FLIGHT OF THE EAGLE 10
‘Why should I ally myself to a man I do not trust?’ Tabitha asked.
Josephus pondered the question for a few moments as they passed through the city gate and walked across the bridge to the causeway that led to the high ground of the wagon park. ‘We have a mutual interest in staying alive. As your husband knows better than most, an Emperor’s favour can be a fickle commodity,’ he looked over his shoulder to check that the servant girls were outwith hearing distance. ‘Shall I tell you a story?’
‘As long as it’s not too dull.’
‘Oh, it’s not dull. Not at all. It concerns a ruler, young and vigorous and loved by his people.’ He glanced at her and she nodded to signify her understanding that they were talking about Titus, Domitian’s brother. ‘Despite being in the prime of his life this ruler inexplicably fell ill, took to his bed and died. Naturally, no-one mourned more vocally than the ruler’s heir, soon to take up the burden of the crown. Yet his first task on mounting the throne was not to create a lasting memorial for his brother or hoist him to the pantheon. No, it was to make a list. A list of those who had grieved, offended, or failed him. It was a long list and it contained some surprising,’ his swarthy features took on a reflective look, ‘not to say perturbing, names.’
‘It must have been a difficult time,’ Tabitha agreed. ‘Yet here we are.’
‘Indeed, here we are. Both of us,’ Josephus said meaningfully. ‘And we owe our presence to the enterprise of a certain lady.’
‘I think I understand ...’
‘No, you must hear the rest. It became clear to those on the list – for the ruler made no secret of its existence or the purpose for which it had been created – that their continued wellbeing depended on the manufacture of a shield to deflect the inevitable blades that were coming their way. Fortunately, one person close to both brothers had been troubled for some time about the elder’s failing health and had made certain inquiries. These inquiries led her to a woman versed in a multitude ways of preparing mushrooms, sadly by then the victim of one of her own concoctions, and a servant who had disappeared in doubtful circumstances. The servant was a Judaean and she invited a gentleman of resource of the same race,’ Josephus nodded modestly to acknowledge Tabitha’s raised eyebrow, ‘to make inquiries into his whereabouts, or, if necessary his fate. It took many weeks and all his resources, but the gentleman not only discovered the boy was still alive, but also his whereabouts.’
‘He must have had an interesting story to tell,’ Tabitha didn’t hide her growing respect. ‘If, of course, he could be persuaded to tell it.’
‘Oh, he did, and in time he did tell it, in great detail and in front of two trusted jurists who took down his every word. Later they created four drafts of the testament on the finest parchment which were passed to powerful men who held prominent places on the list. Respected politicians whose word carried weight and whose story would have outraged a Senate which already hated and mistrusted their new ruler. And not just the Senate, but the people who had loved their former, now deceased, Emperor.’
‘That was well done.’
‘Yes, my mistress is wise, as well as beautiful.’ Josephus chose to drop the pretence. ‘She let it be known that multiple copies of the testament existed and that should there be any unexplained deaths or disappearances one would be presented to the Senate. Naturally, her husband is interested to know the locations of these papers that combine to thwart his will. To my knowledge he has tracked down two of the recipients. You will have noticed a substantial portion of the Senate accompany us?’
‘Surely it is the custom for the Emperor to take his to take his closest advisers on campaign?’
‘It is,’ Josephus agreed, ‘but these are not his closest advisers. They are the men he trusts least and among them, he is certain, are all four holders of the testament. He cannot act until he is certain of the identity of all four, but when he does ...’
‘Our shield falls from our hands.’
‘What do you want from us?’ Tabitha demanded.
The Judaean’s voice became more urgent. ‘It may be that he will still have a use for either Valerius or myself, but it is unlikely both would be spared. If your time comes I will know quickly enough to provide you with fast horses and supplies to reach a place of sanctuary. All I ask is that you prepare the same for me.’
‘How will you know when that time comes?’
‘A certain person will give you adequate warning.’
‘But won’t she be the first person on his list?’
They reached the wagon lines. ‘If that is the case we are all dead anyway.’
Josephus bowed and marched off into the growing darkness.