fight with spear wounds in the back.
They walked quickly through a colonnade until they reached a large door guarded by Praetorians matched like a pair of thoroughbred horses. Nero was said to choose his palace guard personally, with all the care he gave to the choice of his chariot teams, for their looks and physique. Clearly, Rodan had been selected only for his talents. Inside, everything was marble and gold. Ahead of them stretched a long corridor lined with gilded busts of the Emperor and his predecessors. At set intervals curtained alcoves framed statues of Apollo, Venus or Jupiter and other lesser members of the godly pantheon. Enormous vases filled to bursting with vibrant yellow flowers continued the colour scheme. A display of neck and arm rings made of twisted strands filled part of one wall and Valerius recognized trophies taken from British kings. Another held plates and ornaments which could only have come from the east, a small part, he guessed, of the plunder Corbulo had gathered as he subdued the Parthians in Armenia. Valerius would have stopped to study them more closely, but his guide glared at him.
‘This way,’ Rodan said irritably, indicating a doorway to the right.
They entered a large open room dominated by an enormous statue of painted marble. It was incredibly lifelike and portrayed a naked man and two younger male figures being tormented by writhing snakes. The man was reaching upwards with one arm half entwined with a serpent, while his right hand attempted to keep a second snake’s gaping jaw from his body. Valerius recognized the group as Laocoon, high priest of Troy, and his two sons. He remembered that Laocoon had warned the Trojans against Greeks bearing gifts and wondered if it was a portent for this meeting. Rodan ignored the sculpture and turned to his left where a set of six wide steps led upwards to a golden throne.
The throne was empty.
‘Wait here.’ Without another word the Praetorian returned the way he’d come.
Minutes passed while Valerius stood in solitary silence. He knew the wait was designed to make him uneasy, but knowing didn’t make it any more bearable. As his eyes adjusted to the light he noticed detail that had not been apparent when he entered. The wall behind the throne was not solid, but a silk screen carefully painted to blend in with the garden scenes behind. It was almost translucent, so that if he looked carefully he could see faint shapes moving behind it. A slight rustling confirmed what he already knew. He was being watched.
He measured time by the shadows creeping arthritically across the floor. By now tension had developed into a slow-burning anger. He willed his feet to stay where they were. Seneca stood here, he thought. Seneca had suffered the same creeping uncertainty; the cramping of the legs and the roaring inside his skull. Lucius Annaeus Seneca was an old friend of Valerius’s father, with a country estate in the next valley. At the age of fourteen, Valerius had been sent to study under Seneca while the latter endured exile in Corsica. The philosopher had returned from his banishment to serve as Nero’s teacher and guide. He had danced the political tightrope for half a lifetime, but his fall now seemed inevitable. It was said he no longer had the Emperor’s confidence. That his judgement was unsound. He was old, tired; Nero needed a younger man to guide him, someone who understood his needs. Someone like Decimus Torquatus, the man who controlled Rodan and his Praetorian wolves.
Valerius kept his eye fixed on the wall and allowed his mind to drift back to long days on the parade ground with the Twentieth. Nero could not hurt him. The best of him had died on that final day in the Temple of Claudius. He might live and breathe, but this was merely the long prelude to the afterlife. The only people who truly mattered were Olivia and his father. For their sakes he would endure this petty torture.
His thoughts were interrupted by a soft giggle from behind the screen and an apparition dressed in startling emerald green appeared, its golden hair styled in long ringlets. A weak chin with a sparse fair beard, bad skin disguised by white powder and heavy sensuous lips painted a rich, ruby red. This hermaphrodite creature was served by four naked satyrs; plump, pre-pubescent children who still managed to exude a nauseating sexuality as they danced around their charge. Valerius found himself caught between horrified bewilderment and an urge to laugh out loud. Nero. In a woman’s dress and made up like a common harlot.
The Emperor studied him seriously, eyelashes fluttering. ‘What do you think?’
There could only be one answer. ‘Astonishing, Caesar.’
‘You recognized me as Pandora? The others didn’t, but what do they know about art? At the close of the gymnastics I will give a performance then hand out gifts from Pandora’s box.’ The voice was as Valerius remembered it: high, but not shrill, more boy than man. It still managed to carry a ruler’s power and for some reason it sought his approval.
‘I am sure they will be gratefully received, Caesar. What more could a man ask than a gift from your own hand?’
The shining eyes narrowed and Valerius wondered if he’d gone too far in his flattery. He found himself holding his breath.
‘So, a courtier as well as a soldier.’ Nero waved a hand and the four satyrs disappeared behind the screen. He came closer. ‘Of course, you were trained by Seneca, as I was. We have much in common, you and I. We have both suffered in Rome’s name. We should be friends.’ He raised his hand to Valerius’s cheek and the young Roman couldn’t prevent himself flinching from the manicured fingers. Nero’s eyes darkened and the room seemed to freeze; the unnatural stillness was broken only by the sound of the Emperor’s hoarse breathing. The scent of a strong perfume trickled into Valerius’s nostrils and made him need to sneeze. He wanted to turn away, but the unblinking stare held him like a vole in the grip of a kestrel’s claws. Very slowly, Nero brought his face close. Valerius tried not to smell the sour breath or see the outlines of the small pus-filled spots that dotted the skin beneath the powder. He felt his gorge rise as the painted lips touched his. A thick tongue probed his closed mouth and the urge to vomit became almost irresistible. He knew that if he gave in to the sensation he would surely die. He stood, still as the marble statue on the other side of the room, and endured.
After a few moments without a response, Nero took a step back. His tone mirrored the astonishment on his face. ‘You will not return your Emperor’s love? Is this what a soldier calls loyalty, or devotion, or duty?’
Valerius could feel the fear rising in him. Against any other form of attack he could have defended himself, even if it meant his death, but this? ‘Not will not, Caesar.’ From somewhere he found the right words. ‘Cannot. It is not within my gift or my power.’
Nero’s head swayed on its long neck, the cold eyes never leaving their prey. ‘But it is within mine.’ His voice quivered with righteous anger. ‘I could have you held down and use you as I willed.’
‘Then it would not be love, and you would have lost my loyalty and devotion.’
‘And you would have lost your life.’
‘My life is my Emperor’s to take, though I had hoped to give it willingly on the battlefield.’
For a dozen long moments Nero studied him. Without warning he gave a girlish laugh and flounced away. ‘Am I not the greatest actor in the world? With nothing more than a kiss I have a Hero of Rome disarmed and trembling in fear.’
Valerius bowed his head, not in acknowledgement, but to ensure that the other man could not see murder reflected in his eyes. He had never felt such fury. He wanted to reach out and take the scrawny neck in his hand and squeeze until the breath rattled in Nero’s throat like a dying chicken’s. To flail with the walnut fist until the pasty, overfed face was smashed into a bloody pulp. Slowly, he willed the rage to subside and when he looked up the Emperor had taken his place on the golden throne, with the emerald dress ruffed up around his thighs and his thin, pale legs hanging ludicrously below.
Now the voice took on a new authority. ‘I brought you here for another reason, Gaius Valerius Verrens, Hero of Rome. Will you serve your Emperor — unto death?’
There could be no hesitation, though the words choked him. ‘I will, Caesar.’
Nero waved a hand theatrically towards the balcony. ‘Look out and tell me what you see?’
Valerius hesitated. There were so many answers. ‘I see Rome and its people.’
The Emperor shook his head, flinging the ringlets left and right. ‘No,’ he snapped. ‘You see a nest of traitors. Rome’s laws are flouted. Rome’s gods are mocked. A disease is already within our midst. It is spreading with every hour. You will discover the source of the disease so that we may eradicate it. You have heard of a man called Christus?’
Valerius shook his head at the unfamiliar name. ‘No, Caesar.’
‘A Judaean troublemaker, from the province of Galilee and put to death almost thirty years ago, but he makes trouble still. Before he died he promised the Jews eternal life. A small number accepted the lie. A carpenter came close to setting the province afire. Those who survived continue to plot in his name. They travel the Empire holding secret meetings and preaching that he is a god. It is said they drink the blood of children, and if that is true I will not leave one of them alive. But Seneca taught me to be just and I will not believe it without proof. You will supply that proof. We have evidence that they are already in the city. You will find the followers of Christus and pass their names to my servant Torquatus. You are our Hero of Rome. Now I name you Rome’s defender against this evil and appoint you honorary tribune of the guard. If you succeed, you will be for ever in our favour. Here.’ He reached inside the folds of the dress and retrieved a ring on a gold chain, similar to the one the courier had shown Valerius, who walked up the stairs and took it, brushing his lips against the back of Nero’s hand. ‘The imperial seal. Use it well, and when you are done return it to us and receive your reward. Torquatus!’ A tall, handsome man appeared from the far side of the screen, his unlined face set in a mocking smile. Valerius wondered how long he had been listening. ‘Torquatus will furnish you with the details.’
The two men bowed and backed away, but the Emperor wasn’t finished.
‘And Verrens?’ Valerius looked back at the greatest actor in the world on his lonely stage. ‘Fail us at your peril.’
‘You are very fortunate,’ Torquatus said as they left the room.
‘What do you mean?’
‘It’s not every man who receives a personal performance from the Emperor. You played your part quite well.’
Valerius bit back his anger. ‘I would rather not have had a part.’
‘You are a man who finds it difficult to hide his emotions. You wanted to kill him, and he knew it. But it only made him desire you more.’
‘If I had wanted to kill him he would be dead.’ The sentence was out before his brain had the chance to consider how potentially lethal the words were.
Torquatus stared at him. Coming from another man that declaration would have warranted imprisonment and execution, but perhaps not this man; not for the moment. He pointed back towards the balcony. ‘You have never been closer to death than you were in that room. Four of the finest archers in the Empire stood behind those windows with their arrows aimed at your back. He would have required only to raise a single finger.’
A chill settled on the centre of Valerius’s spine. ‘Why me? Surely there are others better qualified to carry out this task.’
Torquatus stopped at the junction of two corridors. ‘Because you are available. Because you have proved yourself brave and resourceful.’ Somehow the words ‘brave’ and ‘resourceful’ emerged as deliberate insults. ‘The Emperor commissioned a private report from Julius Classicanus, our new procurator, on the causes and conduct of the British war. Governor Paulinus naturally attempted to blame everyone but himself, but he was forced to admit that if he had acted upon the information you provided about the Iceni the conflict might have been avoided.’ He smiled coldly. ‘Of course, a more politically astute general would have had you killed when he had the opportunity. As it was, only yourself and young Agricola came away from that contemptible little island with any laurels. You had the opportunity to rise high in the Emperor’s service if only you had humoured him a few moments ago. A small price to pay. You might have had a legion — he has rewarded other men with more for less — and, for a resourceful man with a legion, no prize is beyond reach.’ Valerius found himself staring. What was Torquatus suggesting: that one day he might supplant Nero? The lazy eyes stared back, touched by the shadow of a smile. No, he was telling him that he would have had him killed. This man had spent years plotting the destruction of Seneca; he would not stand by and watch another rise to take his place at Nero’s side. Torquatus nodded, his pale eyes glittering. ‘Good, we understand each other.’
They entered a room with a large desk at its centre. Torquatus took his place behind it, but didn’t offer Valerius a seat. An opened scroll lay on the desk, pinned at the corners.
‘Twenty thousand Judaeans in Rome, most of them in the district around the Capena Gate, but a few living in scattered pockets in the north of the city. Twenty thousand suspects, but only a few will be followers of this Christus. The Jews despised the man as much as we did, probably more. However, the Emperor is minded to go a step further than his stepfather Claudius and remove them permanently from the city. He has his own reasons for this. I have my reasons for advising against it.’
Valerius waited for him to expand on this unlikely humanity, but Torquatus continued to study the document. Eventually he looked up.
‘Twenty thousand Judaeans and only one of them matters. He is the leader of the cult in Rome, a man known as the Rock of Christus. A melodramatic title for the leader of a few fanatics, but he is also a resourceful man because he has thus far managed to elude us. You will identify him to me.’ He paused. ‘But the seizure of this Rock is not your primary purpose. The Judaeans who follow Christus are of little consequence, but the Roman citizens they have seduced with their lies and their promises are. Caesar is right to compare this sect with a disease. Like a disease, they spread their poison silently through the population. And like a disease they target the vulnerable. In this case the vulnerable are not the poor, for whom the prospect of everlasting life is not immediately appealing, but those who have the means to enjoy it. Knights, aediles, quaestors, generals and tribunes. It is possible this evil has reached the Senate. Here is the greatest danger, perhaps even to Rome itself. Hunt them down. If you find one, he — or she — will lead you to the next.’
‘Do you have names?’
Torquatus sniffed dismissively. ‘If I had names I would not need you.’
‘My resources? How many men will I have?’
‘You have the Emperor’s seal. You are his agent in this matter. If you need to recruit anyone else you have his full authority. They will be paid through the Treasury and should be accounted for to Centurion Rodan, whom you have already met. This is not a job for squads of soldiers, or I would have flooded the city with Praetorians. It requires subtlety and stealth. Low cunning, if you like, which I sense you have in abundance.’
Valerius ignored the insult. ‘I need all the information you have on this Christus and his followers.’
Torquatus shrugged. ‘There is very little, but I will have everything sent to your home.’
When the younger man had left, Torquatus returned to the paper on his desk. It was a letter, which contained certain allegations against an unnamed someone in Nero’s inner circle. His face had the look of a fisherman who has just felt the first tug on his line.