Cato was still for a moment, focusing his thoughts before he told Florianus about the meeting with Narcissus in the imperial palace nearly three months earlier, at the end of March. Before then Macro and Cato had spent several months training recruits for the urban cohorts – the units assigned to police Rome's streets.The recruits were the type of men who would never be selected for the legions, and the two centurions had done their best to kick them into shape. It had been a thankless task, but even though Cato had been desperate to return to active service, the summons of the Imperial Secretary had filled him with foreboding.
The last mission that the imperial agent had sent them on had been a near suicidal operation to retrieve some scrolls, vital to the security of the Empire, from the clutches of a gang of pirates who had been preying on shipping along the coast of Illyricum.The Sybilline scrolls completed a set of sacred prophecies that were supposed to describe in some detail the future of Rome, and its ultimate fate. Naturally, the Emperor's right hand man had to win possession of such a treasure to safeguard his master and the Empire he served. Cato and Macro had been assigned training duties as a 'reward' for successfully finding the scrolls and delivering them safely into the hands of the Imperial Secretary. Macro was on leave when the messenger from Narcissus arrived at the barracks and so Cato approached the palace alone just as dusk thickened about the grimy walls and sooty tiles of the city.
An early spring storm was raging across the city as Cato entered the palace complex. He was escorted to the suite of the Imperial Secretary and then ushered into Narcissus' office by one of his neatly groomed clerks. Cato handed his drenched cape to the clerk before he crossed the room and sat on the chair that Narcissus waved him towards. Behind the Imperial Secretary was a glazed window through the panes of which the view of the city was distorted. Black clouds billowed across the sky, illuminated every so often by a dazzling flash of lightning that, for an instant, froze the city in brilliant whiteness, before the vision was snatched away and Rome was plunged once more into the shadows.
'Rested, I hope?' Narcissus attempted to look concerned. 'It's been several months since that campaign against the pirates.'
'I've been keeping fit,' Cato replied carefully. 'I'm ready to return to active service. So is Macro.'
'Good. That's good.' Narcissus nodded. 'And where is my friend Centurion Macro?'
Cato stifled a choke. The idea that Macro and this effete bureaucrat might be considered friends was sublimely ridiculous. He cleared his throat. 'On leave. He went to Ravenna to see his mother. She hasn't got over her loss.'
Narcissus frowned. 'Her loss?'
'Her man was killed during the final attack on the pirates.'
'Oh, I'm sorry,' Narcissus replied flatly. 'You must pass on my condolences, when you rejoin him. Before you take on your new task.'
Cato froze for a moment, feeling a sick sense of inevitability rise up as he realised the Imperial Secretary had further plans for him.
'I don't understand,' he said. 'I thought Macro and I were waiting to be reassigned to a legion.'
'Ah, well, the situation has changed. Rather, a new situation has emerged.'
'Really?' Cato smiled mirthlessly. 'And what would that be?'
'Those scrolls you recovered, I've been studying them closely for some time now, and I appear to have stumbled on to something quite interesting.' He paused. 'No. Not interesting. Frightening… As you might imagine, I concentrated on the prophecies relating to the immediate future, and I came across something that rather jarred my mind. You see, the seeds of the eventual downfall of Rome are being sown even now.'
'Let me guess – a plague of tax collectors?'
'Don't be glib, Cato. Leave that to Macro – he's better at it.'
'But he's not here.'
'What a pity. Now if I might continue?'
Cato shrugged. 'Go on then.'
Narcissus leaned forwards, clasped his palms together and propped up his chin as he began.'There was a passage in the scrolls which predicted that in the eighth century after the founding of Rome a great power would stir in the east. A new kingdom would be born that would destroy Rome utterly, and build a new capital on her ruins.'
Cato sniffed with derision.'Every mad prophet on the streets of Rome is spouting that kind of prediction.'
'Wait. It's more specific than that. It said the new empire would rise out of Judaea.'
'That's nothing I haven't heard scores of times before. Hardly a year goes by without the Judaeans discovering another great man to lead them to freedom from Rome. And if I've heard about these men, then you surely have.'
'Granted. But there is a new sect amongst the Judaeans that has come to my attention. I'm having my agents investigate them even now. Seems they are followers of a man who claimed to be some kind of divinity. Or at least that's what my agents say his followers are claiming now. I'm told that in reality he was the son of some rural craftsman. Jehoshua was the man's name.'
'Was? What happened to him?'
'He was accused of inciting civil disorder by the high priests in Jerusalem. They insisted that he be put to death, but lacked the guts to do it themselves, so the procurator at the time had this Jehoshua executed. Trouble was that, like so many of these prophets, he was quite charismatic. So much so that his coterie have managed to attract a large following in the years since his death. Unlike most other Judaean sects, this one promises them some kind of glorious afterlife when they die and go into the shades.' Narcissus smiled. 'You can see the appeal.'
'Perhaps,' Cato muttered. 'But it sounds like the usual religious quackery to me.'
'I agree with you, young man. But that's not stopping these people from finding new adherents.'
'Why not just stamp them out? Proscribe their leaders?'
'All in good time. If the need arises.'
Cato laughed. 'Are you saying these people are threatening to overthrow Rome?'
'No. At least not yet. But we're keeping an eye on them. If I judge them to be the threat identified by the scrolls then they will be… removed.'
Cato reflected that it was typical of the man to talk in such euphemisms. For an instant he felt contempt, then with a sudden flash of insight he wondered if the Imperial Secretary could only carry out his work because of a euphemistic frame of mind. After all, the decisions that Narcissus made frequently resulted in deaths. Necessary deaths perhaps, but deaths all the same. Opponents of the Emperor consigned to oblivion at the stroke of a pen. How that must weigh on a man's conscience. Far better for Narcissus to see them as a problem removed, rather than a string of corpses littering his wake. Of course, Cato thought, that presupposed the man had a conscience to be perturbed by the decisions of life and death that he made every day. What if he didn't? What if the euphemisms were merely a matter of rhetorical style? Cato shuddered. In that case Narcissus was completely without ethics. The ideal of Rome was no more than a hollow edifice whose real centre was the simple, unadorned greed and lust for power of the elite few. Cato tried to shake off such thoughts as he forced his mind to focus on the matter at hand.
'I didn't think you placed much faith in such prophecies?'
'Normally, I don't,' Narcissus admitted. 'But it so happens that the same day I read of this supposed threat to Rome, a rather disturbing intelligence dossier, compiled from reports from my agents in the eastern provices, happened to cross my desk. It seems that there is a confluence of dangers in the region. For one thing, these followers of Jehoshua are divided. One tendency, the version that even has its adherents in Rome, preaches some kind of unworldly pacifism. That we can live with. After all, what possible danger could come from such a philosophy? It is the second tendency that concerns me. The movement is led by Bannus of Canaan. He preaches resistance to Rome, by any and all means available to the people of Judaea. If that kind of philosophy overspilled the borders of the province then we really would be in trouble.'
'Indeed.' Cato nodded. 'But you implied there were more threats. What else is there?'
'Our old adversary, Parthia, on the one hand. Parthia is making a play for Palmyra; territory that directly encroaches on our frontier. Unhappily, this, the worsening situation in Judaea, and the rise of this man Bannus are further complicated by the fact that the Governor of Syria has been linked to the Liberators. Put it all together and even a cynical rationalist like me would consider it more than a little foolhardy to ignore the words of the prophecy.'
'What are you saying exactly?' Cato frowned. 'The prophecy could refer to any of these threats, assuming it has any validity at all.'
Narcissus leaned back in his chair and sighed. For a moment he said nothing, and Cato was conscious for the first time of the rattling of rain against the window. The wind must have changed.A distant flash of sheet lightning momentarily silhouetted the Imperial Secretary and after a pause the sound of thunder grumbled across the city.
Narcissus stirred. 'That's my problem, Cato. The wording is vague enough to embrace all of those threats. I need someone to investigate the matter further, assess the dangers, and if possible resolve them.'
'Resolve?' Cato smiled. 'Now that's a vague term if ever I heard one. Covers a multitude of possibilities.'
'Of course it does.' Narcissus smiled back. 'And it's up to you to discern the best means of resolving any issue you judge to constitute a threat to the Emperor.'
'You and Macro, of course. You can pick him up in Ravenna when you board a ship bound for the east.'
'Now, wait a moment-'
'Unfortunately, we can't wait. There's no time to waste.You must leave Rome immediately.'
Cato stared back at Narcissus with a hostile expression.'That last mission you sent us on nearly got us killed.'
'You're a soldier. Getting yourself killed is an occupational hazard.'
Cato stared at the Imperial Secretary for a moment, consumed with rage and a sense of injustice. He forced himself to answer as calmly as he could. 'Macro and I don't deserve this. Haven't we done enough for you already?'
'No man can do enough in the service of Rome.'
'Find someone else. Someone better suited to this kind of work. Let Macro and me get back to soldiering. It's what we do best.'
'You're both fine soldiers,' Narcissus agreed smoothly. 'As good as they come.And being soldiers is a useful cover for your real mission.You and Macro will be assigned to a frontier unit in the province. Since you belong to the select few who know about the prophecies you are the most obvious choice for the job.' He shrugged. 'In a way, you are victims of your own success, as the saying goes. Come now, Cato. It's not as if I'm asking you to risk your lives. I just want you to assess the situation.'
'And resolve it.'
'Yes, and resolve it.'
'By what means?'
'You will be acting with the full authority of the Emperor. I have prepared a document to that effect. It's waiting in another office, together with Centurion Macro's letter of appointment, the report from Caesarea and all the other material I felt it was relevant for you to see. I'd like you to read through it tonight.'
'All of it?'
'Yes, I think that would be wise, since you will be leaving Rome at dawn tomorrow.'
Centurion Florianus shook his head as Cato finished relating the details of the meeting. 'That's tough. The Imperial Secretary seems determined to make you boys earn every sestertian of your pay.'
Macro rolled his eyes. 'You can't imagine.'
'Of course,' Cato said quietly, 'you are never to speak to anyone else about the scrolls. Narcissus instructed me to inform you alone. Only a handful of people are aware of their existence, and we are the only three in all of the eastern provinces in the know. That's how Narcissus wants it to stay. Is that understood?'
'Very well,' Cato continued. 'I won't insult you by asking you to swear to secrecy. Knowing the Imperial Secretary as we all do, it's enough to imagine what he might do to us if we ever revealed the secret.'
'Don't worry,' Florianus replied casually. 'I know what becomes of those who fall foul of Narcissus. Before I came here, I was one of his interrogators.'
'Ah…' Macro made to speak, thought better of it, closed his mouth and impulsively thrust his cup towards Florianus. 'I think I need some more of your wine.'
As Macro took a hefty gulp from his replenished cup Florianus continued, 'So what is your plan?
'We'll start with Prefect Scrofa and Bannus,' said Cato. 'If we can sort them out then we might be able to prevent an uprising. Without that Longinus will have no reason to call for reinforcements. He won't be strong enough to march on Rome. If he's forced to hold his position, then, with luck, the Parthians will not dare to push their ambitions too far.'
'That's two ifs too many for my taste,' Macro muttered.
Cato shrugged. 'There's nothing we can do about it. At least until we reach the fort at Bushir.'
'When will you go?' asked Florianus.
'A fine host you are!' Macro laughed, and Florianus tried to stop himself blushing as he replied.
'I'm not trying to get rid of you. It's just that since you killed some of the sicarians in that skirmish down in the temple, their friends will be looking out for you. I'd advise you to look to your safety until you reach Bushir. Don't go anywhere alone. Always keep armed men close to you and watch your backs.'
'We always do,' Macro told him.
'Glad to hear it. Now, I imagine you'll want a guide. Someone who knows the route, as well as the lie of the land around Bushir.'
'That would be helpful,' said Cato. 'Do you know anyone we can trust?'
'None of the local people, that's for sure. But there's a man who should serve your needs. He usually works as a guide on the caravan routes to Arabia so he knows the land and the people well. Symeon's not exactly a friend of the Empire, but he's smart enough to know that nothing good will come out of any attempt to defy Rome.You can trust him that far at least.'
'Sounds useful.' Macro smiled. 'My enemy's enemy is my friend.'
Florianus nodded. 'Thus it ever was. Don't knock it, Macro.The adage works well enough. Now is there anything else I need to know? Anything I can do for you?'
'I don't think so.' Cato stared out over the ancient city. 'Given what you said about the sicarians, I think we should leave Jerusalem as soon as possible. Tomorrow morning, if possible.'
'Tomorrow?' Macro repeated in surprise.
'We should leave at first light. Try to put as much distance between us and Jerusalem as we can before nightfall.'
'Very well,' Florianus nodded.'I'll get hold of Symeon and organise a mounted escort for you. A squadron of horse from the garrison should be enough to guarantee you reach Bushir safely.'
'Is that really necessary?' Macro asked. 'We can move faster on our own.'
'Believe me, if you left here without an escort, the bandits would track you down and kill you before the day was out. This is a Roman province in name only. Outside the city walls there is no law, no order, just a wasteland ruled by the local thieves, murderers and the odd religious cult. It's no place for Romans.'
'Don't worry. The lad and I can look after ourselves. We've been in worse places.'
'Really?' Florianus looked doubtful. 'Anyway, keep me informed of the situation at Bushir, and I'll pass the reports on to Narcissus.'
Cato nodded. 'Then it's all settled. We leave in the morning.'
'Yes. One last thing,' Florianus said quietly. 'A word of advice. When you reach Bushir watch your backs. Seriously. The commander before Scrofa was killed by a single sword blow, from behind.'
07 The Eagle In the Sand