XXVI

It was strange, this sensation of being one of the walking dead. He could almost feel the executioner’s breath on the back of his neck. Of course, nothing was certain in Nero’s world, but there was no denying he had failed, and in Nero’s world death would always be a potential consequence of failure.

On his return to Rome, Valerius had spent a few minutes with his sister before dropping into his bed, exhausted after four days in the saddle. Julia was nowhere to be seen, but he sensed an unease among his household staff that might have been prompted by Olivia’s condition. She had made little progress and it was clear that if he didn’t track down the Judaean healer soon it might be too late. When he woke next day he decided against going directly to the palace, but rather to test the political temperature with Fabia first. The beautiful courtesan welcomed him with an embrace that almost crushed his ribs and a kiss that didn’t seem respectable at that hour of the morning.

‘You must never leave me for so long again,’ she scolded, making him feel guilty the way only a woman can. Vitellius’s suggestion intrigued her. ‘He has powerful friends and it is a good offer. You could be a combination of general, administrator and politician, thus satisfying your own ambitions and your father’s.’

Valerius nodded. ‘But before I give him his answer I have to survive, and that seems less likely with every passing day.’ She turned pale as he told her about the mountain ambush in Moesia and the trap the legate had set for him.

‘You must be careful, Valerius. If you have truly made an enemy of Nero you will never be safe.’

‘If it is Nero then I am already dead, and there is little point in worrying about it. I will put my affairs in order and act as if every day is my last. But if it is not, then I need to find out who it is and why. I don’t trust Torquatus, but I can’t see why he would want me killed. If Cornelius Sulla had still been alive I might have suspected him, but…’

‘Rome still whispers of Cornelius’s execution,’ Fabia said. ‘The Emperor went too far. The rest were slaves and criminals but Cornelius was born a Roman citizen and a patrician. To put him to death without trial, and in such a fashion, went against everything the Empire stands for. If it can happen to Cornelius then no one can feel safe.’

‘Publius Sulla hinted that Nero had a Christus follower at the very heart of his court. These people operate in the shadows, but they are not solitary. Their worship is a communal affair. Whoever it is must have the freedom to come and go from the palace — unless they used Cornelius as a channel to Petrus. It’s possible that is why he took the risk of meeting Lucina. I need to find out who of the inner circle was most friendly with Cornelius.’

‘And you want me to help you? Of course I will try, but it sounds so unlikely. You have experience of palace occasions, but you cannot imagine how suffocating it is to be part of Nero’s inner circle.’

‘You were part of it,’ he pointed out.

A shadow fell over the sapphire eyes. ‘Oh, Valerius, you can be so naive. The reality is that I was nothing more than an object to be used and discarded. I neither listened nor spoke, because to do so would have put my life at risk. I played my part in their little games and left.’

‘But you know who they are?’

Fabia nodded. ‘Too many to make your task simple. Cornelius made himself accommodating to many. Torquatus for one. Epaphradotus, the Emperor’s secretary, for another. Poppaea’s ladies in waiting. Menecrates, the harper, and Spicillus, who is the new darling of the arena, are the latest targets of Nero’s affections. Cornelius was close to both. Any one of them could be a candidate for your Christus follower, but after what happened to Cornelius they are even less likely to stand on the rostrum and shout about it. If you are right and it was one of them who tried to engineer your death they would have to feel very secure.’

‘Someone like Torquatus?’

Fabia laughed bitterly. ‘I cannot think of anyone less likely to be seduced by the rantings of some obscure Judaean mystic than Decimus Torquatus.’

‘I would never have suspected Cornelius,’ he said.

She shook her head. ‘Not Torquatus.’

He studied her. She seemed very certain and he wondered why. Fabia had always been well informed about what happened on the Palatine. When he’d occasionally asked where she’d heard some of the things she told him she’d passed it off as malicious pillow talk, but, when he thought back, there had been times when he’d wondered how she could know quite so much. Still, every detail could help him understand the nature of the threat against him. ‘I can’t delay reporting to the Emperor any longer. Tell me what has been happening at the palace while I’ve been gone.’

When she sulked she looked like a little girl. ‘Always business these days, Valerius. You must come for a little relaxation soon. Galba is still out of favour…’

He left twenty minutes later and made his way through the Forum to the Palatine. The day had started bright, but while he was with Fabia grey thunderclouds had gathered low above the city, piled up like untidy pyramids over the rumpled expanse of ochre, white and gold that was Rome. The gloom cast by the clouds suited his mood. Here in the monster’s shadow his Stoic acceptance of his fate was exposed for the sham it was.

Six stony-faced palace guards who collected him at the summit of the Clivus Palatinus appeared to confirm his intuition. The soldiers escorted him down a set of steep steps to a marble-lined tunnel that cut beneath the palaces and the gardens. It was long and curved and floored with beautiful mosaics, with curtained alcoves set at intervals along its length. The alcoves contained the usual gilded collection of emperors, generals and gods, and it wasn’t until he noticed the long neck and soft, boyish features of one of these figures that he realized this must be the passageway where Caligula had been assassinated by men just like his escort. The thought sent a shiver through him. It seemed an unlikely place for such an act of savagery, but it would take only a single word of command and he would follow the former Emperor to the otherworld in a blizzard of swords. He was sweating by the time a second set of steps took them back into the open at the southern edge of the hill. Once, ordinary men had lived here, if you could call men whose names rang down through the ages, like Cicero and Catulus, Marcus Antonius and Quintus Hortensius, ordinary. Their mansions had originally lined the hilltop, but they had been driven out by money and power and by death. Every man had to die, but of all the men he had named only one had died in his bed.

A lone figure in white stood silhouetted against a sky which grew darker by the minute. Valerius flinched as a bolt of lightning ripped the far horizon and its flash lit the sky. A few seconds later a crash of thunder shook the air and the Emperor turned to him with a smile that was belied by the unnatural light in his eyes.

‘Even an Emperor cannot command the elements,’ he said regretfully. ‘The augurs say it means the gods are angry. Do you believe that?’

Valerius hesitated before deciding it would do no harm to tell the truth. ‘No, Caesar, I think wars are the way the gods show their anger.’

Nero nodded. ‘It seems to me that we blame the gods for the things we fear. You are a warrior; do you fear war?’

‘I do not fear war, but no sane man welcomes it… just as no man welcomes death.’

The Emperor frowned, as if the thought had never occurred to him. ‘Yes, death… you allowed Publius Sulla to kill himself before you could question him?’

Valerius heard the Praetorians moving in behind him and he saw Nero’s eyes flick towards them. It seemed someone was a step ahead of him again. He had rehearsed this moment in his mind a dozen times, determined to show no weakness. But reality was different. The words stuck in his throat and he felt shame at the fear he could hear in his voice. ‘Yes, Caesar.’

‘Then you have failed me. Failure requires punishment. Do you agree?’ The last three words were snapped out like nails hammered into a cross.

Valerius raised his head and looked directly into the pale eyes. He would not plead.

A faint rattle of metal told him the men behind him were preparing to strike and he knew — knew — that the other man was imagining the swords rising and falling, the haze of scarlet as the blades hacked into his body. He closed his eyes and waited for the first blow.

An eternity passed before the Emperor finally spoke. Valerius winced as another clap of thunder shattered the silence. When he looked up he found Nero studying him.

‘I said you have ten days to hunt down this Petrus.’ Valerius opened his mouth to protest. But there was worse to come. ‘At noon on the tenth day I will have every Judaean subject in Rome driven to the circus,’ Nero waved a hand at the great arena a hundred and fifty feet below, ‘and put to the sword. And you with them.’

He walked away, leaving Valerius to stare down at the oval of sand that would be stained with the blood of twenty thousand innocents if he failed.

Valerius’s feet took him back through the Forum, but the real world only existed inside his head, where his mind wrestled with the terrible implications of what he had just been told. Surely not even Nero…? But yes, he could. Valerius saw again Cornelius’s screaming, flame-filled mouth. The girl’s pleading face. The merciless glow in a leopard’s eyes. It was the same glow he had seen when Nero turned to greet him. But twenty thousand people? Somewhere to his left were the Gemonian stairs where executed criminals were left to rot. Soon his body could be lying among them.

He stumbled blindly through the crowds, bumping into hurrying figures who cursed him or thrust him aside.

‘Valerius!’

He blinked and the scene about him came into sharp focus, including the concerned features of Marcus. What now?

‘Lucina Graecina is taken.’

He closed his eyes. How many more obstacles could the gods place before him? ‘When?’ he demanded. ‘Where is she?’

‘Two weeks ago. In the prison.’ Marcus pointed across the Forum towards the base of the Capitoline Hill. ‘In the Carcer.’

May the gods help her. People who went into the Carcer seldom came out. But he had no choice, he had to find a way to free Lucina. Standing in the shadow of the great men who dominated the Forum — Caesar, Pompey and Augustus — he suddenly felt very small and wearied to the bone. He was a soldier. He was not equipped for plotting and conspiracy. But what else could he do? Too many lives depended on him to give up now.

It was unlikely any acquaintance would have recognized Valerius when he returned to the Forum the next morning. Now he wore the sculpted silver breastplate of a tribune of the Guard, with the black cloak covering his shoulders and his helmet low over his brow to hide a face which wore an expression of grim resolve. Behind him, equally stern, marched his escort; one tall and swarthy, his face set in a sneer as if everything and everyone around him stank, and an older guardsman, patently nearing the end of his sixteen-year commission, with the scars of his campaigns etched deep on his face.

‘Keep your backs straight and try to look like soldiers,’ Valerius warned them.

Serpentius set his shoulders and glared defiance at anyone who looked like getting in his way. Marcus muttered something about strutting peacocks and did his level best to stay in step. They were approaching the doorway of the imperial prison on the east side of the Capitoline Hill. Valerius, like all his countrymen, had heard the tales of what happened inside those walls. Now he was going to bluff his way into the most feared building in Rome.

He walked up the steps and hammered on the door of the prison. ‘Open in the name of the Emperor! Tribune Verrens to question the prisoner Lucina Graecina.’

With a clatter, a small shutter opened in the doorway to reveal a pinched, suspicious face with the features of a cornered rat.

‘Tribune Verrens to question the prisoner Lucina Graecina,’ Valerius repeated.

The rat yawned. ‘I’ll need to see your orders.’

Valerius leaned close to the opening and almost gagged on the stink of the jailer’s breath. ‘Nothing written down for this one,’ he said confidentially. ‘The orders came direct from prefect Torquatus himself. That’s right, soldier?’ He nodded to Marcus.

‘Nothing on paper. Tribune Verrens to question the prisoner about crimes against the Roman people,’ Marcus confirmed. ‘Results to be communicated direct to the Praetorian prefect without delay.’

‘Without delay,’ Valerius echoed.

The jailer sniffed noisily and sighed. Suspicion was replaced by a look of pained confusion. His job wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was meant to be simple. No one got in without orders, unless they made him a decent offer, and even then he wouldn’t take a bribe if he smelled trouble. But the tribune’s obvious authority and the Praetorian uniforms made it complicated. What made it more complicated were the special instructions he’d been given for the care of the prisoner.

‘A moment, sir,’ he whined. He disappeared, only to return a minute later with an expression of resigned failure. The shutter slammed shut and they heard the rattle of bolts before the door swung open, bringing with it a waft of stale sweat, dried urine and sour wine.

‘Stay here,’ Valerius ordered the two men.

‘Our pleasure.’ Marcus grinned.

Valerius removed his helmet and stooped to enter the doorway. Inside, the heat was stifling and the stagnant air thick enough to chew. His stomach rebelled at a combination of filth and suffering and despair that reminded him of the last day in the Temple of Claudius. The jailer proved to be taller than he had appeared, but he walked with a permanent crouch as a result of his long service in the low-ceilinged chamber. For a place with such a terrible reputation, the Carcer was surprisingly small, and made more so by the wooden partition which hid the rear of the chamber. In the centre of the floor a dark, noxious hole had been sunk, and for a moment Valerius’s spirits quailed at the thought that Lucina was being held in the notorious tullianum. Below him was the pit of horrors where the Catiline conspirators had met their end, the African king Jugurtha had been starved to death and the executioners had strangled Vercingetorix, the rebel Gaul who had defied Caesar.

The jailer saw his look and his face twisted into an unpleasant grin. ‘Nah, we don’t keep Mother Rome down there. Not yet anyway. She’s marked for special attention she is.’

‘Mother Rome?’ Valerius was mystified.

‘You’ll see. Tullius!’

A curtain opened in the partition and a second man appeared, unshaven and as filthy as the first. ‘Gentleman wants to see the pretty lady. I’ll have your sword, sir, if you don’t mind. Rules are rules.’ Valerius reluctantly complied. ‘Not that you’d hurt her, I’m sure. I was a bit surprised you being sent to question her, though, what with all them others being here day after day.’

The stench from the rear of the chamber was even more noxious than that emanating from the tullianum, and at first Valerius found it difficult to see in the gloom. A figure stepped out of the darkness and he cursed.

The ruined face grinned mockingly. Rodan was dressed in a stained white tunic and stank of old wine, but his hand held a sword, a gladius like the one Valerius had surrendered a moment earlier.

‘I thought you’d be here sooner,’ the Praetorian said conversationally. ‘Torquatus was very keen you should get a chance to talk to the lady.’

He ushered Valerius forward, but the young Roman wasn’t fooled by the show of manners. Rodan’s wild eyes, and the way he held the sword, were utterly at odds with the softness of his voice. He took two cautious steps into the chamber. When he saw what waited in the darkness he felt the blood drain from his face. ‘Who did this?’

He had seen war in all its awfulness, and cruelty and death that had reached its height on the night he’d watched Cornelius Sulla burn. But the humiliation Nero had devised for Lucina Graecina somehow overshadowed them all.

‘She’s been in there for more than two weeks,’ Rodan reflected. ‘She’s a tough old bitch.’

They had placed Lucina Graecina in a low, barred cage of the type used to transport wild animals from Africa for the arena. Gone was the haughty noblewoman he had met in the garden. She had been replaced by this naked, filth-streaked crone, her stringy body patterned with burns and bruises and her face hidden behind the matted curtain of her hair. The pen was too short to allow her to lie down in any comfort and too low for her to sit up. Instead, she was forced to crouch on all fours, with the bars cutting agonizingly into her knees.

‘Mother Rome.’ Rodan laughed. ‘With her dry tits hanging down like that, she looks just like the old she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus.’

Valerius remembered the pride and defiance of the woman he had met in the garden and restrained the urge to smash his wooden fist into the grinning face. ‘You did this?’

The Praetorian spat on the soiled straw at his feet. ‘On the orders of the Emperor. Lucina Graecina is a traitor to Rome and is to be questioned to reveal her associates and anyone connected with the sect of Christus, the Galilean. You are to take any steps necessary to ensure her full co-operation.’ He laughed. ‘Any steps.’

‘I should kill you here and now, and the jailers. It would be a month before anyone noticed the stink from that hole. If they ever did.’

‘You could try,’ Rodan said, weighing his sword and moving between Valerius and the doorway. ‘Maybe that’s what the Emperor had in mind all along.’

‘I want to talk to her.’

The Praetorian shrugged, amusement in his eyes. ‘You don’t want to kill me?’

‘Let me talk to her. Alone.’

Rodan disappeared through the partition. Valerius could hear the man’s laughter ringing in his ears.

When they were alone, he crouched over the cage where Lucina knelt, her body shaking with terror and pain. She felt his presence and cringed away like a beaten animal.

‘My lady,’ he whispered. ‘I will do what I can for you, but first you must help me. I need to know who betrayed you and I need you to tell me the significance of the numbers MCVII. The time for saying nothing is past. Please.’

The bowed head turned towards him and the tangled mass of hair parted. He looked into a face made unrecognizable by her suffering and recoiled from two red-rimmed eyes that mirrored the deepest pits of Hades. Lucina Graecina, noblewoman of Rome, threw back her head and howled like the she-wolf she resembled.

She was quite mad.

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