XLVI

Nero frowned as he studied the dark-haired figure kneeling before him in the throne room of his commandeered Neapolitan palace. Poppaea had sent word by messenger of the troubling news and now she was here to provide him with details of Rodan’s treachery and Torquatus’s late-flowering and ultimately fatal heroism. It was perplexing, but he would not let it spoil his mood.

‘The Praetorian centurion planned to abduct you and sell you to the pirates of Sandalion?’

‘Just so, Caesar,’ she said quietly. ‘He admitted as much before good Torquatus killed him.’ Her voice choked as she spoke the Praetorian prefect’s name and Nero could see it distressed her.

‘Rise, my dear. You must not kneel before your Caesar. A chair for the Empress,’ he ordered.

Strange that Torquatus had shown such concern for Poppaea after so many years of enmity. Then again, perhaps not. He had hinted at some great coup in the offing. This was undoubtedly it.

He waited until she was seated before he resumed his questioning. ‘And the traitor’s accomplices?’

‘All dead, Caesar. The Praetorians who rode with Torquatus were most thorough.’

‘Of course,’ he mused. ‘They must be rewarded for their diligence. A pity, though, that none was spared to be put to the question.’

A second figure had been waiting in the shadows. Now Nero waved him forward. Valerius marched across the marble floor and knelt before his Emperor.

Nero’s tone changed. Imperious and harsh. Each word a challenge. ‘You accompanied Torquatus here in search of the traitor Rodan? Why, when I had given you such an important mission to complete? You understand it is death to disobey your Emperor?’

Poppaea drew in a sharp breath. Valerius raised his head and Nero felt a shiver of unease as he saw the angry reddened eyes and the raw scar that disfigured the drawn features. Here, for the first time, he was seeing the Gaius Valerius Verrens who had stood before Colonia and defied the hordes of the rebel queen.

‘My Emperor honoured me with the title of Defender of Rome.’ The voice was as hard as the face from which it emerged. ‘What is Rome if she is not the man who rules her? A threat to Caesar’s wife is a threat to Caesar himself. When I discovered that threat I did what any soldier would do and moved against it with all the forces at my disposal. If that means death, so be it.’

Nero scowled at the provocation and wriggled in his golden chair. He was already becoming bored with this conversation. All he truly wanted was to let his mind return to the triumph of the previous night. He had defied the earthquake to entertain the people of Neapolis even as they fled in terror from the crumbling theatre. As the rest of the world panicked, he alone had stood firm and his sweet voice had never faltered. It had been the finest performance of his life. For the first time, he knew that he no longer needed to stand in the shadow of the gods. That knowledge allowed him to view the events Poppaea had just related, and Valerius had confirmed, with more equanimity than might otherwise have been the case. In Torquatus he had sensed a growing problem; a boil which might, at some point, require to be lanced. There were questions, of course, but they could be kept for another time. However, there was one more matter to be resolved.

‘You were tasked with finding this… Rock… and the time you were allocated ends at sundown. You are aware of the consequences of failure?’

Valerius nodded slowly. This was the true reason for his presence and now the moment was here his throat felt as if it was filled with sand. Twenty thousand lives depended on his next words. ‘I plead for Caesar’s indulgence.’ He saw Nero’s eyes harden but he kept his voice steady. ‘The man called Petrus, known as the Rock of Christus, is in my custody in Rome, to be presented in chains at the Emperor’s convenience.’

This was the great gamble. If he delivered Petrus to Nero at the same moment Poppaea announced that Rodan had turned traitor and Torquatus had died, the Emperor would undoubtedly link the events. Yet, by not doing so, he risked Nero’s insisting that his deadline had not been met and ordering the massacre of the Judaeans in any case.

Nero’s cold eyes studied him intently and Valerius felt sweat break out on his brow as he saw the calculations going through the other man’s mind. He would never realize his good fortune. From the moment the Emperor had announced his decision to a trusted group of officials he had been bombarded by concerns about the inconvenience and the expense of the massacre. Rome’s Judaeans formed a small but crucial element of the city’s economy, and their loss would have a significant negative effect on imperial finances at a time when the financial forecasts were already poor. Twenty thousand executions would necessarily require to be carried out by a full legion, so the victims must be gathered and marched to the circus, with all the organizational and security implications that entailed. And did he understand the effort required to dispose of twenty thousand bodies?

‘I am inclined to be merciful.’ Valerius felt the room spin. ‘The Judaeans will be spared. You will deliver this man to me on the nones of June…’ It was only when the Emperor’s voice rose that Valerius realized he hadn’t heard a word of the rest of the speech. He looked from Poppaea to the man on the throne.

‘I said Gaius Valerius Verrens, Hero of Rome, has the Emperor’s thanks and is free to return to Rome.’ Valerius rose shakily to his feet and bowed. He walked towards the sunshine and freedom and a day he had thought would never come. ‘And Verrens?’ He froze. ‘Perhaps it would be wise if you took up the offer from my friend Vitellius. A spell in the provinces might be beneficial to your health.’

Nero turned away, and Valerius found he could breathe again.

‘Come, my dear.’ The Emperor led his wife towards the scale model of Rome which had accompanied them to Neapolis. ‘I will show you my plans for our new home.’

Poppaea smiled sweetly. She immediately noticed a change in the landscape between the two hills of the Palatine and the Esquiline. In the valley, the land currently occupied by ten thousand Romans was buried beneath the largest palace the world had ever seen.

Nero saw her startled look. ‘Do not worry, my love,’ he said cheerfully. ‘The gods will provide.’

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