XVIII

Nero’s invitation couldn’t have been more inconvenient. At best, it would be an evening of excruciating performances by the Emperor and his latest artist friends, the braying actors and falsetto-voiced singers who jostled each other to inform him how talented he was. At worst? Well, Valerius would find out. The memory of their last meeting was still fresh and the thought of the questing tongue and rank breath turned his stomach. He had spent the last hour with Fabia, in a vain attempt to unravel the mystery of Cornelius Sulla’s disappearance, and had looked forward to an evening at home. The venue, the circus Caligula had built on the Vatican meadows on the far side of the city, could hardly be worse placed. It made a theatrical or musical performance less likely, but with Nero it was impossible to tell. The arena was mainly used for the horse and chariot races the Emperor loved. Perhaps he was planning to hold a chariot race in the dark.

‘Still no sign of Cornelius or the girl,’ Marcus reported as Valerius readied himself to leave.

‘Don’t worry, they’ll turn up. Cornelius will probably make an appearance at the entertainment tonight.’

‘Do you want us to watch your back?’

He shook his head. ‘No. I doubt Rodan will get up to any mischief. Take the others to a tavern for the evening. We’ll meet tomorrow to decide what to do next.’ He saw the scarred gladiator hesitate. ‘What is it?’

Marcus shrugged. ‘Serpentius has offered to stay in the house to make sure your sister is safe.’

‘That’s good of him. He can find a bed in the slave quarters.’

‘That’s what he’s planning. Only I think he’s become a bit sweet on that girl of yours. A pretty little piece.’

Valerius smiled. ‘He’ll find Julia is a little piece with sharp claws if he tries anything on with her. She knows her own mind. The Snake might have his tail chopped off. But I still think it will do no harm to have a man like Serpentius about the house.’

He sent a servant to check if his chair had arrived and walked through to Olivia’s room. Julia sat by the bed where his sister lay as pale as any ghost. The girl gasped when she saw the tall figure silhouetted in the doorway.

‘I’m sorry I scared you,’ he said reassuringly. ‘I came to tell you that Serpentius will be staying tonight to guard you both. He may look an intimidating character, but he has a good heart.’

She nodded. ‘I like him. He makes me giggle. But I sense a darkness in him; he is almost as frightening as you.’

Frightening? He almost laughed at the thought, before he realized how true it was. In many ways he’d become as stern as his father, all the lightness driven from him by his experiences in Britain and the strains of Olivia’s illness. ‘You have no reason to be afraid of me, Julia.’

‘I wanted to tell you.’

‘I’m glad you have. I promise to change.’

‘No, I don’t mean that. I mean about your father.’

The room seemed to go very still. Outside, beyond the shuttered windows, he could hear the sound of voices and knew the chair had arrived, but he ignored it.

‘What about my father?’

‘He made me promise not to say anything. When you asked me if we had visitors, I lied. He has been coming to sit with Olivia once or twice each week since she became ill. I wanted to tell you, but…’

Valerius placed his hand on her shoulder and turned her face to him. He brushed the tears from her cheek with his fingers. ‘Poor Julia, caught between two horrible, frightening men. No wonder you’ve been so sad lately.’ And poor Father, so determined not to appear weak that he couldn’t allow the people he loved to know how much he cared for them. ‘I have to go now. Look after Olivia for me.’ He bent down and kissed her on the forehead.

Four slaves carried the chair and made good time through the centre of the city and across the Pons Vaticanus to the west bank of the Tiber. Trees lined the pathway from the bridge to the circus and, among them, men stacked wood for the bonfires that would light the guests home at the end of the night. To his right, he passed the curious Meta Romuli, the narrow pyramid that marked where Romulus was said to be buried. Ahead loomed the walls of the circus, which was grander, but not greater, than the mighty Maximus on the other side of Rome.

The chair men set him down and he arranged to be picked up by the bridge at the second hour after dark, when Nero’s invitation stipulated the evening would end. An imperial aide conducted him along a narrow, tiled corridor to the far end of the circus. Other guests were arriving, but not as many as he would have expected for an event like this. It was obviously to be a select gathering, and he wondered again why he’d been invited. He noted three former consuls and any number of senators and their wives, most of whom were pleased to look down their noses at him. But a few recognized him as a Hero of Rome and he exchanged bows with the elegant patrician Laecanius Bassus, who had just taken over the consulship from his deadly rival Regulus.

Eventually, a crowd of close to a hundred gathered in the grand hall which opened out on to the imperial and senatorial boxes. Valerius accepted a cup of wine and retired to a corner where he wouldn’t need to make polite conversation with people he didn’t know. He’d been standing there for a few minutes when he detected a sweet scent in the air and felt a malevolent presence at his side.

‘I’m surprised you are not showing off your trophy, my hero. Surely this would be just the occasion to impress people with the Gold Crown of Valour?’ Rodan wore a broad smile and made no attempt to disguise the mockery in his voice. His ego, never buried too deep, was as inflated as a startled puffer fish. Rodan was pleased with himself and that didn’t bode well for someone.

Valerius ignored him and Rodan nodded absently. ‘The Emperor and lord Torquatus are grateful for your efforts.’

A simple statement which contained no overt threat. So why did it carry the chill of a dagger point rattling across a skeleton’s ribs?

Before Valerius could react a fanfare sounded, and Nero, in a toga of imperial purple and with a gold laurel wreath clinging to his sparse hair, descended the broad staircase with Poppaea Augusta at his side. He smiled benevolently at all around him, but his wife’s face displayed nothing but coldness and indifference. She might have been walking through an empty corridor for all the attention she paid to her surroundings. Valerius knew Fabia enjoyed Poppaea’s company, but he felt an instinctive dislike for the Emperor’s wife. She created a barrier around herself that was as impenetrable as a legionary testudo and her eyes hinted at a capacity for petty cruelty. She glanced towards him and he noted a flash of recognition before the emotionless mask returned. Suddenly the room felt a much more dangerous place. Servants appeared with golden platters of food and the aristocrats fell like carrion birds on dishes of roasted song thrush, delicately fried tongue of lark and flamingo, and white-fleshed moray eel. As the wine flowed, the atmosphere became more intense and expectant, and the chamber filled with heat and noise. Valerius slipped away from Rodan and found his senses swamped by a sea of scarlet faces, bulging, intense eyes and ceaseless, self-important conversation. He allowed his mind to return to the pool with Ruth and it was a few moments before he realized the room had gone quiet and Nero was speaking. He was talking about Christus.

‘… the weak and the gullible follow a charlatan cast out by his own people; the so-called Son of God brought to earth. A common criminal tried and found guilty under Roman law at the instigation of a Judaean council too timid to bring him to justice themselves.

‘And now they are among us, yes, perhaps even among us here, burrowing into the very foundations of the Empire like rock-worms eating away at the stones upon which Rome is built. These followers of the man Christus would tear down our temples and cast out our gods, but I… will… not… allow… it. They believe they are hidden from us, but our eyes are upon them. The man they revere claimed he could perform miracles, and they believed him. He promised them eternal life, but to achieve this eternal life they must first be willing to experience death. I rule Rome and I, not this Christus, will grant them their wish.’

At his final words the great doors at the far end of the room were thrown open and Nero and Poppaea led the way out to the viewing platform which looked along the length of the circus. Valerius held back, but Rodan appeared beside him and took his arm. ‘Oh no, my hero,’ he said cheerfully. ‘The Emperor has ordered a special place set aside for you. Think of this as a lesson as much as an entertainment.’

Reluctantly, Valerius allowed himself to be led to the front of the great curved balcony that dominated the western end of the arena. The soft, ethereal haze that heralded dusk was settling over the city, but it would not be dark for another hour. Ahead of him the circus stretched away for five hundred paces, a narrow oval of hard-packed sand split by a central spine with a turning post at each end and an enormous carved stone obelisk in the centre. To his right was the lavish imperial box where Nero whispered into Poppaea’s ear. Away to his left were the seven bronzed dolphins of the lap counter. Tiered stands overlooked every yard of the circuit and the track on either side of the spine appeared so narrow it was difficult to imagine four- and six-horse chariot teams overtaking each other, but Valerius had seen the Reds and the Greens matched wheel to wheel at the corner. Today the spectators were to be treated to a different spectacle.

The near end of the circus, between the closest turning post and the curved platform, had been turned into a separate arena by a twelve-foot fence of metal bars. As he watched, Praetorian guards herded a huddle of terrified prisoners into the centre of the open space. There must have been close to twenty of them, more men than women.

‘Only six or seven of them are followers of the Judaean,’ Rodan whispered. ‘The rest are condemned criminals, but it is the example that matters, don’t you think? Do you see anyone you recognize?’

Valerius froze. What did he mean? He frantically studied the men and women, but they were massed so close together it was difficult to identify individuals. Then he caught sight of a hank of silver hair and a slim, familiar figure. He half rose, but a sharp prick at his ribs stopped him. He looked down to find Rodan holding a small dagger he’d taken from the folds of his tunic.

‘No heroics today. We have more work to do, you and I.’

Valerius knew Rodan wouldn’t dare kill him without Nero’s sanction and he was ready to leap on to the sand to his father’s rescue. But, when he looked again, he had a clearer view of the silver-haired man. It wasn’t Lucius, but a much older person. Rodan grinned at him and he reluctantly resumed his place beside the Praetorian, his heart numb with dread.

Nero stood to address the captives, his querulous tones ringing around the empty circus.

‘You worship one god to the exclusion of all others. Where is your god today? Let him show me a single sign that he loves you and I will spare every one of you.’ He paused, studying the sky like a bad actor in a Greek tragedy. ‘You see, there is no sign, and there will be none because your god only exists in your own minds, which have been warped by those who lead you. The man you follow claimed to be the son of that false god, but he was a mere deceiver who dazzled simple country dwellers with crude conjuring tricks. He rebelled against Rome and was a traitor to his own people. He promised to save you, yet he could not even save himself. He offered you eternal life and you believed him.’ He waved his hand with a flourish and a door swung open in the opposite side of the arena. His plump, perspiring face hardened and Valerius had never seen anything so pitiless. ‘I grant you your wish.’

A lion roared, a thundering growl that seemed to shake the very stones of the circus and was quickly joined by the throat-tearing cough of a leopard. The beasts, five lions and two of the spotted cats, must have been starved for days because they didn’t hesitate as they burst into the light towards the little group huddled in the centre. A collective cry that tore Valerius’s heart rose from the captives and now the herd instinct that had held them together was broken by sheer terror. They splintered in every direction, a few sinking to the ground and raising their arms in supplication, but most fleeing in mindless panic, pleading for mercy they knew would not be forthcoming.

The old man Valerius had mistaken for his father died on his knees as a lioness tore his screaming head from his shoulders with a single twist of her enormous jaws. Blood sprayed bright across the sand. A muscular giant with a red face and heat-scarred arms faced up to a charging leopard, his features set in a determined scowl, but even a blacksmith’s strength counted for nothing against a big cat’s power. He went down under her weight and her rear legs stripped out his guts in a dozen frenzied sweeps as he howled in disbelief at the outrage done to his body. The wild beasts killed and killed again and the surviving prisoners clawed at the walls and the bars. All except one.

Cornelius’s girl.

The dark-haired figure hadn’t been visible among the huddle of prisoners, but now Valerius saw her running for her life, crying out for the laughing guards to take the cloth-wrapped bundle she held in her arms. A few paces away a lioness tracked her progress, the glowing yellow eyes never leaving her prey. The girl knew she was doomed, but she refused to give up. She ran on round the inner wall until some instinct brought her to the point where Valerius now stood hard against the balcony. Helplessly, she looked up at him, much too young, the face he recognized from the brothel turned ugly by fear. Among the cries of ecstasy and gasps of horror around him, he heard her shouted plea. ‘Please, sir, take my baby. If not me, at least save my child.’ Terror made her voice brittle and the words came out in a rush. With shaking hands she held the tiny bundle high, so Valerius could see the small dark eyes and pink, grizzling features. ‘Please!’

The big cat covered the ground in three enormous bounds, but the girl was driven by the speed of despair. In the very moment the lioness struck, she launched the baby upwards with every ounce of her remaining strength. Valerius saw it come, a featureless mass, the swaddling wrap fluttering loosely around it. The girl’s dying screams filled his ears as he stretched as far as he could reach with his left hand. He felt his fingers close on the coarse brown cloth and for a single heartbeat the baby’s weight was in his control. Relief washed through him as he drew the bundle towards the wall. But he had reckoned without the blood-hungry gods of the arena and they would not be denied. Slowly, the blanket began to unravel, uncoiling one relentless fold at a time from the doll-like figure it protected. Frantically he reached out with his other hand, but the lifeless wooden fist could find no grip on the child’s arm. A voice screamed inside his head as the soft thud of the child’s body on the sand was instantly followed by the snarls of two cats fighting over a morsel of prey.

For a few seconds his world went dark, but soon something nameless and terrible swelled inside him. He had never known such anger or such despair; a killing rage that was born in his lower body and rose up ready to erupt into suicidal violence. Still holding the blanket, he turned back towards Rodan. The Praetorian held the knife protectively in front of him, but fear marked his ruined face.

‘Harm me and your father dies,’ the centurion cried. ‘He dies.’

Valerius knew he could kill Rodan with a single blow, but what was the point when the man truly responsible was sitting a few paces away. ‘Your time will come, Rodan, and when it does, I hope it is my sword that sends you across the Styx.’

He turned towards where Nero sat, his jewelled fingers hooked on to the balcony as he leaned forward to savour every moment of the agony below. A dozen black guards separated Valerius from his target and every eye was on him. He knew that to take a single step in the Emperor’s direction was to commit suicide. The killing urge subsided, the fleeting moment gone. As he walked to the stairs his gaze met Poppaea’s. He expected to see contempt, even triumph, but instead she stared hard into his eyes and there seemed no mistaking the message she passed.

He hesitated, unsure whether he understood, before walking out of the circus into the clean air and the silence.

They stopped him in the long passageway to the entrance and took him to a room with bare walls which might have been a cell but for the scent of the hay that had been stored there. Valerius sat with his back to the cold stone and worked the coarse wool of the child’s blanket through his hands. He had promised Cornelius Sulla he would protect them, but the girl and her baby had died because of him. Nothing on earth would persuade him to deliver Cornelius or Lucina to Torquatus now, even if they killed him for it. The thought steadied him. He felt no fear, but the awfulness of what he had just witnessed had numbed his mind, so he had no control over the visions that flew through it. Savagery in war he could understand. Terror and self-preservation made soldiers kill without mercy and constant proximity to death often led to mindless cruelty. Two men fighting for their lives in the arena had a certain dignity, even honour, but to feed helpless men and women to wild animals and relish the spectacle seemed to him the lowest kind of barbarism, worse even than the druids who threw Roman prisoners into the blazing heart of the Wicker Man. They, at least, had the mitigation of hatred, the excuse of religion, however perverted. He saw again the frown of concentration on the girl’s face as she ignored her own fate in that last futile attempt to save her infant. Felt the cloth unwrap one fold at a time as the child fell away from him towards the sand.

‘It is not easy to be a defender of Rome.’ The softly spoken words came from the darkness. ‘You think us cruel? You are mistaken. It is not a matter of cruelty, but of duty. We would betray the Empire if we did not do what was necessary to counter this threat to our people. A cruel man might have exterminated every Judaean in Rome, man, woman and child. But we did not. Instead, we tasked our loyal Hero of Rome, Gaius Valerius Verrens, to seek out the leaders and the followers. The job is part done and, for that, we are grateful to him.’

Valerius shook his head. Was he dreaming? ‘The child…?’

‘It was not our intention to harm the child. The person who failed in his duty has been dealt with. Your work is not finished. Come.’ Nero emerged into the light, accompanied by his guards. Valerius raised himself to his feet and automatically fell in by his side. As they walked, he marvelled at the change in the man. The Nero of a few minutes earlier might never have existed. Which was the actor, the Nero of the arena or the Nero of now? Or were there many Neros hidden behind that single mask? Here was no capricious despot, but a ruler reacting to a threat against his people. Reasoned words spoken in honeyed tones. Crime must be punished. Disobedience must be deterred. The greater the danger, the more extreme the example that must be made. Rome would accept the worship of alien gods, but not to the exclusion of Rome’s gods. When he spoke of the paradox of power, Valerius might have been speaking to Seneca. When he spoke of his hopes for Rome, he might have been speaking to himself.

It made what was to come all the more shocking.

They had just reached the path back to the bridge when the first fire was lit and the screaming began. The victim had been tethered to a wooden stake and coated with gleaming black pitch from head to foot. In seconds all that was visible was a writhing column of flame with a tortured spectre at its centre emitting a sound no human had been born to make. Valerius steeled himself against the horror, knowing this was merely another part of the Emperor’s sadistic game, but he could not prevent himself from flinching as the first pyre was joined by another, then another, until ten of the ghastly pillars lit the way. The flames burned red, then gold, then red again as the fire consumed the final remnants of the human form. Then they came to Cornelius.

Nero’s executioners had left Cornelius Sulla’s face and head clear of the pitch, so Valerius instantly recognized the handsome features and golden hair. Bruises marked his flesh and blood flowed scarlet on to the shining black tar on his chest where he had bitten through his lip in his terror. The slight, youthful body shook uncontrollably in its bonds and he kept his eyes tight shut. Valerius thought he saw the aristocrat’s lips move and he asked the gods he didn’t believe in to grant a merciful end to the young man he, and he only, had placed on this stake.

Nero moved closer so he could study the bound figure. ‘He was braver than he seemed. He uttered only a single name when put to the question and he must have understood that name was already known to us.’ He nodded to an unseen presence in the darkness and a torch flared close to Cornelius’s feet. For a moment nothing appeared to happen before, with a soft, sputtering roar, an inferno engulfed the tethered body. Valerius saw Cornelius’s face twist and contort in the heat and the long golden hair was transformed instantly into a halo of golden flame. At last, the clenched teeth parted and his dying screams tortured the night.

‘He makes a better candle than a friend, don’t you think?’ Nero said almost absently. He turned so Valerius could see the flames reflected in his eyes. ‘Cornelius Sulla has a brother, Publius. Torquatus will give you instructions where to find him. You will bring him to us.’

He nodded and was gone, leaving Valerius to stare at a blackened skull with startling white teeth and burning eyes that were still alive.

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