'We cannot lose four legions of crack troops,' Vespasian growled. 'They will be disbanded, stiffened up and reformed in different units.'

'These new legions will be shifted from the Rhenus?'

'No sensible alternative. The forces which Cerialis and Gallus commanded will guard the frontier.'

'It won't take all nine legions.' I could now see the options that were facing the Emperor. 'So the Fourteenth Gemina could either be sent back to Britain or stationed at Moguntiacum permanently. I believe Canidius told us it was their original home base. What's your plan, sir?'

'I have not yet decided,' the Emperor demurred.

'Is that my mission?' I like to be frank.

He looked annoyed. 'Don't pre-empt my instructions!'

'Caesar, it's obvious. They served you well under Cerialis, but were highly restless beforehand. Ever since they defeated the Iceni, the Fourteenth have become a byword for wilfulness-'

'Don't decry a good legion!' Vespasian was an old-fashioned general. He hated to believe any unit with a fine reputation could deteriorate. But if they did, he would be ruthless. 'Moguntiacum is a two-legion fort, but they are doubled up with some inexperienced troops. I need them-if I can trust them.'

'The legion was raised there,' I mused. 'There's nothing like their own interested grannies living locally to keep soldiers meek: Also, it's nearer than Britain, which makes supervision easier.'

'So, Falco, how do you feel about making a discreet inspection?'

'What do you think?' I scoffed. 'I was serving in the Second Augusta during the Icenean thrash. The Fourteenth will well remember how we abandoned them.' I can handle myself in a street fight, but I shied away from taking on six thousand vengeful professionals who had good reason to thumb me out of existence like a woodlouse on a bathhouse wall. 'Caesar, they are liable to bury me in quicklime and stand around grinning while I frizzle!'

'Avoiding that should test your talents,' the Emperor sneered.

'What exactly,' I queried, letting him see I felt nervous, 'are you asking me to do, Caesar?'

'Not much! I want to send the Fourteenth a new standard, to mark their recent good conduct in Germany. You will be transporting it.'

'Sounds straightforward,' I muttered gratefully, waiting to discover the catch. 'So while I'm handing over this token of your high esteem, I size up their mood and decide whether your esteem ought to last?' Vespasian assented. 'With respect, Caesar, if you are planning to sponge the Fourteenth off the army list, why don't you ask their commanding legate to report in suitable terms?'

'Not convenient.'

I sighed. 'That suggests there is a problem with the legate too, sir?'

'Certainly not,' replied Vespasian decisively. He would say that in public, unless he had firm grounds to cashier the fellow. I guessed I was supposed to produce grounds.

I moderated my tone. 'Can you tell me something about him?'

'I don't know the man personally. Name's Florius Gracilis. He was suggested for a commander's post by the Senate, and I knew no reason to object.' There was a myth that all public posts were awarded by the Senate, although the Emperor's veto was absolute. In practice, Vespasian would normally suggest his own candidates, but he might sometimes flatter the Curia by allowing them to nominate some dumb cluck of their own. He seemed suspicious of this man-but did he fear blatant corruption, or everyday inefficiency?

I let it lie. I had my own resources for boning up on senators. Gracilis was probably the usual upper-class fool doing his stint with the legion because a military command when he was thirty formed a fixed step in the cursus publicus. He was bound to have been posted to one of the frontiers. Getting a legion in Germany was just his bad luck.

'I'm sure His Honour is well up to the demands of his post,' I commented, letting the Emperor know that while I was squinting at the legion he could rely on me to cast my usual sceptical eye over Florius Gracilis as well. 'This sounds like my usual complex mission, sir!'

'Simplicity!' the Emperor declared. 'While you are out there,' he added inconsequentially, 'you can apply yourself to some loose ends that Petilius Cerialis was forced to leave behind.'

I took a deep breath. This was more like it. The Fourteenth's loyalty could be assessed by any competent centurion on the spot. M. Didius Falco was being sent racing in circles after some other escaped goose.

'Oh?' I said.

Vespasian appeared not to notice my sour face. 'Your written orders will cover what's required:'

Vespasian rarely skimped discussing business. I knew from the airy way he ducked out of giving details that these 'loose ends' which I was inheriting from the fabled Petilius Cerialis had to be really filthy tasks. Vespasian must be hoping that by the time I read my instructions I would be safely en route and unable to quibble.

He made them sound unimportant. But these unspecified items tossed after me like party gifts were the real reason why he was sending me to Germany.


It grieved me to be seen in public with a wraith like Canidius. He looked as if he had lost himself going to the bathhouse and three weeks later was still too shy to ask the way.

Still, I needed to pick his well-informed noddle. Stationing myself to windward, I led this sallow fellow to a wineshop. I chose one I rarely frequented, forgetting that the outrageous prices were why it had lost my patronage. I installed him on a bench among the desultory dice players, where he let himself be introduced to the warmth of an expensive Latian red.

'You've slung me the official spiel on the Fourteenth, Canidius; now let's hear the truth!'

The archive clerk looked uneasy. His orbit involved only the manicured version of public events. But with a beakerful inside him, he ought to give me all the grubby, hangnail stories that are never written down.

His eyes wandered slightly at the muffled sounds of commercial pleasure from the barmaids' overhead bedroom. He must have been forty, but he behaved like an adolescent who had never been let out before. 'I don't involve myself in politics.'

'Oh neither do I!' I retorted dismally.

I chewed my winecup, pondering the mess I was in. Ordered to a province on the harsh rim of the Empire, at a moment when its prospects for a civilised future were bleak. A mission so vague it was like trying to pick burs off a rumbustuous sheep. No girlfriend to comfort me. Every chance I would find a hit man lurking in some way station, with orders from Titus Caesar to make sure that that was the limit of my trip. Every chance, too, that if I ever did reach Moguntiacum, the Fourteenth Gemina would roll me into a trench like a foundation log and build their next rampart over my corpse.

I tackled the archive clerk again. 'Is there anything else I ought to know about Nero's favourite legion?' Canidius shook his head. 'No scandal or gossip?' No luck. 'Canidius, have you any idea what special tasks the Emperor wants me to do out in Germany?' Ideas were not his strong point. 'All right, try this one: what was the Emperor going to tell me about the rebel chief Civilis? He was interrupted in midflow when you arrived.' Hopeless.

I had wasted both patience and money. There were plenty of facts I still needed; once on location, I would have to discover the gaps-and the answers-myself.

Cursing myself for being gracious to this dim-wit, I left him with the flagon. Canidius let me pay, of course. He was a clerk.

Returning home, I brought in a loaf and some cooked sausage. Night was falling beyond my open window. The apartment block reverberated with distant knocks and cries as its occupants beat all Hades out of each other in various happy ways. The street below my balcony was full of oddly muttering voices which I preferred not to investigate. The night air brought a city cacophony of grumbling wheels, off-tune flutes, squalling cats and dolorous drunks. But I had never before noticed how intense the silence was indoors when Helena was not there.

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