XII

Poppaea fought the familiar animal squirm of panic. Everywhere she went she felt Nero’s eyes on her. But he couldn’t know, because if he truly knew she would be dead. Or worse. Yet even that was of no consequence, because soon she would be free and nothing they could do to her would matter. Just one more step. One more simple act, and it was done.

Loneliness and fear had been her lot ever since her father had married her off at the age of seventeen. She had been young and naive, a pretty plaything who knew nothing of the natural bounds of marriage or the power a wife might hold if she only understood her strength. Instead, she had submitted because her husband said she should, even when she knew it was wrong. Each night she would endure the pain and self-loathing that went hand in hand with the acts she was forced to perform for him. Each night she would cry herself to sleep. That should have been enough, even for him, but of course it was not. She thought she had married a strong man, but events had proved that what she had taken for strength was mere bravado, and what she had thought was courage only a disguise for bluster. A coward and a braggart who had bragged once too often.

What a fool she had been the night they were invited to the palace. She had been excited, proud that the man who ruled their Empire should seek the company of her husband, even a husband she had grown to hate. That was the first night she’d felt the little eyes roving over her skin, and later the hands, cold and clammy, the way a snake should feel, but does not, slithering across her breasts and her belly and… And later? Later he had watched again, those same eyes glittering as her husband used her. Yes, used. Not slept with, or made love to. Used. And when her husband was finished with her, he was ready. She knew that to refuse him was death, but she almost did. Almost. When that barrier was broken the rest was just more of the same. The servants and the slaves and the soldiers who shared the wide bed. And Otho, her husband, had rejoiced because he had the Emperor’s favour and the Emperor’s favour meant power and riches. And, though he was too foolish to understand it, danger.

Three months later, Torquatus had sent for Otho and ordered him to divorce her. She remembered the day he returned from the palace, his face the colour of dead flesh, hands shaking and eyes glazed with terror. Not out of concern for her. Not because he was going to lose her. But because he feared for his position and his life. She had despised him then and she despised him now, cowering in his Lusitanian exile praying for a speedy return to the inner circle, which would never be forthcoming as long as she had influence. She had been glad to be rid of him. Oh, what a fool she was.

Now she lived behind a mask, as much an actor as the man whose bed she shared. A better actor, she hoped, because her life depended upon it. She gave him everything he wanted, because it meant nothing to her now, these physical acrobatics and pointless, almost laughable penetrations, but it was never enough. It had been her initiative to introduce Fabia, though Fabia wasn’t aware of it. Fabia who had taught her to live with Otho’s demands, and eventually how to satisfy them. With Fabia, she could find comfort as well as pleasure, a hand to hold when it all became too much and a shoulder to cry on when it was over. Yet even to Fabia she could not speak of the true depths of her despair.

It had been a mistake to make an enemy of Torquatus. She had underestimated his ability to slither, serpent-like, through the long grass of palace politics. He had supported Octavia against her while Nero’s first wife still retained some of her power and it had only seemed right that she should undermine him. A few quiet words in the sultry aftermath of passion should have been enough. A suggestion of eyes lingering too long, perhaps a touch that could not be disproved, and she believed he would be gone. But that was not Nero’s way. Her husband’s greatest pleasure was to pitch those around him against each other in a never-ending dogfight that ensured the master was always in control. Now, with Octavia dead, Torquatus had made it his goal to either remove Poppaea or possess her. She didn’t know which she feared most.

She had sacrificed to the gods for her salvation, and when it became clear they had failed her she had considered — planned — her own death. Cornelius, who had been as much a prisoner as she, had shown her the path she must take. Why had she confided in Cornelius? Not because of the puppy eyes or the pretty smiles and prettier compliments. No, there had to be something more. She had recognized it on the night Nero’s degeneracy had reached its shameful low and he had placed her at the disposal of a pair of enormous Nubians for the entertainment of the narrow-eyed perverts who clung to him like leeches on a swollen leg. The memory of it made her gorge rise, but it had been then that she had seen the pain in Cornelius Sulla’s eyes and behind it discovered the tenderness and compassion of a good man. Here, at her lowest, most degraded point, she had found the only person on the Palatine she could trust.

Cornelius had opened her eyes to a world beyond her own world and a god who would not forsake her. It had been he who engineered her meeting with the Judaean who had spoken to her of Christus, the Messiah who had sacrificed himself for the good of all mankind, and of the god, the true god, who would protect her and keep her safe even as her body was being abused and her mind driven to the edge of madness. Despite her initial doubts about a religion which at first seemed exotic, if not outlandish, she had found herself persuaded by the old man’s luminous integrity. She had feigned illness to create a pretext for the meeting, convincing her ladies that if the Emperor discovered the true reason for her visit to the Greek physician, his reaction might endanger them all. Once inside the treatment room, the Greek had been replaced by the man Petrus. She had listened and she had believed. The truth was that she needed to believe. He had placed his hand upon her and she had felt energized in a way that astonished her. She had seen the light. She understood the truth. Now she had only one more step before she would be welcomed into God’s company. But how would it be achieved?

Petrus had said he would make the arrangements and she had placed her faith in him. That had been weeks ago. Lately, she had sensed that the surveillance within the palace had become more intensive. Was it her imagination, or were the slaves hovering a little more closely and her ladies more attentive? Cornelius would barely meet her eyes, and when he did she had seen the fear and the puzzlement in his. Her saviour was as trapped as she was.

A tear ran down her cheek as her eyes lighted on the painting that covered the wall of her room. It was her escape from everything that happened here in this palace that had become her prison. A country scene, a sunlit villa on a hill overlooking the sea. Her villa. The villa where she had grown up. The place where she had last been happy. She closed her eyes and she was back in the long pool in front of the house with the sound of the waterfall soft and comforting in her ears. But she couldn’t stay there for ever, not now. She must plan and scheme as if her life depended upon it, because it did.

The shop was deserted, the wares removed. The only thing that remained was the tantalizing, sweetly pungent scent of spice. Valerius stood in the doorway and pondered his next move. What else had he expected? The man had survived as a fugitive for thirty years; of course he must have developed a sense for the changing patterns around him.

‘Want us to talk to the neighbours?’ Marcus asked.

Valerius nodded. ‘It’s probably a waste of time, but it can’t do any harm.’

Marcus called Serpentius and the other men he had hired. At first Valerius couldn’t believe the former gladiator had engaged the man who had made such a determined effort to kill him. But Marcus made a convincing argument. ‘He’s the best fighter I’ve got, you saw yourself how fast he is, but he’s too good a hater to be a successful gladiator. He was going to get himself killed. Now you’ve saved his life. It won’t make him hate you any the less, but he owes you and Spaniards pay their debts.’ Three more of the scarred veteran’s pupils completed the group. Heracles, an ox-like Sarmatian with the face of a twelve-year-old child, who Marcus insisted was cleverer than he looked and whose additional talents included the ability to crush a man’s skull with one giant paw; Felix, the Brindisian, a habitual thief whose skills would no doubt be useful; and little Sextus, who could be trusted to wait, watch and keep his mouth shut.

Marcus studied the crumbling plaster beside the door. ‘What do you make of that?’

It was similar to graffito you could find on any Roman street corner, but the crude carving resembled a slim bag closed at the neck. The bag lay horizontally with the letters MCVII beneath it. The design had been recently cut, which might make it significant.

‘Some kind of sign, but it could mean anything. The number might be eleven hundred and seven, or MC might be a street in the seventh district.’ Valerius looked at the carving again and something stirred in his memory. Seneca had said Petrus had been a fisherman. ‘Could it be a fish?’

‘Funny-looking kind of fish, but maybe they’re different where he comes from.’

‘I think it’s a message from Petrus to his followers. Leave Serpentius here and tell him to watch for anyone who comes along to take a look, then follow them.’

Marcus nodded. ‘And us?’

‘Lucina Graecina.’

The gladiator looked as if he’d just bitten into a lemon. ‘Is that who I think it is?’

‘That’s right.’

‘I knew this was going to be trouble.’

Lucina Graecina: Rome’s empress without a throne. The woman rumoured to have been Claudius’s lover before he had been seduced by Agrippina. The woman who despised Nero more than anyone in the Empire.

‘Is it true Nero only keeps her alive because he’s worried she’ll be waiting for him on the other side?’

Valerius nodded. ‘That and the fact that her husband is the man who conquered Britain. Aulus Plautius and Lucina have ample reason to hate Nero. Lucina blames the Emperor for killing their son.’

Lucina seldom showed her face in the city, preferring to travel in a closed litter carried by six British slaves. The original bearers had been members of King Caratacus’s personal bodyguard captured by her husband in the great battle which had won Britain for Rome twenty years earlier. Lucina was said to have worked them to death in three years. Since then she’d replaced them several times, always from the same tribe, the warlike Catuvellauni. Naturally, Rome being Rome, the gossips whispered that it wasn’t only carrying her that had worn the muscular Britons out.

Valerius had seen her only once, when she had been forced from the litter at a Praetorian checkpoint. He remembered a narrow, glaring face masked by the white powder of mourning; a tall, bony woman of late middle age with a back as straight as a cavalry spear. They couldn’t have been more different in appearance, but her bearing had reminded him of the Iceni queen, Boudicca. He told Marcus: ‘I want a watch on her house day and night and a report of all her movements.’

For the next two days Valerius barely left Olivia’s side, listening to the sound of her shallow breathing as she fought whatever demons were consuming her from within. Since Lucius had abdicated responsibility for her, it had fallen to Valerius to take over his sister’s guardianship. In theory, according to the Twelve Tables, the rules that were the very foundation of Roman law, he had the power of life and death over her, even though she was a respectable widow who had run a married household for five years. The thought made him shake his head. If he truly had power he would use it to save her from this insidious living death: which brought him to his dilemma.

Whether as Petrus, the Rock, or Joshua, the physician, the Judaean’s skills were Olivia’s best, perhaps only, chance of salvation. Yet Valerius was under orders from Nero to deliver him for torture and execution, and under obligation to Seneca to do the same. When he found him he would have a decision to make. But first he had to find him. What made a man like the Judaean leave everyone dear to him to follow a charlatan like this Christus? He remembered the intelligent eyes and the ageless, worn-out smile; taut self-control and a well of inborn compassion. A good man, by anyone’s definition of good. No hint of insanity or covetousness or ambition. Valerius had heard of men who could control the minds of other men through drugs or by weakening them with deprivation. Could that be Christus’s magic? Yet the mystic had died thirty years ago on a cross; how did it explain Petrus’s continuing to risk his life to spread the man’s words? It seemed absurd. And yet Petrus had believed. Valerius shivered. The room seemed to have gone cold. If a man like Petrus could be convinced, then perhaps dead Christus and the men who followed him truly were the great danger Nero imagined.

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